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Libertarians and Voting

Alex Salter

While it’s often dangerous to make blanket statements about sociopolitical movements, it’s not a stretch to say libertarians have a contentious relationship with voting.

Many libertarians don’t vote at all, and cite positive (as opposed to normative) reasons for doing so. The standard argument goes something like this: Voting in an election is costly, in the sense that it takes time that could have been used doing something else. However, in the vast majority of elections—and probably all elections that matter for who gets to determine significant aspects of policy—each individual vote, taken by itself, is worthless. The voting populace is so large that the probability that the marginal vote affects the outcome of the election is virtually zero. To the extent that one votes solely for the sake of impacting the outcome of elections, the costs of voting outweigh the expected benefits, defined as the probability one’s vote is decisive multiplied by the payoff from having one’s preferred candidate win. A really big payoff, multiplied by zero, is zero.

This argument is a staple of the academic literature in political economy and public choice. It’s used to explain many phenomena, the most prominent of which is rational ignorance: Since each individual’s vote doesn’t matter, no individual has any incentive to become informed on the issues. As such, voters acting rationally remain largely uninformed. As an explanation for an observed phenomenon in political life, it is impeccably reasoned and extremely useful for academic research. However, as an explanation for why individual libertarians refrain from voting, it is potentially quite dangerous.

Voting is a quintessential collective-action problem. Policy would be more libertarian at the margin if libertarians showed up en masse to vote on election day. But for each individual libertarian voter, voting is costly. Furthermore, the benefits of a more libertarian polity are available to each libertarian whether he votes or not. Each libertarian potential voter thus acts according to his own self-interest and stays home, even though if some mechanism were used to get all libertarians to vote, each of them would be better off.

Why is using this argument for abstaining from voting dangerous?  The answer lies in a significant reason why libertarians are libertarians. Many who are not libertarians advocate government provision of goods and services such as roads or education on the grounds that collective-action problems would result in these goods and services being undersupplied. Libertarians rightly respond that this is nonsense. History is full of examples of privately supplied roads and education, not to mention more difficult cases. The existence of a collective-action problem is not a sufficient argument for government intervention. To believe otherwise is to ignore the creative and imaginative capacities of individuals engaging in private collective action to overcome collective-action problems. 

Every time a libertarian points to the collective-action problem as a reason for abstaining from voting, he weakens, at least partially, the argument that individuals in their private capacity can overcome these kinds of problems. By suggesting we cannot overcome a relatively simple collective-action problem like voting, our illustrations of ways other collective-action problems have been solved privately, and arguments for how such problems might be solved privately going forward, may appear disingenuous. 

Looking at the problem more closely, there are all sorts of ways libertarians can solve the collective-action problem associated with voting. Libertarians could meet throughout the year in social groups dedicated to furthering their education by, say, reading Human Action together, and follow up such meetings with dinner parties or social receptions. The price tag for admission to such groups could be meeting at a predetermined time and place on Election Day and voting. This coupling of mild political activism with other desirable activities is an example of bundling, a very common mechanism by which collective goods and services have been privately supplied throughout history.

At this point, a few caveats are in order.

First, this potential solution is irrelevant for those who refuse to engage in the political process for ethical reasons. A libertarian could find the current popular interpretation of the "social contract" so unacceptable that any engagement in the political process cannot be justified. Second, even after deriving mechanisms for overcoming the voting collective-action problem, individuals’ opportunity cost of participating exceeds the expected benefit. Academics who are libertarians -- who must spend significant time engaging highly technical scholarly literature to further their careers -- would be most likely to cite this argument, and they may very well be right to do so. Third, organizing “voting clubs” large enough to have a chance of mattering for election outcomes may itself be prohibitively costly. This is most likely to be true in national elections.

But if these reasons or others are why libertarians abstain from voting, they should say so. Citing the collective-action problem by itself is not enough, and it undermines the argument that purposeful human actors can overcome collective-action problems through voluntary association.

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