Time to Opt Out

This November, don’t vote. As difficult as it may be to accept, you don’t have to, and it isn’t somehow morally wrong not to. Sometimes the single most powerful political statement you can make, your best option for expressing your preferences for the future of our country, is simply to lodge a conscientious objection by abstaining from the voting booth altogether. I know many of you don’t (and won’t) believe me; you just can’t. After all, we have been trained from our intellectual nonage, from our earliest lessons in civic and political life, to cherish the franchise, to worship our “democracy” and its icons, tangible and otherwise. Voting is among these most revered icons, held away from criticism and discussion, a religious rite, deviations from which are thought to be not legitimate political statements but the worst kind of apostasy. Rest assured, dutiful citizen, you can choose anyone you’d like; perhaps it is even permissible in some of the many sects of politics-worship to write in a name that does not appear on the pre-approved list. But never, under any circumstances are you licensed to abstain. To do so is to renounce your faith, to ostracize yourself. It is antisocial and anti-American, a mark of either laziness and apathy or else of the puerile, hopeless attempt to signal rebellion, like the petulance of a teenager challenging his parents’ household rules. With so much of the global population living under tyrannical and undemocratic governments, America’s non-voters are regarded as contemptibly indifferent, ungrateful even, too immature to appreciate the moral weight of the enormous responsibility we’ve been given. But is this really an accurate account of what’s going on with non-voters? Maybe there’s a case for deciding not to vote in this fall’s presidential contest.

Recently, two former presidents of the United States, George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, announced that they will not vote, that they cannot in good conscience cast a vote for either of the two presumptive candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. That position, as it happens, is the one that many libertarians have articulated and espoused for well over a century, the simple idea that we would rather not vote for “the lesser of two evils,” if that can even be determined. To accept the process and its terms is, in the judgment of many libertarians, to participate in an exercise of moral and intellectual debasement, premised on the falsehoods that we have a meaningful choice and that our vote matters. Indeed, several libertarians throughout American history have even suggested that we have an affirmative duty not to vote, that doing so is itself a violation of our stated principles as friends of freedom and enemies of coercive imposition. For his part, Benjamin R. Tucker, publisher of the outstanding libertarian journal Liberty, contended, “Every man who casts a ballot necessarily uses it in offence against American liberty, it being the chief instrument of American slavery.” Others, notably those in the voluntaryist tradition of libertarians such as Carl Watner, have largely followed Tucker in the belief that voting is “implicitly a coercive act” insofar as it “lends support to a compulsory government.”

But perhaps this commandment, that libertarians as such should never vote, is likewise too strong, setting up a false equivalency between using aggression to violate someone’s rights and simply using whatever tools are within your grasp to influence a coercive, criminal process that will carry on without regard for your vote. It is admittedly a thorny philosophical problem, bound up with countless other issues in political theory that implicate when and how political authority can create duties, when we must obey and why. At the very least, however, it is not at all clear that we must vote, or that not voting is evidence of some deficiency of moral fiber. It may be that it is just one among the many perfectly legitimate political choices we have.

Economic analysis, it turns out, has something to say about voting, too. The concept of opportunity cost is the idea that if you choose to do one thing—say, go out to dinner at a restaurant—you have necessarily given up resources, time and money, that you could have used to do something else. Consciously or not, we use this concept all the time to make better decisions, to more efficiently employ the resources at our disposal. Many libertarians stay home on election day not because they don’t care about ideas, public policy, or the future of the country, but because we believe that our time is better spent engaging in one of many other available activities, going to work, spending time with family or friends, shopping, etc. Moreover, the work of scholars such as economist Bryan Caplan shows that it is completely rational to be ignorant of politics and public policy issues, that, given how little each vote matters, the voter behaves quite rationally in his decision not to “buy” more information by investing more time to learn. The evangelists of the ballot box, those who smugly don “I Voted” stickers and preach of the “civic duty” to vote, are unlikely to find these arguments persuasive; that’s because, for them, voting is sacrosanct, an article of faith, something that’s not really susceptible to reason or scrutiny. Many others, however, have long surmised, in their secret thoughts, that the sacred duty to vote may not be quite as strong as the political priesthood claims. Guilted into silence, they have suspected that a rhetorical sleight of hand is afoot without knowing whether they are justified in relinquishing their right to vote. If I may, they are quite justified. To opt out is not necessarily to be lax in your citizenship, derelict in your duties, but to embrace them in a different, perhaps counterintuitive way, to cast your vote by refusing to vote, which is itself a powerful declaration of your values and priorities. So, come November, if you want to vote, knock yourself out—but if you don’t, you needn’t be cowed by those who insist that you are neglecting your duty.

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