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Voting With Bryan Caplan

I cast my ballot – figuratively, of course – with Bryan Caplan on the issue of voting in political elections.  Like Bryan, I do not vote in political elections and find the prospect of doing so quite nauseating.

Yet David Henderson, a friend and scholar for whom I have the greatest respect, casts his ballot for the ‘pro-voting’ initiative.  David’s argument (if I understand it correctly) is that, even though no single vote matters, the act of voting (or of not voting) matters, especially if that act is performed by a prominent person, such as Bryan.  If Bryan refuses to vote, and if many people know of Bryan’s refusal to vote, perhaps Bryan’s refusal will dissuade so many people not to vote that election outcomes are more statist than they would have been had this group of people voted.

The conclusion is that one should set an example for others to vote.  And because such example-setting perhaps has a high-enough probability of leading to better election outcomes, the act of voting is perhaps indeed worthwhile.

As David might say, I’m underwhelmed – for three reasons.

First and least importantly, what if Bryan’s refusal to vote dissuades not only ‘good’ voters from voting but also ‘bad’ voters from voting?  Although Bryan is an avowed libertarian, many of his arguments against voting might also appeal to statists.  It’s not implausible that if Bryan sets an example by voting that he will thereby inspire more statists than libertarians to vote.

Second, David’s argument is too state-centric.  If you believe that the economy and society are inert until, unless, and only insofar as government officials take some stance toward it, then what those officials do matters above all.  If those officials are pro-liberty, society will pursue a pro-liberty course; if those officials are statists, society will pursue a statist course.  David’s argument, perhaps unintentionally, rests on the presumption that the only, or the most, important influence on the course of economy and society is what government officials do.

While I don’t deny that what government officials do is often important, I believe that what they do is determined largely by the ideas that are prevalent in society.  A society of people who believe strongly in, say, freedom of speech will not witness any legislature or executive outlawing freedom of speech: attempts to outlaw freedom of speech will either be quashed or ignored by popular refusal to obey or, more likely, government officials, wishing to be re-elected, simply won’t attempt to outlaw free speech even if in their heart of hearts they’d like nothing more than to do so.

Third – and related to point number two – working to change the ideas that are widespread throughout society is, I believe, a far more important, responsible, and potentially effective task than is casting ballots in political elections.  Of course, Bryan could do both of these tasks.  But if he is (as he certainly is) already doing more than his share of one (trying to change ideas), perhaps he’s already, and without voting, doing at least his share to promote sound public policies.

To see this last point more clearly, imagine a libertarian who unfailingly votes in all political elections in which he is eligible to vote.  But imagine also that this person is quiet; he doesn’t talk to his family, friends, and co-workers about political ideas.  He doesn’t relish the conflict.  This quiet libertarian also, although literate and blessed with a natural talent for writing, never writes anything other than love letters to his girlfriend and memos for his boss at work.  This quiet libertarian could, but doesn’t, write op-eds, essays, and even books promoting libertarian ideas, ideals, and policies.  Would David criticize this quiet libertarian for not, in his free time, writing such op-eds, essays, and books?  Does anyone think that this quiet libertarian is shirking a civic responsibility for not working more to change the ideas that are prevalent in society?

My guess is that David or anyone else would not criticize this quiet libertarian.  And rightly so.  No one has an obligation to talk politics and economics with others; no one has an obligation to write op-eds, essays, blog-posts, and books in an attempt to change ideas.  So why suppose that someone has an obligation to vote?  Why suppose that, say, the quiet libertarian who writes nothing, but does vote, acts responsibly, but that someone who writes plenty, but does not vote, fails to act fully responsibly?  Why elevate voting to some high status that is not enjoyed by talking, writing, and teaching?  Put differently, if Bryan’s case for not voting is underwhelming, then so, too, would be underwhelming the case made by the quiet libertarian who explains that he simply has no interest in writing op-eds, essays, blog-posts, and books.


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