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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Leonard Read on Voting and the Lesser of Two Evils

“Vote by turning our backs”


One thing I look forward to over the winter break is time to read some escapist literature. Once in a while, though, it ties back to something more serious. I had that experience recently when the central character in a new Jack Campbell novel said:

People are always talking about demanding more and better performance from elected officials, but when you get right down to it, shouldn’t a democracy demand more and better performance from the citizens who vote?

If they do their job well, then the quality of those they elect will naturally follow.

That is one of the best summaries I have ever seen of FEE founder Leonard Read’s view on voting. Since Americans will soon be assaulted with questionable election-year assertions of why they must vote and who they must vote for in 2016, his rationale for why not voting can be more consistent with defending our liberty and well-being merits consideration

Read argued in Anything That’s Peaceful:

Today … often a voter cannot cast a ballot except for one of two trimmers.

A trimmer … trims his personal idea of what is morally right, tailors his stand to the popular fancy. Integrity … is sacrificed to expediency.

Why, asks the responsible voter, should I endorse dishonesty by voting for such a candidate?

When both candidates for public office are judged to be trimmers, the one who trims less than the other is often regarded as “the lesser of two evils.” But is he really?

Principles do not permit of compromise; they are either adhered to or surrendered… To trim is to ignore the dictates of higher conscience; it is to take flight from integrity. Is not the candidate who will trim … ready to abandon the dictates of conscience? … Does not the extent or quantity of trimming merely reflect a judgment as to how much trimming is expedient?

When one must choose between men who forsake integrity … there is little relief at the polling level except as candidates of integrity may be encouraged by voters of integrity.

How can candidates of integrity be encouraged by voters (and non-voters) of integrity?

Government in the U.S.A. has been pushed far beyond its proper sphere.

Within this kind of political framework … one candidate will stand for the coercive expropriation of the earned income of all citizens … to those in groups A, B, and C … his opponent differs from him only in advocating that the loot be given to those in groups X, Y, and Z.

Does responsible citizenship require casting a ballot for either of these political plunderers? The citizen has no significant moral choice but only an immoral choice [made because] one of the candidates will deliver some of the largess to him or to a group he favors.

Does responsible citizenship require voting for irresponsible candidates?… To cast a ballot for a trimmer, because no man of integrity is offering himself, does as much as one can with a ballot to encourage other trimmers to run for office…to urge, as strongly as one can at the polls, that men of integrity not offer themselves as candidates.

What would happen if we adopted as a criterion: Never vote for a trimmer!

Would the end result of this … large-scale demonstration of “voting by turning our backs,” compound our problem? In time … men of integrity and high moral quality — statesmen — might show forth. …

Would a return to integrity by itself solve our problem? No… But it is only among men of integrity that any solution can begin to take shape. …

If respect for a candidate’s integrity were widely adopted as a criterion for casting a ballot, millions of us … would not cast ballots. Yet, in a very practical sense, would not those of us who protest in this manner be voting … who, by our conscious and deliberate inaction, proclaim that we have no party. What other choice have we at the polling level? Would not this encourage men of statesmanlike qualities to offer themselves in candidacy?

There is no moral or political or social obligation to vote merely because we are confronted with ballots… Doesn’t this “obligation” deny to the citizen the only alternative left to him — not to endorse persons or measures he regards as repugnant?

When presented with two trimmers, how else, at this level, is he to protest? Abstinence from ballot-casting would appear to be his only way to avoid being untrue to himself.

Leonard Read rejected much of the current civic religion of political involvement, because it amounted to “regardless of integrity, vote.”

Instead he asked what would happen if integrity became our central focus. In a political landscape largely divorced from integrity, his “do not vote in the absence of integrity” analysis deserves serious thought.


  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).