Do you remember when you were first eligible to vote? An adult, a citizen, at last! Finally the power to exercise influence over public affairs in the most direct way. So I voted. Then the returns came in. My guy won anyway, overwhelmingly. I didn’t feel vindicated. I immediately realized that my vote meant nothing. I wasted my time.
By: Jeffrey Tucker
This article first appeared at Liberty.Me
I felt like a chump, and never voted again. I’ve never had a reason. I watch politics like a spectator sport, just to see what happens.
To be sure, I never bought the claim that my non-voting was unpatriotic. I still have the right to complain about the results, same as with any condition of captivity. Nor do I think I have some moral obligation to participate. For me, it’s a practical issue. I have better things to do. I also don’t like the way democracy fools people into believing that whatever happens in government is their own fault.
Neither have I accepted the argument that voting is somehow immoral – a point you often hear made in libertarian circles. If a thief asks for my opinion about whether he should rob me, and I offer it, that doesn’t make me complicit in the theft. I’m not morally compromised because I made some effort to change the outcome.
A Rare Opportunity
This year is different. It’s the first time in my lifetime that my vote can count for something in the general election. Through my own action on that one day, I can add slightly, just slightly, to changing the culture of politics in this country. It’s only one vote but it actually does make a difference. Vote totals, whether we like it or not, are widely seen as a measure of public opinion. Maximizing the number of people who pulled the lever for something completely different is one small way to make a statement.
Plus, there is really no serious opportunity cost to voting Libertarian this year. It’s a toss up which of the likely winners of this presidential election would be worse for freedom. I keep going back and forth on the question, but it is nearly certain that either Clinton or Trump will win. I have no dog in the main fight.
Meanwhile, the ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld is polling higher than any third-party ticket in a quarter of a century. The last time this happened, it was the Ross Perot campaign. I recall supporting him as a disrupter but there were no strong libertarian grounds for this. He ran as a competent manager and that’s about it.
Meanwhile, Johnson/Weld have been out working hard on the campaign trail. Every day, all day, they are making the case for freedom, cutting government, ending overpolicing, bringing peace to foreign affairs and immigration. If you listen to them, and try to listen from the point of a view of regular person as opposed to an educated libertarian ideologue, they have actually managed to make the case for liberty make sense.
The polls show that they are drawing equally from Republicans and Democrats. They are the favorite among active-duty military. They are the favorites among millennials, which makes sense because they are the only candidates who seem to be in touch with current realities (whereas Clinton and Trump seem like leftovers from a bygone era). They are appealing to a diverse group: men and women, whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians. The ticket is helping to shed the impression that libertarianism is only for rich white men, and refute the preposterous claim of the alt-right that only white people love liberty.
I’ve seen this in real life at rallies. They are growing each day and much larger than what the media reports. And I’ve been so impressed at the quality and diversity of the people supporting this ticket. The ethos is hopeful, cheerful, constructive, and civilized. Love for liberty more than hate for something else is what you feel from the campaign. This ticket is attracting a wonderful demographic to the cause of liberty. If you are feeling down about our prospects for the future, these are wonderful events to attend.
Why the success? I think it has something to do with the ebullient tone and practical approach of the campaign. The ads have been beautiful and sophisticated, and tapped into ideals. There have been flubs on the campaign trail, but the overwhelming spirit has been liberal in the classical sense. The core of the message has been: leave people alone to live their lives in peace with others. This is a message that resonates widely.
One way to think of voting a form of hiring for a public-sector administrative job. Doing the job requires a particular set of talents, just as with any job. In this sense, I’m grateful for the actual experience that Johnson and Weld have as governors. They have proven that they are adept at doing the seemingly impossible, which is actually cutting government, cutting regulations, cutting taxes, and so on. You don’t necessarily gain this experience as a legislator and you certainly don’t as an outside philosopher or blogger.
Watching this campaign in action has intensified my appreciation for what it means to actually have talent as a liberal “statesman,” for lack of a better term. My own views are far more radical than either Johnson or Weld. I would rather abolish than reform. For that matter, I’m completely convinced that society would be better off without any state apparatus at all.
Still, freedom is in peril right now and there is nothing about intellectual parlor games that contributes to bringing about a solution. There’s never been a better time to celebrate any change toward freedom, even if small, even if marginal.
Two years ago, I was attending a liberty-oriented event in New York. Johnson was speaking. I’ve always liked him personally but I wasn’t that interested in his talk because of the usual reasons: I thought of him as a moderate whereas I am more “hard core,” as they say. But I listened. After about 10 minutes, I began to relax. I realized that I didn’t actually disagree with any of his points. Then I listened from the point of view of someone who is not part of the liberty club but rather a regular citizen. It suddenly made sense to me why he speaks in terms of practicalities and common sense. At this event, I began to realize something very crucial: ours is a big world view and there are many ways of presenting it and many paths toward making a contribution to freeing the world.
And yes, I disagree with Gary on some issues. I don’t like the idea of a consumption tax, for example. I think he might have more firmly rallied around the idea of a freedom of association on matters of religion. There are a few other issues. No two libertarians in the world agree on everything. And certainly there are a million possible strategies for getting from here to there. This can’t be a test of support in politics.
And you know what? Gary doesn’t have to be doing this whole election thing. He is financially secure. He loves adventure spots. He has a happy life. There is every reason to avoid and generally eschew the frustrations of the public spotlight. And getting the Libertarian nomination is particularly contentious because you can anticipate that your so-called allies in the struggle are going to be your toughest critics and even your main detractors. Then of course you deal with the hectoring media, the ridiculing elites, the pests on the left and right, and so on. Who needs it?
Well, Gary decided to go ahead anyway. I admire him for it.
Is it possible that this ticket is building the Libertarian Party into a genuinely viable alternative in American politics? It is possible but not likely. The political system today is owned by the two major parties. As we’ve seen, even the debate commission is controlled by them. The structure of American democracy, with its winner-take-all structure, is forbidding to third parties.
However, a Libertarian Party can offer something of a counterweight to the corruptions and ideological bankruptcy of the two main parties. If nothing else, the LP can keep the idea of human liberty from disappearing completely from public affairs. In some ways, we see emerging here a something of a 19th-century model: Tory, Labor, and Liberal. In our own time, this is being replicated as right authoritarianism (Republicans), left revanchism (Democrats), and liberal libertarianism.
But in order for this to happen, there is a crucial element that must be present: votes.
During the last Republican nomination struggle, I spoke to a person high up in a campaign and mentioned how strangely missing the libertarian angle was from every campaign. This person responded quickly: “libertarians don’t vote. Everyone knows that. That’s why they don’t matter.”
Ouch. This year, I’m making a small contribution to changing that.
Look at your state and look at the mainstream options out there for you. Is your vote going to matter, really? Do you really think there is that much at stake in whether Clinton or Trump wins? If not, consider adding your vote to a cause that could actually make a difference.
This article first appeared at Liberty.Me