People who want to live in a society organized on the basis of peaceful, voluntary cooperation don’t want to be ruled by monopolists — by states. State authority is illegitimate, unnecessary, and dangerous.
But that obviously leaves open the question: what do we do now, while we’re still under the state’s rule, to make our own lives and the lives of the state’s other victims more bearable — and to help dismantle the state?
One answer, for a lot of people, is: vote. That’s an answer about which I’m increasingly skeptical.
In my 2011 book The Conscience of an Anarchist, I suggest that electoral politics might offer one avenue for positive social change. And I’m not saying it can’t play that role. But there are good reasons to pursue alternatives.
Let’s get a red herring out of the way first. Some people oppose voting because they think it’s immoral, as if the sheer act of voting placed an imprimatur on the political process or as if the voter were responsible for everything someone for whom she voted did in office. I think that’s silly. Voting can be a defensive act; one’s purpose in voting can be to reduce the risk that the state will cause harm. Casting a vote doesn’t have to mean endorsing the state, the electoral system, or the specific politicians or initiatives for which one votes; it doesn’t have to mean anything more than regarding these as less awful in at least some respects than alternatives. The harmful results of decisions made by politicians can reasonably be treated as unaccepted, unwelcome side-effects of voters’ choices. And politicians have to be seen as responsible for their own actions.
The problem with voting isn’t that it’s inherently wrong; no doubt, in principle, voting or even campaigning for office could be a reasonable defensive act. But even if that’s true in principle, the reality is that there are lots of good reasons not to vote.
Start out with the ineffectiveness of voting.
As we’ve seen in previous elections, governments can determine the outcomes of elections by eliminating some people from the voter rolls. And this means, in practical terms, that the victims of the drug war and other campaigns against victimless actions will be poorly positioned to influence electoral outcomes. The deck starts out stacked against anyone who wants to roll back state policies responsible for unjust imprisonment. The effect is similar to the one exerted when death penalty opponents are prevented from serving on juries; the full range of conscientious positions isn’t represented.
Campaign advertising is often deceptive and manipulative. Like other lies that don’t involve the fraudulent transfer of title, advertising ads shouldn’t be actionable at law, but that doesn’t mean they’re not harmful. Many voters depend on them, often to the exclusion of other sources of information, with the result that lies are persistently disseminated and electoral outcomes distorted.
Politicians themselves often frame their positions in ways likely to mislead the unwary. Compare candidate Barack Obama’s appeals to the peace vote, and his seeming opposition to the growth of the national security state with President Barack Obama’s actions after occupying the White House. Politicians say what they think voters want to hear; once in office, they can be counted on to do whatever they think will boost their chances of reelection and benefit their cronies.
And of course there’s the fact that votes often don’t count because elections can easily be stolen; just ask Coke Stevenson. That’s especially true now that hackable electronic voting devices are increasingly common. And counting errors can occur even when people act in good faith, too (thanks to Sam Hays for this point).
Gerrymandering decreases the likelihood that the outcome of a given election will be dependent on individual votes, and it’s been common as long as there have been electoral contests. But, even in its absence, the likelihood that your vote will determine the outcome of a race is very small indeed when the number of relevant votes is large.
Suppose that, in a given case, you really can influence the result of an election: what then? It’s clear that the outcome of a given race may make little difference at all. Most politicians operate within fairly narrow ideological confines, and are most unlikely to do particularly radical things. The sorts of people who are likely to become successful politicians are unlikely to rock the boat. Indeed, successful politicians are very likely to be the sorts of people who want power and are good at acquiring and retaining it: they are likely, that is, to be unprincipled and ambitious. But even if a genuinely radical politician is elected, that doesn’t mean that radical changes will be enacted. After all, once in office, a politician becomes the target of enthusiastically privilege-seeking elites and their cronies, who will be adept at influencing her or his actions to their benefit.
And even if a politician doesn’t bend to the will of any of these various interest groups, there’s the obvious fact that individual politicians have considerable difficulty accomplishing things. A legislator is only one member of a sizeable group, many of whose members will be largely uninterested in basing decisions on principles, especially defensible ones, so the odds that a continuingly principled radical legislator will be able to make substantive change happen are very low. The odds that an elected executive will be a principled radical are even lower, given that more people have to be satisfied to ensure that a successful campaign for governor or president is managed and funded, and more principles will often have to be sacrificed to win a campaign for executive office. But, again, once in office, a radical executive would have no choice but to work with a legislature that was unlikely to be radical at all.
A further problem: a genuine radical, someone who really cared about making the world a better place, might find the temptation to use power, not to liberate people, but to control and manage them, almost irresistible. Even in the absence of effective manipulation by special interests, the desire to change the world by force could corrupt an initially principled politician.
In short, therefore, there is little reason to believe that voting will effectively lead to the actual enactment of policies that enhance freedom and justice. We may sometimes, rarely, see, ex post, that it did; but as a general ex ante policy, it’s safe to assume it won’t. Emma Goldman was surely right: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Not voting can make sense for other reasons, too.
It can be a useful means of protest — an expression of one’s disgust at the limited options, the deceit, the hypocrisy of campaigns and the aggression and manipulation, the theft and murder, of governing. It can also offer a great opportunity to highlight the awfulness of the state. Imagine people’s reactions when they see you wearing a sticker that says, “I’ve avoided voting. Have you?”
It’s especially useful to avoid voting because of the rush of team spirit that accompanies every election campaign. If you’re going to vote for a politician, you should at least hold your nose. But otherwise sane and sensible people fall victim to charisma and breathe in the seductive pheromones of murderers and thugs. They announce, without a second thought, that their candidate is wise and good and heroic. They cheer for their team’s inanities, and dramatically exaggerate the good any rational person could expect an election might accomplish. If you want to avoid being caught up in mass hysteria, stay away from the ballot box.
Electoral democracy also helps to convince ordinary people that they are the state’s masters rather than its subjects. It conceals factional disputes within the power elite and frames them as popular contests in which the people’s will is done. It deceives people into supposing that they really have consented to the state’s dictates, and prompts them to dismiss critics of the status quo with shibboleths like, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Refusing to vote helps to reveal the fact that the emperor has no clothes.
So just say “no.” This year, vote for nobody.