This essay can also be found online at The Libertarian Institute here.
“The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”
~Frédéric Bastiat, “The State” (1848)
“It is practically inevitable that such men should win great influence over the state, because they may view it as means, whilst all the rest, under the the power of the unconscious intention of the state, are themselves only means to the state purpose.”
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface to The Greek State (1871)
It seems that Bastiat and Nietzsche were onto something that American voters don’t understand. I don’t mean to deride all voters as an homogenous group, only to critique the premise of using the vote as some sort of existential act, a divine birthright which is our ticket to participate in a collective that many of us didn’t ask to be a part of. I often see pro-voters reference the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that “voting is like a rifle.” Unfortunately, that rifle is aimed at non-voters. Voting is indeed a weapon, and like Bastiat said over a century ago, it is essentially the means by which one class usurps power over everyone else. Of course, pro-voters will simply tell us all to go vote so that we, too, can express our preference. The true irony for most libertarians is that there is no equally effective means of expressing our political preference as there exists for everyone else. In other words, we cannot vote the state away.
As Nietzsche alluded to, for everyone who falls into the neat category of being a means for the state, it is as simple as punching a card or pushing a button on a screen. This cathartic release allows voters to feel patriotic, dutiful, and worthy of the price ostensibly paid in blood by previous generations. How discomforting it would be to hear that the the Civil War was not originally fought for any kind of racial or political equality for black Americans, or to learn that neither World War One nor Two were about voting. Many of the Founders had a deep distrust for popular democracy, and intentionally established a system where the majority of Americans did not have the right to vote. Yet, we are told that whether through Jacksonian Democracy or the 17th Amendment, extending voting rights is essentially next to godliness. To be sure, I am not advocating that we return to a system where only white men can vote; libertarians should be against anyone voting away other people’s lives or property, no matter the race or gender of those voting to do so. Regardless of one’s views on “what the Founders thought,” we can be assured that they never intended a system whereby some people can steal from others through the voting process. Bastiat called this legal plunder, and the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called this the “political means,” as opposed to the economic means.
This cycle leading up to the forthcoming midterm elections has truly been anomalous. Despite being told every two or four years that the next election is the most important election of our lifetime, this is not why these midterms have been so strange. Never before, at least that I can recall, has the entire country placed so much emphasis on a midterm election. There are always “get out the vote” campaigns in any election, and of course every candidate has their supporters, but the widespread intensity behind the demands to vote in these midterms is unprecedented. Hopefully readers do not base their politics on the views of actors and musicians, but if their recent behavior is any indication, we see that even previously non-political celebrities have come out of the woodwork, not necessarily to demand we favor a certain candidate (though this is implicit), but simply to encourage everyone to vote. The “comedian” Samantha Bee even helped develop a smartphone app that uses quizzes and games to get out the vote. We might take a wild guess at which party Samantha Bee, who on television called the President’s daughter something too vulgar to say here, is encouraging her audience to vote for. Even as I recently scrolled through Twitter, a paid advertisement from Levi’s stressed the importance of voting in the upcoming midterms. So not only are we constantly bombarded by news media to engage in the dirty world of politics, but now the company I buy my jeans from is encouraging the same thing. It is truly bizarre.
The economist Robert Murphy recently asked, “If you urge people to register/vote every election, do you think increased turnout would improve quality of elected officials? . . . Do you think the people who currently don’t bother voting, pick better candidates than the people who DO vote?” This sums up the odd pro-voter psychology, and the seemingly misplaced strategy of getting out the vote. There is a stark disconnect between simply the idea of voting, and the far more nefarious intentions behind “getting out the vote.” The implication here is that voting, in and of itself, regardless of who one votes for, is the important thing. As long as you voted, the pro-voters are happy, supposedly. Many pro-voters, both from the Left and Right, pretend to be open-minded and act as though they don’t care who you vote for, as long as you vote. But this is truly the big lie behind getting out the vote. They absolutely care who you vote for. Everyone cares who you vote for.
Does anyone think pro-voters will actually be contented by someone physically heading to a polling place? Will they cheerlead the simple fact that one more person is doing their civic duty and voting? Of course not. They only care about what voters do inside the polling place. They want to lead the horses to water, and make them drink. It’s all about their candidate, their party, their agenda, and their lust for control. Ironically, the people actually gaining power by winning elections are able to get everyone else to do their bidding for them. The candidates are those whom Nietzsche referred to as seeing the state as means, while everyone else simply serves as means to the state purpose. Voters are unwittingly locking themselves up, while thinking they’re becoming more free. If we can just get the right candidate, we’re assured, things will be different. Did Republicans feel vindicated by the time George W. Bush left office? Did President Obama effect the change his base expected? Will wunderkinds Beto O’Rourke or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fulfill everything they’ve promised to voters?
Why is there such a sudden and unprecedented “get out the vote” campaign? Could it possibly have anything to do with the Trump presidency and the Left’s loss of power? Is it happenstance that Hillary Clinton said, two weeks before the midterms, that she would “like to be President”? Or that former President Obama is actively campaigning with Democratic candidates? These people won’t go away. Imagine how the Left would react if, after his presidency, Donald Trump hit the campaign trail to actively offer endorsements. Surely he would be denigrated as “unpresidential.” But the rules are always different for the party in power versus when they’re out.
In terms of voter turnout, if every eligible voter in the United States voted in the midterms, would that change the outcome as opposed to what would have happened if normal voting patterns prevailed? Many pro-voters think so lowly of non-voters that they assume the latter can easily be coaxed into voting for their candidate, if only they will vote at all. Among the cadre of Trump Derangement Syndrome celebrities, Chelsea Handler recently joked about setting a date for November 6 and taking one’s date to vote instead. This is emblematic of the Left’s attitude toward electoral politics and the voting system, that we are all peons who can be used to further their agenda; and that if we don’t vote or if we don’t agree with their political ideals, we are simply unenlightened. Never do the pro-voters deign to consider that non-voters are actually expressing a preference by not voting.
To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to vote. In some senses it is like self-defense where, if given the option, we would prefer a robber steal 20% of our money versus 50%. Or given the choice between a domestic welfarist and a militant interventionist, libertarians might be inclined to hold their nose and choose the former, valuing human life as the highest priority. Or, as many libertarians well know, we can skip out altogether and instead offer a principled stance for not participating in the political masochism of electoral politics. Murray Rothbard offered a nuanced perspective on the merits of voting, and I would likewise conclude that only the individual can weigh the costs and benefits. It seems most libertarians are rightly conceding that voting is not an inherently immoral or aggressive act, but we also walk a tight line between voting out of self-defense and simply playing the same game as those on the Left and Right.
As I’ve said before, it’s not really about voting. It’s about power, dominance, and lending legitimacy to the political victor. This is why pro-voters are often viscerally opposed to political abstention, because non-voters won’t abide the reverence and pageantry of the electoral process. Libertarians don’t operate within the same psychological boundaries as Left and Right, where we are all supposed to pretend that whoever wins an election is in fact our new moral, social, and political superior. It for this reason that the Left keeps touting the results of the popular vote from the 2016 Presidential Election, pointing out that Hillary Clinton won more in that regard than Trump. They crave a mandate for their candidate to lead, because by everyone partaking in the system they can say their person won fair-and-square. But, ironically, when their person doesn’t win, the system and results are ipso facto flawed and illegitimate. So it’s really very simple: they don’t just want to get out the vote, they want to get out the vote for their candidate. They may not always say it, but we know this is what they mean. They mean go vote for their candidate, or else. Readers may recall Mussolini’s explication of fascism as having “…nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” You are not allowed to think for yourself. You have to vote. You have to vote for their person. You have to play their game.
It’s high time we demystify the quasi-religious act of pushing a button on a screen and getting a sticker.