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More On Why I Don’t Vote

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Here’s a letter to a correspondent:

Mr. Craig Morgan:

Thanks for your kind e-mail.  Perplexed that I don’t vote in political elections, you write that you assume that I “favor democracy over other forms of government, and of course democracy needs voters to function.”

My position is a bit different from what you describe.  I favor no form of sovereign government.  I believe that, without any state, voluntarily formed associations of people would arise to supply public goods, and would supply them better than does the state.  None of these associations would supply public goods perfectly, but perfection isn’t the appropriate standard.  I’m aware that this ‘no-state’ statement of mine likely strikes you as absurd.  But see some of the books that I list below.*  If you read even just one or two of these works you’ll at least better see where I’m coming from.

I agree that if government exists, a least-dangerous form of it is to be found in some manner of representative democracy.  And, of course, representative democracy – as you note – “needs voters to function.”  But voters are not all that it needs to function.  It needs also ideas.

In fact, I believe that voters are far less important in a democracy than most people assume them to be.  As I see matters, the single most important factor by far that determines what the state actually does is public opinion – that is, prevailing ideas, attitudes, presumptions, values, shared beliefs, and expectations.  If public opinion changes, the course of public policy changes.  If public opinion does not change, the course of public policy does not change.  Voters determine the particular individuals who hold office at any time, but voters as such do not determine the public policies that will be pursued.  And nor, really, do the individuals who hold office make these determinations.  The thrusts of public policies, if not their details, are determined, overwhelmingly, by prevailing public opinion.

If I’m correct about this matter, then I ask: why elevate voting to a special rank?  Voters play a role, of course.  But so, too – and more importantly – do opinion makers and shapers, including neighbors talking over the fence to each other in the evening, co-workers conversing over lunch, and (very important this!) parents teaching their children.  The reason I don’t vote isn’t exclusively because I have an extreme distaste for formal politics.  Another main part of the reason is that I don’t believe that voting is all that important.

Understand: my belief in the relative unimportance of voting springs not just from, and not even mainly from, the reality that no one vote will determine the outcome of any election.  Rather, my belief springs from the fact that each of us is most effective in changing public policy, not when we vote, but when and to the extent that each of us does our part to change prevailing ideas.

The fact that I don’t vote means only that I choose not to perform what I regard to be a remarkably unimportant and insignificant (and disagreeable) act – an act that would be largely insignificant even if my vote were guaranteed to determine the outcome of the election.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* See, for example:

David Beito, Peter Gordon, & Alex Tabarrok, eds., The Voluntary City [2]
Bruce Benson, The Enterprise of Law [3]
Robert Ellickson, Order without Law [4]
David D. Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom [5]
Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority [6]
Peter Leeson, Anarchy Unbound [7]
David Skarbek, The Social Order of the Underworld [8]
Edward Stringham, Private Governance [9]