All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

I Won’t Vote!

Casting a Vote Is Not the Only Way to Express Your Voice Politically

Whenever I reveal my steadfast insistence on not voting, most people look at me as if I just admitted to slaughtering my dogs for dinner. Maybe it’s not illegal, say those looks, but it sure as heck is unseemly and irresponsible.

Fancying myself to be a morally upright person, I obviously don’t believe that not voting is in any way immoral or otherwise undesirable. Here’s why.

First—and least interestingly—my vote will never determine the outcome of a political election. The chances that my voting for candidate Smith rather than voting for candidate Jones (or rather than not voting at all) will assure that Smith wins the election are practically zero. Put differently, from my perspective, the outcome of any election will be what it will be no matter what I do or don’t do at a polling place on election day. Because my time is valuable, I never vote; I instead spend my time on activities whose outcomes I am more likely to affect.

Some people insist that non-voting is “selfish.” Perhaps. But note that I’m not the only person to benefit from my refusal to spend my time pointlessly. By not voting, I have more time to prepare for the classes I teach, or more time to write articles that (I hope) at least some people enjoy reading, or more time to spend helping my son with his homework or just enjoying time with my family. Because my refusal to vote changes nothing, the cost to others of my not voting is zero. But the cost of my voting to others (my students, my colleagues, my adoring reading public, my family) is real. So by not voting, I make at least some people better off while making no one worse off.

(By the way, whenever I’m asked “Well, what would you do if everyone refused to vote?” I answer, “Then I’ll vote!”)

The second reason I refuse to vote is that, unlike choices made in private markets, choosing among candidates is excessively imprecise. Here’s what I mean. If you see a shopper in a supermarket fill her grocery cart with three bottles of chardonnay, one chicken, one leg of lamb, six rolls of paper towels, two dozen diapers, and a bag of dog food, you can be pretty certain that she wants each of those items and does not now want any of the many other items for sale in the supermarket. The situation is very different in political elections. If you see the same woman vote for candidate Smith, you cannot legitimately conclude that she wants all of the positions taken by Smith. Perhaps this voter voted for Smith despite Smith’s promise to raise taxes.

A Package Deal

I have never encountered a candidate with a serious chance of winning elective office who did not take positions on many major issues that I find to be unwise or immoral. So while I almost always prefer one candidate to others, I cannot bring myself to vote for my preferred candidate because doing so is too likely to be misread as an endorsement of some policies that I oppose. And this misreading is more likely if my preferred candidate wins the election!

My third reason for not voting is that voting registers only each voter’s order of preferences and not that voter’s intensity of preferences. Unlike in private markets where I can refuse to buy a good or service if I judge its price to be too high—and then decide to buy that same product if its price falls—in elections each voter merely gets to say which candidate he prefers above all who are on the ballot. If I vote for Smith rather than Jones, this means only that I prefer Smith to Jones. My vote for Smith reveals nothing about how much I prefer Smith to Jones.

Because intensity of preferences is every bit as much a part of human likes and dislikes as is the order of preferences—and because in most choices in our lives we have at least some ability to express the intensity as well as the order—voting allows each of us to make only half-choices. The process simply gives no opportunity for any voter to express how much he prefers Smith to Jones.

Legitimate Process?

My fourth reason for not voting is that I disapprove of the political process and want no part of it. Of course, government wants part of me and my wealth; practically speaking, there is little I can do to prevent being harassed and shaken down by the state. If I vote, though, I give some legitimacy to the process. If my candidate wins, then what moral right do I have to complain about his pursuing policies that he said during the campaign he’d pursue but which I find deplorable? Even if my candidate loses, I implicitly agree—by voting—that the process of selecting people to exercise power over me is legitimate. So if I vote I have much weaker grounds for complaining than I have if I don’t vote.

I’m frankly saddened by the number of people who tell me that if I don’t vote I have no right to complain about government. This familiar refrain is nonsense. My rights—as recognized, of course, by the signers of the Declaration of Independence—exist because I am a human being. These rights are not created by government. Because I am a human being who respects the rights of all other persons, my rights should be respected even (or especially!) if I don’t participate in politics. Particularly today, with governments at all levels recognizing few constitutional restraints—that is, with government itself barely even pretending to play by the rules—why should any peaceful person be obliged to vote in order to retain his natural rights to life, liberty, and property?

Finally, even the practical justification for voting—that it lets your “voice be heard”—is wrong. Forget that no one vote will ever swing an election. Forget that it matters not one whit if your preferred candidate wins (or loses) by 34,767 votes instead of by 34,766 votes. The relevant fact is that there are countless better ways to get your voice heard.

Writing this column is one way that I get my voice heard. Casting a vote is not the only way to get your voice heard politically, and, more importantly, politics is not the only venue in which our voices should be heard. Denizens of a free society ought never be fooled into thinking that the only relevant way to be heard in that society is by yanking levers every few years in voting booths.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.