On Voting, Dissent, Violence, and the Path to Freedom

G. Stolyarov II
November 9, 2008
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Here, I will argue that voting for a coercive policy or a candidate who advocates such a policy, while it is a wrong and ethically undesirable action, is not itself a coercive one and thus should not be stopped by the use of force.

In his response to my video, “Why I Voted for a Third-Party Candidate and Why You Should, Too,” Mr. Kyrel Zantonavitch expressed agreement with many of my positions and disagreement with some. He wrote, for instance, “It’s nice to see someone who doesn’t embrace that amoral, unprincipled, intellectually-confused-and-befogged ‘Don’t throw your vote away!’ nonsense. Anyone who votes Republican or Democrat is truly throwing his vote away in my view – and doing something profoundly evil as well.” I certainly concur with every idea in that quotation, with the exception that throwing one’s vote away is an evil action. Actions as such cannot be evil, in my view, although they can be wrong. People can be evil for performing certain kinds of wrong actions or a preponderance of wrong actions. I explain the threefold distinction among ideas as true or false, actions as right or wrong, and people as good or evil in an earlier video.

To phrase Mr. Zantonavitch’s position in terms of my distinction, he seems to argue that people who vote Republican or Democrat are evil because they committed the wrong action of voting Republican or Democrat. To be sure, some people who vote either way are indeed evil. But I do not think that this action alone oversteps the threshold from simple error (even systematic or unthinking error) and evil.

Many people, for instance, vote Republican because they cling to the false but seemingly unquenchable hope that maybe, this one time the Republican Party will adhere to its stated principles and begin to limit the scope and power of government. Others might vote Democratic because they oppose the interventionist foreign policy or the wasteful deficit spending of the Bush administration and think that a Democrat in office might reverse or moderate these tendencies. This, too, is likely a vain hope, but the motivation behind either vote is benevolent and could be held by an individual who opposes government coercion and wishes to see it reduced. Of course, I believe that the means used to pursue such noble ends are completely inadequate and often counterproductive for the fulfillment of such ends. But it is entirely possible for a person to be pursuing good ends using counterproductive means in ignorance and without sufficient access to information to enable us to say that he should have known better. This is not evil; it is simply honest error – “sheer ignorance,” to use a term from Israel Kirzner. To dispel such ignorance, what is needed is the dissemination of accurate information and persistent efforts at persuasion – not condemnation, which tends to alienate precisely the people whose mindsets one wishes to change.

Mr. Zantonavitch writes of my argument: “You make an interesting point that if either the Republicans or Democrats were slightly pro-freedom, at least relative to the status quo, that you would then possibly vote for them. You hold this out to the two major parties as a kind of ‘carrot’ to motivate them to change their ways. This is a reasonable and plausible argument, but I disagree a bit anyway. Possibly I’m more radical than you (or anyone! ;) ). I personally would only vote for a person I think genuinely represents my views, and is objectively proper and virtuous. Being relatively morally good isn’t good enough for me. I’d feel sick and polluted inside to cast my vote for even comparative or “soft” tyranny.“

I think that it is necessary here to distinguish between the intentions of candidates for office and the effects that their actions would bring about. Here, I would like to make the tremendously important and often overlooked claim, that I will for the sake of conciseness call Stolyarov’s Condition for Liberty.

Stolyarov’s Condition for Liberty: If the growth of government power in all areas can be sustainably reversed or at least sustainably halted, then a complete laissez-faire society will inevitably ensue in the future.

The reason why I consider this a valid prediction is that human creativity continues to result in ever more technologies that improve people’s lives and give them opportunities outside the statist system. The phenomenal market-based innovation that characterizes our time continues despite tremendous and growing levels of government intervention. However, history has also shown that, past a certain threshold of interventionism, the government swallows up the entire private sector and begins to make it close to impossible for successful technological and economic innovations to take hold. Isolated inventors and tinkerers still exist, as they did in premodern China, but their creations remain mere occasionally encountered curiosities without a vibrant free market to facilitate their mass use.

If the growth of government can be halted or reversed, however, then we are guaranteed that current levels of innovation will continue and accelerate. As individuals obtain better technologies and higher standards of living as a result, they will find that they need government less. This is already happening to a great extent with the Internet, as my essay, “Liberation by Internet: How Technology Destroys Tyranny,” demonstrates. Thus, with a more vibrant and growing free market, people will begin to demand cutbacks in the government’s role far beyond what any politician who was for slightly limiting government might have advocated. By freezing the growth of government, such a politician might set the stage for a cascade of liberalizations that he did not intend but would be powerless to stop.

As someone who cares foremost about the reality of the situation, I would support any politician who can viably promise to produce a situation less oppressive than the status quo. However, this is still a substantial requirement on politicians, because it implies that they must not expand government power in any realm; expanding it in some while contracting it in others will not do. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party of our time fail miserably in meeting the prerequisite of Stolyarov’s Condition for Liberty. However, if a politician meets this requirement, gets elected, and actually implements his platform, then we will have laissez-faire eventually. The question then becomes one of how soon we would get it, and whether other approaches might bring it about faster.

Mr. Zantonavtich furthermore writes that “it may be worth noting that if it were possible for me to defeat tyranny by physically hurting people who vote Republican or Democratic, I would do just that.” Here, I must disagree. But first, I will state that I do not believe it to be possible to defeat tyranny in this manner. By using violence against large numbers of people based on their ideological affiliation, one only galvanizes their resistance and leaves them with no option but to violently fight back. The result would be open civil war on the basis of ideology – the bloodiest and most damaging kind of outcome conceivable. The more limited kinds of oppression and coercion that exist under today’s political systems in the West pale in comparison to the ruthlessness and savagery that ideological civil wars, fought over any cause, bring about. Any attempt to fight tyranny with violence against large groups of people will only exacerbate the ruthlessness and arbitrariness of tyranny – as an armed gang of rapists that ransack the countryside and brutalize its inhabitants during a war is far more tyrannical than any McCain or Obama would dream of being.

Moreover, even if it were possible to defeat tyranny in this manner, the means itself would not be morally legitimate. Voting is not itself a coercive action. It is simply a formal and public manifestation of preference – much as publishing a book or article advocating a certain policy or outcome would be. It is true that government officials often (though not always) consider themselves bound by the consequences of a vote, but it is also true that government officials often consider themselves bound by the ideas expressed by mistaken philosophers, such as Hegel or Marx. Does this mean that Hegel or Marx should have been forcibly prevented from publishing their works? Of course not; to advocate such censorship would be to implement the very tyranny which one opposes. To prevent a non-coercive action with coercion is to violate the fundamental premises behind a free society.

Mr. Zantonavitch writes: “As I see it, you can’t properly or morally give the Adolph Eichmann excuse of ‘just doing my job,’ ‘just following orders,’ ‘just going along with the system,’ ‘just doing what everyone else is doing,’ ‘not my fault — the world or the system is guilty,’ etc. I mean: What about serving jury duty and being deputized, or being a police officer or soldier? Is serving and advancing tyranny also in order here, and not your responsibility or fault? Just how innocent should these seeming totalitarian-facilitators and -enablers be judged?” While I certainly agree that voting for tyranny, especially when the outcome voted for is obviously tyrannical, is an unethical and wrong act, this does not make such an act coercive or akin to being an agent of the government.
I address the instances Mr. Zantonavitch cites.

Being selected to serve on a jury is actually an opportunity to correct some of the injustices of government by, for instance, refusing to convict an individual who is guilty of violating an unjust law, or insisting on the conviction and harsh punishment of an obvious rapist and/or murderer for whom an “insanity defense” has been made. If I were in either of these positions, I might not broadcast my intentions openly, but I would use every means in my power to bring about a more just outcome than would have existed without me.

With regard to being forced to serve in the police or the army, it is of course desirable to evade such service whenever one can safely do so. However, even if one cannot do this, it is possible to still not commit breaches of justice as a soldier or police officer, provided that one adheres to the criteria I outline in “How to Approach Unjust Laws”: “obeying unjust laws is acceptable when it only implies carrying a personal burden, but not when it actively aids and effectuates the injustice.“ When one is required by one’s governmentally imposed “duty” to actively hurt any other innocent person, then one would act immorally if one actually did this. Thus, if I were drafted into the police force and were simply asked to patrol the streets and catch muggers and thieves, I would not commit an injustice by carrying out these instructions. However, if I were required to catch and punish non-dangerous speeders who exceeded ridiculously and intentionally low speed limits, then I would be committing a wrong action by complying.

Likewise, a drafted soldier who kills thugs and dictators is not committing an injustice, but one who kills innocent people or punishes guilty people disproportionately is indeed personally responsible for his actions and should be penalized according to the magnitude of his violations of individual rights.

Even if a vote for a coercive policy or a candidate who wishes to impose such a policy is successful, there are still ways to prevent any actual harm from being done. The officials in charge of implementing the policy (including the candidate who was elected on such a platform) are metaphysically free to refuse to comply with the vote. If they do not do this and implement the policy, then they and not the voters are directly responsible for the harms that ensue.  

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.