All Commentary
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Don’t Do Politics? Think Again.

Do Vote. Don’t Vote. You’re Still Political.

The circus that has been the early stages of the 2016 presidential election is enough to make anyone, regardless of ideology, want to flee politics. For political skeptics, the spectacle confirms many claims we’ve long made about the ugliness of the political process and our desire to have no part of it.

Some of us even maintain that we refuse to participate in politics on principle.

We need to be careful about saying things like that because most who claim they want nothing to do with politics are, in fact, engaged in it all the time. What we really mean to say, most of the time, is that we do not wish to engage in electoral politics.

Politics is omnipresent wherever humans negotiate over power and governance. 

That’s fair enough, but elections and voting and what elected officials do are not the sum total of politics. Just as money and markets are not all there is to economic activity, so elections and voting are not all there is to politics.

Unfortunately, both we and our critics often treat voting and electoral politics as the only kind of political activity that matters. In my 26-plus years at St. Lawrence University, the one aspect of my political views that has bothered my colleagues of all stripes the most is that I don’t vote. Aside from making the usual arguments about the power of voting, some have suggested that not voting means that I’m not engaged in my community in ways that are important.

These concerns, as well as the libertarian claim to reject politics, are mistaken. Once we expand our conception of politics to go beyond elections, we can see all the different ways that almost all human beings — and certainly most self-described libertarians — are politically engaged.

Political economist Vincent Ostrom, in his 1997 book The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, offers a conception of democracy (another term some of us tend to reject) and politics that, in the spirit of Tocqueville, is about the human “capability for pursuing and mediating conflicting interests through processes of conflict resolution … [by] constituting shared communities of understanding about how to cope with the exigencies of life through reflection and choice in self-governing communities of relationships.”

Citizenship in Ostrom’s view of democracy is how “self-governors” construct “rule-governed relationships” to prevent and resolve conflicts in ways that minimize coercion.

Even an anarchist society would not be a world without the political.

This broad conception of democratic politics is not about the market or state but rather all of the various ways humans use language and persuasion to develop “covenantal” solutions to the endless conflicts that constitute life in a social order. Democracy and politics thereby encompass everything from larger-scale social institutions, to civic and market organizations, to neighborhoods and families. According to Ostrom, democracy is the practice of creating rule-governed arrangements through conversation, collaboration, and consent.

Politics is omnipresent wherever humans negotiate over power and governance. We speak of “office politics” or “university politics,” and those phrases are not mere metaphors. Our negotiations with friends are a form of politics as well, as we figure out where to go out to eat or what show to see. Our romantic and familial relationships are full of similar negotiations about language, persuasion, power, and mutual consent. To say we “don’t do politics” is to have a narrow notion, in Ostrom’s view, of what constitutes being a citizen in a society where democracy is a feature of so many institutions.

Even an anarchist society would not be a world without the political. It indeed might be a world without electoral politics for positions of state power, but even voluntary organizations involve rules that must be negotiated (and sometimes even elections) and activities that require consensus and consent. These are the political.

So if we wish to say that we “reject politics,” I think we should be clear that it is the electoral politics of the state that we are rejecting.

But even there, matters aren’t so clear. For many of us, the real activity that we reject is voting. There are plenty of long-standing reasons to reject it, from the practical (“One vote won’t make a difference”) to the principled (“It only lends legitimacy to the state power that we wish to curb”) to the pessimistic (“If it could change things, it would be illegal”). Yet many of us who accept one or more of those arguments and think of ourselves as conscientious abstainers are often still engaged in the political process of the state more broadly.

After all, even nonvoters can be engaged citizens, involved in the (democratic, in Ostrom’s sense) process by which we debate and discuss the issues that matter to all of us as citizens. Anyone who takes to Facebook to declare that he doesn’t vote because what we really need is institutional change, and not a shifting of the deck chairs on the Titanic, is engaged in politics in the narrow sense. This is particularly true if he goes on to explain what he thinks is needed to improve things.

Every time we engage in the conversation about what is wrong with the world we live in and how we might make it better, wealthier, more just, or more peaceful, we are being political. 

When we write a letter to the editor, share a story or a meme on social media, talk about US foreign policy with friends over a drink, or step into our classrooms to teach economics to college students, we are being political. Every time we engage in the conversation about what is wrong with the world we live in and how we might make it better, wealthier, more just, or more peaceful, we are being political.

Elections and voting are neither the most important elements of politics nor the sum total thereof. That’s too narrow a conception and one that even libertarians should reject. If anything, we understand correctly that voting might be the least important and least effective kind of political action.

I do believe that people should feel an obligation to debate what constitutes a good society and to work toward achieving it. There are a variety of ways to do that, and electoral politics is only the smallest slice of the larger pie. Many of us are doing these things in our own ways already.

By explicitly acknowledging our political engagement, we might challenge the idea that electoral politics is all that matters. We’ll also reduce the perception that we don’t care about improving the world.

The world we desire is not a world without politics. Recognizing this might open up more careful thought about what it means to be a citizen — not just of that imagined libertopia, but of our own world where democratic politics, in Ostrom’s broader conception, infuses so much of what we do, including the voluntary sector that we value so deeply.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.