September 01, 2004
To vote or not to vote?

At today's opening convocation, my university president gave a talk titled, "To be or not to be (involved)," in which he took the opportunity to urge everyone to vote in November. He noted the really low voter turnout among younger people.

I have always voted myself, but these sorts of "you should vote" pleas leave me feeling a bit uneasy.

Here are just some of the reasons the president and others give for voting:

(1) It is your civic duty/responsibility to vote. Hmmmm. I have all sorts of responsibilities that I have taken upon myself: to work at the university, to pay my mortgage, to provide for my family, etc., etc. But a "civic" responsibility isn't something that I choose, rather it is something that is forced upon me by society. I reject that such duties can be legitimately imposed on a free person. I have no duties except those that I voluntarily choose to have.

(2) Voting matters. This is most certainly and obviously true in the aggregate. Who can doubt that the world we live in today is very different with W as president than it would have been had Gore been elected? But voting advocates claim not only that the outcome of the election is important (it clearly is) but that your individual vote is important. It clearly is not. To put it bluntly, your vote will not matter. Here I reasonably define "matter" to mean "affect the outcome of the election."

Furthermore, this is a good thing! We have a name for places where one person's vote matters: Dictatorship. The whole idea of liberal democracy is based on the notion that we need to diffuse power among "the people" and not concentrate it in the hands of the monarch or dictator.

(3) Democracy is a good thing. Actually I agree with Michael Munger that democracy is overrated but at the same time I think it is worth something. All things being equal, I'd rather live in a democracy than a dictatorship (unless I'm the dictator that is).

But why is this an argument for you to vote? Surely the democracy can survive without your vote. It already does with only about 50% voter turnout in the U.S.--less in many other countries. At some point, I suppose, if voter turnout gets too low it could call into question the legitimacy of the system, but I don't think we're anywhere near this point.

[UPDATE: I thought of one more reason that you sometimes hear but the president didn't mention explicitly.]

(4) Voting to get goodies for yourself. Very often voting advocates, at least when speaking to a targeted audience like young people, will argue that they need to vote to protect programs that benefit them such as student loan programs, etc. While I admit to liking the honesty of this approach--you should vote in order to steal from everyone else--it is morally repulsive. Voting, if it has any value at all, should be about providing for things of common interest like national defense. If you vote simply to get more stuff for yourself, then you're just participating in theft pure and simple.

So why do I vote if I reject most of the usual reasons for voting? Simple. It makes for good coversation with other people. Voting is sort of like talking about the weather. Talking about the weather really doesn't matter--it'll rain no matter what we say about it--but it's something we enjoy doing. That's how I feel about voting. (That and I like the little "I voted today!" stickers they give out.)

Bottom line: Vote or don't vote. It really doesn't matter much one way or the other.

Posted by Robert Lawson at 11:36 AM  ·  TrackBack (293)

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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