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Mar 9, 2018

Libertarian Perspectives on Voting

There’s a long history of libertarian thought on the ethics and efficacy of voting.

What do libertarians think about political participation and, in particular, voting? There is no universally accepted answer to the question, no single libertarian line on the complicated relationship between the voting booth and the philosophy of liberty. Maybe it’s our duty to vote for the candidates who most represent libertarian values, or the candidates who both represent libertarian values and are likely to stand a chance of winning (are there any of those?), or just the least authoritarian candidates. On the other hand, it may be that libertarians ought look askance at any kind of participation in politics, that such participation is impractical or even immoral.

Indeed, one libertarian view sees voting as sanctioning or ratifying government’s use of invasive force against innocent individuals. In this view, it is not merely that libertarians have no good practical reason to vote, but that the positive act of doing so is a moral wrong. “Every man who casts a ballot,” writes Benjamin Tucker, “necessarily uses it in offense against American liberty, it being the chief instrument of American slavery.” Tucker argued that casting a ballot indeed makes one a criminal, an invader, “one who attempts to control another.” For Tucker, not only are politicking and voting wrongful acts in and of themselves, they are also contrary to the goals of true reform—counterproductively reinforcing existing injustices. After all, his main contention was that government and positive law are responsible for most incursions against individual liberty, and thus for the very “grievances of which the reformers complain.” To pursue genuine reform through the vote was, to Tucker, attempting to fight fire with gasoline.

In 1877, Lysander Spooner provoked the readers of the radical periodical New Age with his “Against Women Suffrage,” in which he set out the argument that women ought to enjoy all of the same rights as men—and that no one has any natural right to vote. Women, Spooner argued, should, rather than petitioning for the vote, the power to make more laws, proceed to the State House with the purpose of setting the existing statute books ablaze. They should oppose oppression rather than hoping to become part and parcel of its machinery. Observe that Spooner and Tucker, nineteenth century radicals on the outermost fringes of the American left, regarded the vote as a tool of oppression. The contemporary left almost uniformly sees the franchise and the extension thereof as liberatory and transformative, arguably as the single most important right one possesses. We can imagine Spooner’s female contemporaries saying, “Easy for you to say,” but the point of Spooner’s polemic, its real target, was “the crime of making laws,” not the idea of equality between men and women. Indeed, Spooner makes sure to point out that of all “the foolish people” who believe in vote-begging and positive legislation (as opposed to natural law), the woman suffragists are “undoubtedly among the best and most honest.”

Fast forward a couple of generations and there were probably even fewer libertarian critics of politics and the vote than there had been in the age of Spooner and Tucker. The Georgist and arch-individualist journalist Frank Chodorov is among the clearest of the anti-political libertarian voices, ever “out of step” (the title of his autobiographical collection of essays) with the bureaucratic progressivism that dominated during his active years in the first half of the twentieth century. Because he believed that “a large vote is a prelude” for the acquiescence of the citizenry in “the operation of the State,” Chodorov thought that to quit voting in sufficiently large numbers would be among the most effective acts possible for furthering real political change.

Wendy McElroy likewise saw voter non-participation as “the most politically powerful act,” a way for one to register her principled opposition to the status quo. And it may well be that ignoring politics outright is the best thing libertarians can do to serve their values.

The idea that we might disregard politicians, campaigns, elections, and votes—opting instead to get to work building the infrastructures of a free society right now—has always been an important aspect of libertarian theory and practice. Certainly there is a plausible case that libertarian energies are better spent in the service of such efforts than carrying water for candidates, even Libertarian Party candidates.

Here, a brief word on the two-party system may be in order. Whatever else we may say about our electoral system, it seems designed to ensure that incumbents (Democrats and Republicans) win. In the last election, in November 2016, of 29 United States sitting senators up for reelection, 27 won; that’s just a hair over 93 percent. Members of the House of Representatives fared still better, with 380 of 393 (or almost 97 percent) returning to the Hill. This is in spite of the widespread and enduring sense that something is amiss in Congress, that its members are not properly carrying out their duties (whatever indeed those are). In a recent Gallup poll (Feb. 1-10, 2018), fully 81 percent of the Americans asked indicated their disapproval at “the way Congress is handling its job.” We might reasonably wonder what’s going on in American democracy when a body that provokes such overwhelming disappointment across partisan lines is able to return nearly all of its members for another term.

Still other libertarians are somewhat milder on the vote; while rejecting the claim that voting is immoral or unethical, they insist that liberty lovers do so in vain, that it is an exercise in futility. What they say amounts to, “You can’t get there from here”—one can’t arrive at liberty from the voting booth. Many such libertarians point out the statistical meaninglessness of your vote. As a matter of cold mathematical fact, your vote has an infinitesimally small chance of affecting the outcome. As Cato’s Aaron Ross Powell remarked in a televised debate on whether libertarians should vote, “We are not saying that it is wrong for libertarians to vote. If your vote is mathematically meaningless, we don’t much care what you do with it.” As Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward observes, even in the very small number of contentious key states, the voter finds herself in “the dubious company of people gunning for the Mega-Lotto jackpot.” No matter how one crunches the numbers, your vote is extraordinarily unlikely to matter in any given election. This fact—depressing or liberating, depending on how one looks at it—has even led some economists to argue that voting is irrational.

Yet even if one’s vote doesn’t matter or impact the result of a given election, it may be that he should vote nevertheless, that other considerations, perhaps those associated with the inherent value of democracy, provide a compelling reason (or even duty) to vote. Somewhat similarly, the anti-voting libertarians we have considered above would argue that even if one’s vote is worthless, he should not vote, the vote representing and bolstering the illegitimate power of the state. Both the advocates and critics of voting thus recognize in it a representative or symbolic power that transcends the instrumental value of any one vote. If the mere exercise of going to the polling station and casting a ballot, quite regardless of the outcome or our impact on it, helps to preserve democracy, maybe participating is incumbent upon us. But as philosopher Jason Brennan explains, this kind of argument proves too much, for it would seem to require us to undertake other such actions to the extent that those that have “any chance, no matter how small, of preserving democracy.” Given a finite amount of time and the opportunity costs associated with embarking on such a course, we can fairly easily dispense with the idea that there is a positive duty to vote. Brennan furthermore argues that the only good reasons to vote are instrumental. Even if many voters “vote for expressive or symbolic reasons” as a matter of fact, they shouldn’t do so as an ethical matter. Vote because you hope to promote good policy and (this next part is important) actually know what good policy means, or you should stay home on Election Day.

That is, arguably one has an affirmative duty not to vote if he’s going to vote badly, that is, without properly researching the issues and educating himself thereon; and we know that most voters in most elections are going to vote badly, being complacent and ill-informed. Like Brennan, philosopher Michael Huemer argues that in most cases, voting is “positively immoral,” similar to giving someone directions to a restaurant when you don’t have a clue where that restaurant is—only much worse, “because voting is an exercise of political power.” Huemer tells the story of the various methods employed by George Washington’s doctors to cure him of the infection that would eventually take his life, among them, bloodletting and poultices, the “proper remedies” of the day. Washington’s physicians (if indeed we can call them physicians by today’s terms) simply didn’t know what they were doing. In sum, Huemer writes, “Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors,” lacking the knowledge necessary to solve the problems to which they address their efforts.

This stands to reason. Brennan points out that our electoral system doesn’t incentivize voters to educate themselves about the candidates and their positions or public policy and economics, some basic familiarity with which one would need to make a good, informed decision. Politics isn’t like buying a car, where failing to do your due diligence, and thus making a bad decision, could cost you. The process of voting in an election entails no such feedback mechanism, no way to confront voters with the consequences of their decisions. As Duke University’s Michael Munger observes, “every flaw in consumers — and there are many — is worse in voters.” The voting exercise is instead one of team-rooting and self-congratulation, the voter assured by his pre-existing partisan commitments that he made the right choice, the smart, enlightened, just choice.

This leads us to the two related concepts of rational ignorance and rational irrationality. The first of these is a concept introduced by the economist Anthony Downs in his An Economic Theory of Democracy to explain why voters seem to have such limited knowledge about the issues on which they vote.1 It says that this limited knowledge is a product of a cost-benefit analysis conducted (consciously or not) by voters, who choose quite rationally not to invest more time in developing an understanding of political issues. Rational irrationality, as we find it in the work of economist Bryan Caplan, suggests that voters treat their level of satisfaction with their own beliefs as more important than the truth or falsity of those beliefs—not that they are consciously lying to themselves, but that they guard their delusions due to the enjoyment derived therefrom and because there are no practical consequences.

Whether or not we are able to conclude unequivocally that voting is immoral, we must look upon the act as at least morally suspect, tied by definition to a rights-violating system that libertarians oppose (or else ought to oppose, given our principles). We may think, for example, that a theory of vicarious liability in some way implicates the voter for the crimes of the state, or similarly we may see the voter as an accessory to those crimes (for a more comprehensive discussion of these arguments, see George H. Smith’s classic series The Ethics of Voting).

Are we, then, to sit on our hands, to sit idly, doing nothing at all in the service of our libertarian creed? Not necessarily. Education in the ideas of liberty could be a promising alternative to campaigning and voting, though even this course has its libertarian doubters. Albert Jay Nock was famously pessimistic about the prospects of proselytizing for liberty, convinced that most people live out their lives obliviously among the “immense hordes of inert and ineducable persons.” He thought of his own libertarian ideas (and those of the few others who held them) as practically a matter of genetic predisposition and looked skeptically on political action and revolution. “[T]he believers in action,” Nock mused in his article “Anarchist’s Progress,” “do not need us,” for “we should be rather a dead weight,” indisposed to the work of stoking a movement. Worse still, most people would always be quite comfortable in their condition of servitude to the state, unable even to see it. The periodic fanfare of elections would more than suffice to satisfy the mass man’s desire to participate in democracy and make his choice.

In his discussion of the hermeneutical relationship between myths and cultural ideas, the analytical psychologist Dale Mathers writes, “In a democracy, the meaning of the symbol [that is, voting] is choice: in a dictatorship voting is a religious act, sanctifying the great leader.” The libertarian might answer that choice is indeed a myth, that in existing liberal democracies there is only the simulacrum of choice, and that voting serves quite the same sanctifying religious function in these countries as in a dictatorship (even if we grant that they and their simulacra of choice are to be preferred to a dictatorship). Anti-voting libertarians have argued that this myth of choice is necessary to the self-recreation political power—and have taken this to be one of the foremost reasons to oppose the vote. The vote is perhaps first among the tools and tricks employed to clothe the institutionalized violence of political power in the common good.2 After all, if we live in a democracy and have a choice, how can we properly lodge a complaint at any exercise of political power? What the state does is only what the electorate has asked it to do. If this line of reasoning is facially ridiculous to most libertarians, it is eminently plausible to most non-libertarians, who are heavily invested in the liturgies of the civil religion. Consider, again, the meaninglessness of one’s vote, and witness the distress at the mention of this seemingly mundane fact. Take in the indignant shock that someone would have the temerity to challenge the sanctity of the vote. Questions directed at the right to vote or asking whether one must vote are treated as apostasy in the American civil religion; and this stands to reason, for such questions are treated as undermining the instrument through which “We the People” enact our will. For those who ingenuously believe that the state is roughly coextensive with this will—or at least that democratic politics is the best chance we have of ascertaining it—the vote and the platonic ideal of voting and democracy must be very important indeed. Given all of this, it would seem rude to rain on the voting parade were it not so important to do so: some awareness of the questions considered above may be important to the survival of a free society.


  1. Interestingly, Bryan Caplan points out that we might also see the surprising level of ignorance among believers’ of the tenets of their own religions as an example of rational ignorance; there are simply no concrete rewards for doing the work to become more knowledgeable in this case, as in the case of practical politics.
  2. In Anatomy of the State, Murray Rothbard writes, “If ‘we are the government,’ then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also ‘voluntary’ on the part of the individual concerned.”