Tuesday, November 07, 2006

3 Myths About Voting

Since it is election day in America today, I thought it would be appropriate to refute 3 popular myths about voting.

Myth #1: "You can change things by voting" or "On election day, you decide"

This myth is remarkably popular given obviously false it is. While few would defend this myth if you really pressured them on the issue, you often hear people talk as though they believe it and most people seem to subconsciously believe in it. The only explanation for this that I can come up with is that this myth is a necessary part of the "democracy is freedom" myth that is a key belief supporting the current system.

I remember hearing this particularly often after the narrow victory for George W. Bush in Florida in 2000 over Al Gore, how this supposedly prove that by voting you make a difference. Oh really?

The final victory margin for Bush over Gore in Florida was 327 votes. Suppose some Gore supporter believing he could make a difference and expecting a tight race in Florida had purposely moved to Florida to make a difference. What would have happened then? Would he have made a difference? No, what would have happened in that case would simply be that Bush had won over Gore with 326 votes instead of 327. This would have changed absolutely nothing in terms of events shaping the world. Bush would still have become president and he would have pursued exactly the same policies as he has done for the past 6 years.

Indeed, as far as I know there is not a single example in the entire world where a single vote would changed who controlled a state, province or municipality or changed the outcome of a referendum. There may be some case somewhere where it have happened, but I doubt that it is more than one or two cases. Perhaps it is marginally more common for the distribution of seats to have changed on account of a single vote, but that too is extraordinarily rare. It is far more likely to be hit by lightning or get run over by a car on your way to the polling station than to change the outcome of an election.

Thus far from popular perception, the ordinary person is really as powerless as in a formal dictatorship. He can't get his way unless he is lucky enough that millions of others share his views. This is yet another reason why the market process is preferable to the political process. In the free market you get what you want without having to convince others. You can choose a Pepsi over a Coca Cola (if you have that preference) without having to convince others and you can have it without having to deprive the Coca Cola fans of their favorite brand. That is true freedom, unlike the illusory freedom of political elections.

Now, you may perhaps still want to vote if voting means no real sacrifice for you (like missing income because of skipping work or travelling long distances to get to a polling station) and if you feel a psychological need to symbolically mark your preference for political change. That is in fact the reason why I have usually voted in elections where I am an eligible voter. However, you should have no illusion that you change anything by voting or that voting makes you a free person.

Myth #2:"I may really sympathize more with some small socialist/ultraconservative/libertarian third party than any of the established parties, but since they have no chance of winning or entering the parliament I instead choose to vote for the lesser evil among the established parties"

Case in point was the latest Swedish election. There were a lot of complaints from Swedish libertarians and objectivists that the 4 centre-right parties in Sweden didn't propose sufficiently radical free market reforms and tax and spending cuts. Given the fact that there was a pure libertarian party, Klassiskt Liberala Partiet, on the ballot, you would have thought that they would have received quite a lot of votes.

But no, instead they received just 202 votes. Instead most libertarians voted for one of the centre-right parties (with the Centre Party being the most common choice) because they unlike KLP had a chance of entering the Swedish Parliament. Voting for KLP would supposedly have been "a wasted vote" because they had no chance of entering the perliament.

But even setting aside the high extent to which this belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is wrong to believe that your vote somehow counts more if it goes to a party which is represented in parliament than one who goes to a party which is not represented in parliament. But this presupposes what I already explained to be false in myth #1: namely that your vote will change anything with regards to who runs the country, which it again certainly doesn't. To the extent that voting makes sense at all, it is to symbolically mark your political preference. And the effect there is if anything greater with smaller parties. Had say 1000 libertarian Centre Party voters instead chosen to vote for the KLP, then the election result would have been been 436389 for the Centre Party and 1202 for the KLP, instead of the actual results of 437389 and 202. The former would have clearly sent a stronger signal for freedom.

Myth #3: "Not voting sends a stronger signal for freedom than voting for a libertarian candidate/party".

This myth is even more false than myth #2, yet it has the support of many prominent libertarians. They believe that by voting you legitimize the system and that by not voting you are sending a signal that you reject the entire system. The problem is that this theory have nothing to do with reality.

Most non-voters aren't libertarians. They are simply politically ignorant and in many cases they are statists who are displeased with their "natural choice". Many conservatives for example will likely choose to not vote today because they feel the Republicans haven't done enough to limit spending and control immigration. Many socialists on the other hand will not vote because they feel the Democrats aren't socialist enough.

Since thus only a small proportion of non-voters are libertarians, not voting will certainly not be interpreted as a symbolic mark for libertarianism, but for voter apathy or discontent with the insufficient conservatism of the Republicans or insufficient socialism of the Democrats. By contrast, there is no doubt about what I kind of signal you're sending with a vote for a libertarian candidate. The obvious faultiness of this line of thinking was illustrated when Butler Shaffler tried to refute this by writing:

"Ask yourself this question: what would send a stronger anti-political message, a 10% voter turnout, or an 80% voter turnout in which the libertarian candidate received 0.7% of the vote?"

But here he applies completely different conditions for the two scenarios. What is relevant is the marginal effect of a single vote or any other fixed number of votes. Since he appears to think that everyone not voting in scenario number one does so for libertarian reasons he there assumes that 70% of the population are libertarians, whereas in scenario number two only 0.56% are that. The relevant comparison is when you compare the effects of a fixed number of votes (or non-votes). If we assume that 70% are libertarians, then if everyone of these voted libertarian, the libertarian candidate would get 87.5% and would thus win. If on the other hand, none of them voted it would presumably be some complaints about "voter apathy", but the system would remain-and remain unlibertarian. In Sweden, voter turnout in the elections to the Church of Sweden (the former state church) is usually only about 10% , but the church remains. If 0.56% were libertarian, then the system would remain unlibertarian no matter how these 0.56% voted(or not voted). But the signal would still be stronger with 80% turnout, 0.7% of which went to a libertarian candidate, than with 79.44% turnout and 0% to the libertarian candidate.

By all means, given what I explained under myth #1, you would be rational in not voting if voting meant any significant sacrifice for you. But you shouldn't delude yourself in thinking that non-voting somehow helps the cause of freedom.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Så kontentan av ditt resonemang är alltså att det inte spelar någon roll om man röstar eller inte, ofriheten består i vilket fall som helst?

9:51 AM  
Blogger stefankarlsson said...


7:40 PM  

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