All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1998

Regardless of Choice, Vote!

Does Responsible Citizenship Require Casting a Ballot?

Leonard E. Read established FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death in 1983. This article is excerpted from Chapter 9 of Mr. Read’s book Anything That’s Peaceful. It is the eleventh in a monthly series commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mr. Read’s birth.

I have vowed never to support any organization which would take positions representing me, which positions I would not willingly (peacefully) stand personally responsible for. In short, I object to organizations that claim a consensus that does not exist—a false reporting of agreement growing out of committee action.

It is logical for anyone to inquire, “Well, what about support of and membership in one of the two major political parties? Would you go so far as to take part in neither of these? You would vote for the candidate of one or the other party, regardless of positions, wouldn’t you?” These are good questions and deserve a careful answer, though I am not suggesting that anyone else adopt my view.

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “the existence of only two major parties, as in most English-speaking countries, presupposes general public agreement on constitutional questions and on the aims of government.” This idea is fundamental to my thesis. Under such agreeable circumstances, each party keeps a check on the other, thus giving assurance that neither party will step out of the bounds that have been agreed upon.

Let it be re-emphasized that the two-party system (1) presupposes a general agreement on constitutional questions and the aims of government and (2) aims at, if it does not presuppose, honest candidates contending for office within the framework of that constitution. In this kind of political order, each office seeker is supposed to present fairly his own capabilities as related to the agreed-upon framework, voting being for the purpose of deciding which candidate is more competent for that limited role.

Clearly, the theory as originally conceived did not intend that the positions of candidates should be a response to voter opinion polls concerning the content or meaning of the constitution and the aims of government. If voters could thus reshape or reform the boundaries of government at will, there would be no need of candidates. Far less costly and more efficient would be the purchase of an electronic computer into which voter opinions and caprices would be continually fed; it could spew out altered constitutions and governmental purposes every second!

If there were “a general public agreement on constitutional questions and on the aims of government,” and if candidates were vying with each other for office solely on their competency to perform within this framework, I would have no comment. But there is little contemporary agreement as to constitutional questions and the aims of government! Name a point that can now be presupposed. Both the questions and the aims are at sixes and sevens.

And as to candidates—with a few notable exceptions—they no longer contend with each other as to their competence to serve within a generally accepted framework but, instead:

(1) they compete to see which one can come up with the most popular alteration of the framework, and

(2) they compete to see which one can get himself in front of the most popular voter grab bag in order to stand four-square for some people’s supposed right to other people’s income.

The upshot of this political chaos is that voters are seldom given the chance to decide on the basis of competency but have only the choice of deciding between opportunists or, a better term, trimmers. This changed situation does, indeed, call for comments about political party membership and voting.

Despite the respectability of the two-party theory, its practice has “come a cropper.” Today, trimming is so much in vogue that often a voter cannot cast a ballot except for one of two trimmers. Heard over and over again is the apology, “Well, the only choice I had was to vote for the lesser of two evils. I had to vote for one of them, didn’t I?” A moral tragedy is implicit in this confession, as well as a political fallacy; in combination they must eventually lead to economic disaster.

I. The Moral Tragedy

It is morally tragic whenever a citizen’s only choice is between two wrongdoers—that is, between two trimmers.

A trimmer, according to the dictionary, is one who changes his opinions and policies to suit the occasion. In contemporary political life, he is any candidate whose position on issues depends solely on what he thinks will have most voter appeal. He ignores the dictates of his higher conscience, trims his personal idea of what is morally right, tailors his stand to the popular fancy. Integrity, the accurate reflection in word and deed of that which is thought to be morally right, is sacrificed to expediency.

These are severe charges, and I do not wish to be misunderstood. One of countless personal experiences will help clarify what is meant: A candidate for Congress sat across the desk listening to my views about limited government. At the conclusion of an hour’s discussion he remarked, “I am in thorough accord with your views; you are absolutely right. But I couldn’t get elected on any such platform, so I shall represent myself as holding views other than these.” He might as well have added, “I propose to bear false witness.”

No doubt the candidate thought, on balance, that he was justified, that The Larger Good would be better served were he elected—regardless, of how untruthfully he represented his position—than were he to stand for his version of the truth and go down to defeat.

This candidate is “a mixed-up kid.” His values are topsy-turvy, as the saying goes. In an egotism that has no parallel, he puts his election to office above honesty. Why, asks the responsible voter, should I endorse dishonesty by voting for such a candidate? He has, on his own say-so, forsworn virtue by insisting on bearing false witness. Does he think his ambition for office is right because he needs a job? Then let him seek employment where want of principle is less harmful to others. Or, is his notion of rightness based on how much the rest of us would benefit by having him as our representative? What? A person without moral scruple representing us in Congress! The role of the legislator is to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property—that is, to protect us against fraud, violence, predation, and misrepresentation (false witness). Would our candidate have us believe that “it takes a crook to catch a crook”?

Such righteousness or virtue as exists in the mind of man does not and cannot manifest itself in the absence of integrity—the honest, accurate reflection in deeds of one’s beliefs. Without this virtue the other virtues must lie dormant and unused. What else remains? It is doubtful if anything contributes more to the diseased condition of society than the diminishing practice of integrity.

Those of us who attach this much importance to integrity must perforce construe trimming as evil. Therefore, 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? It must be conceded that there are gradations of wrongdoing: killing is worse than stealing, and perhaps stealing is worse than covetousness. At any rate, if wrongdoing is not comparative, then it is self-evident that the best of us are just as evil as the worst of us; for man is fallible, all men!

Degrees of Evil

While categories of wrongdoing are comparative, it does not follow that wrong deeds within any given category of evil are comparative. For instance, it is murder whether one man is slain, or two. It is stealing whether the amount is ten cents or a thousand dollars. And, a lie is a lie whether told to one person or to a million. “Thou shalt not kill”; “Thou shalt not steal”; “Thou shalt not bear false witness” are derived from principles. Principles do not permit of compromise; they are either adhered to or surrendered.

Is trimming comparative? Can one trimmer be less at fault than another trimmer? Does the quantity of trimming have anything whatsoever to do with the matter? Or, rather, is this not a question of quality or character? To trim is to ignore the dictates of higher conscience; it is to take flight from integrity. Is not the candidate who will trim once for one vote likely to trim twice for more votes? Does he not demonstrate by any single act of trimming, regardless of how minor, that he stands ready to abandon the dictates of conscience for the place he seeks in the political sun? Does not the extent or quantity of trimming merely reflect a judgment as to how much trimming is expedient?

If the only question at issue is whether a candidate will trim at all, then trimming is not comparative; thus, it would be incorrect to report, “I cast my ballot for the lesser of two evils.” Accuracy would require, “I felt there was no choice except to cast a ballot for one of two men, both of whom have sacrificed integrity for the hope of votes.”

We must not, however, heap all our condemnation on candidates who trim. There would be no such candidates were it not for voters who trim. Actually, when we find only trimmers to vote for, most of us are getting what we deserve. The trimmers who succeed in offering themselves as candidates are, by and large, mere reflections of irresponsible citizenship—that is, of neglected thinking, study, education, vigilance. Candidates who trim and voters who trim are each cause and each effect; they feed on each other. When the worst get on top it is because there are enough of the worst among us to put them there.

To repeat, when one must choose between men who forsake integrity, the situation is tragic, and there is little relief at the polling level except as candidates of integrity may be encouraged by voters of integrity. Impractical idealism? Of course not! Read Edmund Burke, one of the great statesmen of all time, addressing his constituency:

But his [the candidate’s] unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure—no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

II. The Political Fallacy

Is it fallacious to believe that responsible citizenship requires casting a ballot for one or the other of two candidates, regardless of how far the candidates have departed from moral rectitude?

Before trying to arrive at an answer, let us reflect on the reason why the so-called duty of casting a ballot, regardless of circumstance, is so rarely questioned. Quite obviously, the duty to vote is one of those sanctified institutions, such as motherhood, which is beyond criticism. The obligation to vote at any and all elections, whatever the issues or personalities, is equated with responsible citizenship. Voting is deeply embedded in the democratic mores as a duty, and one does not affront the mores without the risk of scorn. To do so is to “raise the dead”: it is to resurrect questions that have been settled once and for all; it is to throw doubt on custom, tradition, orthodoxy, the folkways!

Yet any person who is conscious of our rapid drift toward the omnipotent state can hardly escape the suspicion that there may be a fault in our habitual way of looking at things. If the suspicion be correct, then it would be fatal never to examine custom. So, let us bring the sanctity of voting into the open and take a hard look at it, in a spirit of inquiry rather than advocacy.

Now for the hard look: Where is the American who will argue that responsible citizenship would require casting a ballot if a Hitler and a Stalin were the opposing candidates? “Ah,” some will complain, “you carry the example to an absurdity.” Very well, let us move closer to home and our own experience.

Government in the U.S.A. has been pushed far beyond its proper sphere. The Marxian tenet, “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” backed by the armed force of the state, has become established policy. This is partly rationalized by something called “the new economics.” Within this kind of political framework, it is to be expected that one candidate will stand for the coercive expropriation of the earned income of all citizens, giving the funds thus gathered to those in groups A, B, and C. Nor need we be surprised that 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 in the event he has joined the unholy alliance himself and thinks that one of the candidates will deliver some of the largess to him or to a group he favors. In the latter case, the problem is not one of responsible citizenship but of irresponsible looting.

The Duty to Vote

Does responsible citizenship require voting for irresponsible candidates? To ballot in favor of irresponsible candidates as though it were one’s duty is to misconstrue the meaning of duty. 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. Can anyone conceive of any element of protest in such balloting? To vote for a trimmer goes further: it would seem 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! Conceding a generous liberality in defining trimmers, millions of us would not cast ballots. Would the end result of this substantial, nonviolent protest, this large-scale demonstration of “voting by turning our backs,” compound our problem? It is difficult to imagine how it could. For a while we would continue to get what we now have: a high percentage of trimmers and plunderers in public office, men who promise privileges in exchange for ballots—and freedom. In time, however, this silent but eloquent refusal to participate might conceivably improve the situation. Men of integrity and high moral quality—statesmen—might show forth and, if so, we could add their numbers to the few now in evidence.

Would a return to integrity by itself solve our problem? No, for many men of integrity do not understand freedom; or, if they do, are not devoted to it. But it is only among men of integrity that any solution can begin to take shape. Such men, at least, will do the right as they see the right; they tend to be teachable. Trimmers and plunderers, on the other hand, are the enemies of morality and freedom by definition; their motivations are below the level of principles; they cannot see beyond the emoluments of office.

Here is a thought to weigh: If respect for a candidate’s integrity were widely adopted as a criterion for casting a ballot, millions of us, as matters now stand, would not cast ballots. Yet, in a very practical sense, would not those of us who protest in this manner be voting? Certainly, we would be counted among that growing number 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?

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”