Don’t vote for change

K.M. wrote a very interesting post on Swami’s article that I criticized a couple of days back. He said-

Political change is necessarily preceded by cultural change.

Aiyer’s article shows that despite all his claims to be a liberal, he does not really understand liberty at all. Anyone who thinks liberty can be achieved by political means fundamentally misunderstands it.

My views were quite similar to Swami’s till I “saw the light” a few years back: fix the “system,” and everything else will automatically fall into place. As if people will simply fall in line. Whatever the issue, reforming the criminal justice system, or governance itself, the reform isn’t going to happen until and unless society is ready for it. The only way to change the status quo, other than leaving civilization and setting up one’s own version of Galt’s Gulch, is education: “cultural change.” The pessimist in me says that’s asking too much from mankind (Galt’s Gulch is easier) …. and Chodorov comes to a similar conclusion. More about it later.

On political change, while David King explores the philosophical implications* of taking part in “democracy” (what is it that you sanction when you vote for some one, and he acts as your representative?), David Friedman considers starting or voting for a party that represents your ideology a form of education and not something that will actually change anything on the ground. Chapter 47 from his book

There exist, among libertarians who support the existence of the Libertarian Party, two quite different views as to its purpose. According to one, the party exists to gain political power by winning elections; it differs from other parties only in wishing to use that power to eliminate or drastically shrink government. This seems to be the dominant view at party conventions, at least the ones I have attended. While I have not yet heard a libertarian presidential nominee predict victory, several have given the impression that it is only a few elections away.

One difficulty with this strategy is that it may be inconsistent with the internal dynamic of political parties. Before asking whether a libertarian party can win elections, one should first ask why the Libertarian Party is libertarian and under what circumstances it will continue to be libertarian.

A party is not a person. It does not have beliefs; it cannot be persuaded by philosophical arguments. To say that a party holds certain views is an abbreviated way of describing the outcome of the internal political processes of that party—the processes that determine what positions are published as the party’s platform and, often more important, what positions are pushed by the party’s candidates and acted upon if they gain office.

A libertarian rejects the idea that simply because the government says it exists for the general good, it actually acts that way. He should equally reject the idea that a party that happens to be named ‘Libertarian’ will automatically continue to advance libertarian positions. To understand what either a government or a political party will do we ought to start by assuming that the individuals within the organization rationally pursue their own ends (selfish or otherwise) and then try to predict from that assumption how the organization will act.

A political party, in order to campaign or even to exist, requires resources. It gets them in two different ways. It receives donations of money and labor from people who want it to succeed because they support its ideology; when a party first starts, that may be all it has. But once it becomes large enough to win, or at least affect, elections, a party also acquires political assets with a substantial market value. The political game is played for control over the collection and expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Even a relatively weak player in that game—a party, let us say, that gets five or ten percent of the votes in a national election and holds a few seats in Congress—has favors to dispense worth quite a lot of money.

A political party is driven by two objectives. It wishes to proclaim positions and take actions that appeal to its ideological supporters. But it also wishes to attract as many votes as possible, in order to maximize its political assets, and having attracted these votes it wishes to act in such a way as to maximize its (long-run) income. On some issues these objectives may prove to be consistent. On others they will not.

When I say that a party “wishes” something, I am again employing a convenient abbreviation. Consider a small ideological party, such as the Libertarian Party. Initially, all it has to offer to potential workers, officers, or candidates is the opportunity to achieve their ideological objectives. As long as that is true, its members, officers, and candidates continue to be people whose main objective is ideological, and the party continues to ‘believe in’ libertarianism.

Suppose the party begins to win elections. It occurs to some people that positions of power within the party may, in the long run, be worth quite a lot of money. Some of the people to whom this occurs may be nonideological—and willing to proclaim any ideology they find convenient. Others may be vaguely libertarian, but with a greater commitment to their short-run private objectives than to their long-run public ones. What these people have in common is their willingness to make a profession of gaining power within the party. In the long run, in the struggle for power, professionals will beat amateurs. It is as certain as anything can be in politics that once a party achieves substantial political power it will eventually swing towards a policy in which ideology is a means—perhaps an important means—but not an end. It will become a vote- and income-maximizing party, taking positions dictated by its ideology when that seems the best way of getting votes—or the volunteer labor and money it requires in order to get votes—and taking actions inconsistent with its ideology when such actions yield the party a net profit, in votes or dollars. We already have two parties like that; I see no advantage to having a third.

I began this essay by saying that libertarians who support the existence of the Libertarian Party hold two different views concerning its function. If the purpose of the party is not to put libertarians in office, what is it?

I believe the answer is that we should learn from our enemies; we should imitate the strategy of the Socialist party of 60 years ago. Its presidential vote never reached a million, but it may have been the most successful political party in American history. It never gained control over anything larger than the city of Milwaukee but it 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.

We should regard politics not as a means of gaining power but as a means of spreading ideas. That does not mean we should never win an election—a libertarian in Congress, even in a state legislature, might get a lot of attention for libertarian ideas. But we should regard winning an occasional election only as a means—a publicity stunt if you will—never an end. As long as our objective remains ideological we will not have to worry about winning very many elections.

As our ideas spread they will bring votes for libertarian ideas, but not necessarily for the Libertarian Party. We can trust the other parties to adopt whichever parts of our platform are most popular, leaving us with the difficult task of getting votes for a party differentiated from the others precisely by those libertarian positions that most of the voters have not yet accepted.

If this strategy is successful it will, in the long run, self-destruct. If we are sufficiently successful in spreading libertarian ideas, eventually even a consistent libertarian will be able to get elected. When that begins to happen, the Libertarian Party will finally become a major party—and promptly begin to pursue votes instead of libertarianism. The transition may be a little difficult to recognize, however, since at that point pursuing libertarianism will finally have become the best way of getting votes. It is a defeat we should all look forward to.

More realistically, the Libertarian Party can be expected to go the way of other parties long before the population is entirely converted to libertarianism; even a minor party has valuable favors to sell. That is no reason not to support it. Very few things last forever; if the Libertarian Party does something to spread libertarian ideas for another decade or two before succumbing to the temptations of politics, that is a good enough reason to work for it. A container may be worth producing, even if its ultimate destiny is to be thrown away.

When this essay was first written it was an exercise in pure speculation, the application of public choice theory to the Libertarian Party. Some years later, part of my analysis was strikingly confirmed by a minor scandal within the Libertarian Party. The story as I heard it was that a Libertarian candidate for state office had accepted a substantial amount of money from his Democratic rival and used it to run a campaign apparently designed to draw conservative votes away from the Republican candidate.

Though I consider Friedman’s prediction about “parties with a difference” to be correct, I would side with King on the issue of voting and politics: don’t legitimize the system by taking part in it.

Mises.org carried a few pieces on/by Chodorov in December. Like this one

Admitting that there is no difference in the political philosophies of the contending candidates, should I not choose the “lesser of two evils?” But, which of the two qualifies? If my man prevails, then those who voted against him are loaded down with the “greater evil,” while if my man loses, then it is they who have chosen the “lesser evil.” Voting for the “lesser of two evils” makes no sense, for it is only a matter of opinion as to which is the lesser. Usually, such a decision is based on prejudice, not on principle. Besides, why should I compromise with evil?

If I were to vote for the “lesser of two evils” I would in fact be subscribing to whatever that “evil” does in office. He could claim a mandate for his official acts, a sort of blank check, with my signature, into which he could enter his performances. My vote is indeed a moral sanction, upon which the official depends for support of his acts, and without which he would feel rather naked.

In a democracy the acquiescence of the citizenry is necessary for the operation of the State, and a large vote is a prelude for such acquiescence. Even in a totalitarian state the dictators feel it necessary to hold elections once in a while, just to assure themselves and others of the validity of their rule; though the voting is compulsory and the ballot is one-sided, they can point to the large percentage of the electorate who underwrite their rule. In a free election, even though the difference between the candidates is a matter of personality, or between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the successful candidate (though he might be the “lesser of two evils”) can similarly maintain that he holds a mandate from the people. It is to the credit of a democracy that I can choose not to vote. I am not compelled to give my moral support to an evil.

and this

I see no good reason for voting and have refrained from doing so for about a half century. During that time, my more conscientious compatriots (including, principally, the professional politicians and their ward heelers) have conveniently provided me with presidents and with governments. … They have put the nation into two major wars and a number of minor ones. Regardless of what party was in power, the taxes have increased and so did the size of the bureaucracy. Laws have been passed, a whole library of them, and most of these laws, since they are not self-enforcing, have called for enforcement agencies, who have interminably interpreted the laws which created them and thus have spawned more laws. The effect of these laws is (a) to put restraints on the individual and (b) to concentrate in the hands of the central government all the powers that once were assigned to local government; the states are now little more than administrative units of the national government. Political power has increased, social power has waned. Would it have been different if I had voted? I don’t think so.…

and, finally, this

Frank Chodorov always cautioned those who expressed an interest in his education strategy that it would be pointless to expect wide public acceptance of such educational efforts. “The average person,” he wrote, “is not the least bit interested in any ideology, being content to get along as best he can under any conditions imposed on him.” The fundamental obstacle to the achievement of a free society, in fact, was the simple truism that “very few know what freedom is and … still fewer want it.”

Chodorov was convinced that

When people want freedom they will get it. When the desire of the business man for “free enterprise” is so strong that he will risk bankruptcy for it, he cannot be denied. When youth prefers prison to the barracks, when a job in the bureaucracy is considered leprous, when the tax-collector is stamped a legalized thief, when handouts from the politician are contemptuously rejected, when work on a government project is considered degrading, when, in short, the State is recognized to be the enemy of society, then only will freedom come, and the citadel of Power collapse.

Looking around him and looking back from the perspective of seven decades of living, learning, and teaching, Chodorov concluded that most people are “unprepared for freedom [and] incapable of understanding what it is.”


* [My post contains his essay in full. And his web site has moved.]

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