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No, Voting Doesn't Mean You "Support the System"

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11/05/2018

Listen to Ryan McMaken's commentary on the Radio Rothbard podcast.

I admit it. I voted

In my home state of Colorado, all voting is by mailed paper ballots. That means, if you're a registered voter, the county clerk sends you a ballot every election.

And then — at least in my case — it sits there on a table near my desk.

One is supposed to fill it out and then mail it back. Or drop it off in one of the mailbox-like boxes scattered around the city.

Sometimes I do it.

This time around, as the ballot sat there on the table, I kept thinking about the proposed tax increases I could vote "yes" or "no" on.

Like many states in the Western half of the United States, this state makes frequent use of ballot initiatives and referenda in elections. Voters are asked to vote up or down any number of regulations and taxes which the policymakers will be more than happy to implement if they can muster a "yes" from the majority of voters.

I'm certainly not willing to stand in line at a polling place, and I don't care about getting an "I Voted!" sticker. But I had to admit the opportunity cost of sending in the ballot was really quite low. So, as I am not a big fan of new taxes, I filled out the ballot according to my whims, and sent it in.

Does Voting Mean You Support the Regime?

Nothing about this little anecdote would strike most people as remarkable in any way.

Since at least the nineteenth century, though, there has been a debate over whether or not voting somehow means the voter has agreed to submit to — or even support — whatever the state does. In some cases, libertarians and anarchists who agree with the "voting = consent" claim conclude that voting is therefore immoral, or perhaps even a form of violence.

Anarchist extraordinaire Lysander Spooner, however, disagreed:

It cannot be said that, by voting, a man pledges himself to the Constitution, unless the act of voting be a perfectly voluntary one on his part. Yet the act of voting cannot properly be called a voluntary one on the part of any very large number of those who do vote. It is rather a measure of necessity imposed upon them by others, than one of their own choice.

In other words, let's imagine a small business owner were given the choice between Candidate A who promises to tax small businesses into oblivion, and Candidate B, who promises to lower taxes. It hardly follows that the small business owner who casts a ballot in this case was supporting the whole system and apparatus that had put him in such an unenviable position to begin with.

Spooner continues:

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further, that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former.

...it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes [the voters], was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented to.

In fact, when one adopts the position that voting indicates consent to the regime and all its acts, one is agreeing with the state's apologists who repeatedly assert that, yes, voting means the voter acquiesces to the results of the election and the state overall.

They don't stop there, though. Herbert Spencer notes that, in the minds of the voting-as-consent ideologues, not voting counts as consent too. As does voting against the victorious side in any election. Thus, it is claimed:

[T]he citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do, when he voted for him.

But suppose he did not vote for him; and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected some one holding opposite views – what then?

The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.

And how if he did not vote at all?

Why then he cannot justly complain of any tax, seeing that he made no protest against its imposition.

So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted – whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter!

A rather awkward doctrine this.

Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent.

And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A’s consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say!

The only alternative, we are told, is to move thousands of miles from friends, family, and property, learn a new culture (and probably a new language), and take up residence under a different regime..

To define consent in this manner, though, sets the bar of consent so low as to render it utterly meaningless.

"No" Doesn't Mean "No" After All?

The horrors of such a definition can be plainly seen if applied to the case of women and sexual consent. By the logic of the sort of "consent" Spencer describes, we are forced to conclude: if a women says "yes," she consents. If she says "no," she also consents. If she can't run away, then she's still consenting.

One suspects that this would not be a terribly successful argument if employed by a rapist in a court of law.

And yet, here we are, being told that no matter what you do at election time, nothing — short of self-imposed exile —is to be interpreted as actual opposition to the state.

Expanding a "No" Vote for Candidates

To be fair, voting for candidates would appear to be harder to defend in this vein than voting against specific policies.

Voting "no" on a tax increase is fairly unambiguous, and can hardly by taken as support for any other policy. With candidates, however, there is far more room for state action. Even a candidate who might campaign on a tax cut will, after winning the election, take his election as a mandate to enact all sort of other objectionable laws that those who voted for him based on the tax issue would oppose.

Thus, voting "yes" for any candidate is inherently more dangerous than simply voting "no" on a tax increase.

For this reason, one might suggest that all ballots offer an "abstain" or "none of the above" option. Even if no further steps were taken — such as requiring a run-off in cases where "abstain" won the a majority — the option of voting against everyone could do wonders to illustrate the lack of legitimacy that political candidates truly have. This of course, is how we ought to interpret the vote of every eligible voter who prefers to not vote at all. Every non-vote is essentially a none-of-the-above vote, and many people choose to express their opposition to the candidates in this way.

That's a perfectly acceptable course of action. But it's not the only acceptable one.

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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