Voting Advances Liberty

In the long run, voting has secondhand effects on policy

By Casey Given

Anyone with a hint of public choice knowledge can repeat the case against voting by heart. Most voters are rationally ignorant, supporting politicians and causes they know little about. The chance of an individual’s vote actually affecting an election outcome is almost nil. In fact, an individual has a greater chance of dying en route to the voting booth than being the deciding vote in an election. So, why bother risking your life at worst and wasting hours of your life at best waiting in line for little more than a self-congratulatory sticker?

These facts are undeniable and present a powerful case against voting. Considering that libertarians’ policy positions do not neatly fit either major party and that the Libertarian Party has had limited electoral success, it’s tempting to sit on the sidelines laughing at what a fool’s game elections are. This strategy, however, ignores the secondhand effects that voting has on influencing policy and political movements in the long term. By engaging in the political process, libertarians can help build a freer tomorrow by voicing market-oriented public policy ideas through the channels that elections open up.

Elections are not just about voting. In the months leading up to Election Day, candidates engage in a battle of ideas. Whether through canvassing, commercials, debates, radio and television interviews, or town halls, electioneering opens up multiple communications media that are more difficult to engage with in the political off-season. We can use these media to spread the message of liberty.

Libertarians forget that most people are not as tuned into the world of ideas as they are. As much as we may enjoy reading the seemingly infinite variety of blogs, books, and policy papers about freedom and free markets, most people could not care less. Between their busy professional and family lives, individuals often only take interest in politics in the short window before elections that opens every few years. How should we expect to take liberty mainstream if we slam this window shut with the sanctimoniousness of a cranky old man?

It’s particularly ironic that so many among our ranks shun politics when much of the movement’s success over the past few years is largely the result of one campaign in particular. Although many libertarians look back at our political naïveté six years ago with a sigh (no, he really never had a chance of winning), the undeniable truth is that Ron Paul’s presidential campaign introduced millions to the ideas of liberty. While he did not win, the Texas congressman’s campaign was wildly successful in recruiting a new generation of warriors for freedom.

From the rubble of Students for Ron Paul arose Young Americans for Liberty, a powerful student youth organization with over 500 chapters across the United States. The new energy for liberty created by the campaign has not been limited to the United States, either. My employer, Students For Liberty, was formed the same year as Paul’s presidential run and has since gone global — now claiming a network of over 150,000 students on six continents. (SFL Antarctica, unfortunately, is still to come.)

While these victories for liberty cannot be solely attributed to Paul, it’s hard to claim that the movement would be as strong as it is today if it wasn’t for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The influence of “the good doctor,” as so many young libertarians once fondly called him, is a prime example of the secondhand effects voting has on shaping political discourse and movements in the long term.

The influence of Paul’s campaigns is not unique. For decades, libertarian scholars have pointed out the secondhand effects voting has on shaping future policies. In The Machinery of Freedom (available for free in PDF), David Friedman points out that the Socialist Party of the early 20th century “succeeded in enacting into law virtually every economic proposal in its 1928 platform — a list of radical proposals ranging from minimum wages to social security,” despite having “never gained control over anything larger than the city of Milwaukee.” Likewise, libertarians can “regard politics not as a means of gaining power but as a means of spreading ideas,” as Friedman put it, by engaging in electioneering to shift the Overton Window of acceptable policy proposals towards a freer tomorrow.

Several prominent nonvoters have disagreed with such a strategy by asserting that nonvoting is itself a protest statement that could gain attention. In his New Libertarian Manifesto (also available in PDF), for example, Samuel Edward Konkin III suggests shifting focus from voting to education, publicity, recruitment and perhaps some anti-political campaigning (i.e. "Vote For Nobody," "None of the Above," "Boycott the Ballot," "Don't Vote, It Only Encourages Them!" etc.) to publicize the libertarian alternative.

The problem with such thinking is that millions of people already do not vote, and they are not perceived by the media as doing it out of principle. To the contrary, get-out-the-vote campaigns operate on the assumption that people do not vote out of ignorance instead of principled protest. One Pew study on nonvoters reveals this perception to be largely true: “Nonvoters are younger, less educated and less affluent than are likely voters.” Thirty-six percent of nonvoters are under 30, and only 13 percent are college graduates. By joining their ranks, libertarians do not strengthen their voice of protest but rather silence it in a sea of irrelevance.

For years, many libertarians have retreated to the realm of ideas instead of engaging in a political world that too often does not understand liberty. While such a strategy may be fulfilling for some, it is ultimately not a blueprint to making the world a freer place. Whether we like it or not, the State will keep growing regardless of how many Hayek books we hand out. Instead of shaming libertarians who campaign, organize, and vote, it’s time to thank them for seeking to produce liberty in our lifetime. This, after all, is the larger challenge that not many dare to take up.