There’s Nothing Special About Voting

by Don Boudreaux on September 26, 2016

in Myths and Fallacies

A friendly and thoughtful reader, who doesn’t like my refusal to vote in political elections, e-mails to me the following (original emphasis):

It strikes me that non-voting is a form of free riding, like slip-streaming a semi-truck on the highway. *Any* form of governance needs accountability to function well—whether that governance is free-association or representative democracy or constitutional monarchy. Without an effective means to hold decision-makers accountable for their actions, all governance eventually devolves into tyranny

By not participating in the principal form of accountability we have in our society—voting—you and other like you are essentially free-riding on those of us who do vote, go to town meetings, attend school board meetings, write letters to the editor, blog, organize, and so on.  Voting may be the least-important means of holding our officials accountable, but least-important does not mean unimportant

And if you insist on slip-streaming the truck in front of you on the highway, you can’t really see where you’re going. Nor do you have a right to complain about the route the truck takes. If you choose to tailgate, you gotta go with the flow.

I respectfully disagree with the main premise of this correspondent’s note.  That is, I disagree that voting is “the principal form of accountability that we have in our society.”  Voting itself is notoriously an unaccountable action.  Because the material consequences of the vote are borne not only by the voter but by multitudes of other people, each voter – by voting – has a say in how other people live without any feedback from those many others.  Having such a say is free riding on a massive scale: Voter Jones expresses his political opinion in a voting booth and countless other people, many of whom disagree with Jones’s opinion, are forced to bear consequences of Jones’s expression.  Jones gets to express his opinion, and see it potentially become policy, despite the disagreement of many others.

Of course, my correspondent likely means that voting is the principal form of keeping government officials accountable.  But for reasons that I explain in my original post, I emphatically regard this belief to be incorrect.  I’ll not here rehearse those reasons again, but I will repeat that helping to change popularly held ideas is a far better means of constraining the actions of political officials.  At the very least, the writing of op-eds, letters-to-the-editor, monographs, and books – and the giving of public lectures, as well as appearing on radio and television programs – are also ways of helping to change the ideas that define the range of acceptable activities of government officials.  And if it is the case that doing such writing and public speaking is an important means of changing public opinion (and of holding government officials accountable to that opinion), then are those of you who do not blog, do not write letters-to-the-editor, do not write op-eds, monographs, and books free riding on my and my prolific colleague Bryan Caplan’s efforts?

I do not believe that you are free riding on our efforts.  For the same reason, I do not believe that Bryan and I are free riding on the efforts of those who vote in political elections.

(See also my earlier post.)

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