Elections are two days away. Midterm elections in the United States are sometimes ho-hum, but the 2006 election wasn’t, and neither will be 2010. Both are referendums on how a party holding the presidency and both houses of Congress has performed. And in both cases, the voters are disgusted.
This is a good time to reflect a bit on voting and what it means. Rousseau argued that government ought to reflect the general will of the people, and seemed to think that there is something sacred in this. This is nonsense – the being in the majority is no guarantee that one is right. Or as the great science fiction author Robert Heinlein put it, “Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something.”
On the other hand, Ludwig von Mises pointed out that the real reason why democratic elections are the preferred method for choosing government leaders isn’t that it results in the “right” decision, but rather that no government can last forever if the great majority oppose it; sooner or later they’ll arise and change it. Democratic elections allow us to do this peacefully, without bloodshed, without going for each throats in a literal sense. It’s for this reason we ought to value democratic elections, not because they give us good government (something they don’t do).
America elections seem to be relatively clean, despite all our handwringing over money and negative ads and such. (Our campaign spending is actually unimportant, as this fascinating little interview with Steven Dubner by “On the Media” shows.) I believe enough in all this that I even served as an election judge in Montana.
As some readers might know, I lived in Ukraine for a few years, and saw firsthand what it's like when a presidential election is rigged (Leonid Kuchma's 1999 re-election). It's depressing and scary. I also lived in Russia, and while I didn't see an election there, I follow them, and they are entirely rigged. I also lived a short time in China, where there are no elections at all. I also have friends in Belarus, and have discussed presidential elections there with them. Opposing the winner (Alexander Lukashenko) or complaining too loudly about the rigged votes can be fatal if the KGB finds out. After returning to the U.S., I took training as an election judge, because the difference between a fair and a rigged election is enormous. Believe me, the U.S. system is far preferable to any real-world alternative, and I admire it, flawed though it may be.
I do not think anyone has a duty to vote, and I do think those who are not informed or do not care should recuse themselves. But for those of us who care and are informed, I think voting is an important civic service. Elections as ways of choosing leaders have all sorts of flaws, I admit, but they beat the alternatives. And fair, honest elections are extremely important. When I worked in the polling place as an election judge, I was extremely impressed by how seriously my fellow judges, as well as the county bureaucrats organizing things, took this job, and also by the serious attitudes that voters tended to express when they talked to us. This, much more than any particular election outcome, struck me as a very good and hopeful thing that makes America different from other countries. So long as people deeply care about how the country works, and so long as they remain committed to individual rights and fairness, bad politicians will not be able to ruin us.
So what about this election? Those who do not want to vote should not vote, and shouldn’t feel guilty about it. The old saw "if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain” is nonsense. The right to speak freely is one of our inherent and inalienable rights that comes from self-ownership; one's right to speak is not contingent on whether one casts a vote. For that matter, not voting is an expression of an opinion, and a perfectly legitimate one. For those who do vote, I encourage you to ask yourself the following before casting a ballot on any office or proposition: how will this candidate or this proposition influence individual liberty? Robert Heinlein again:
“Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”
May your votes put you clearly into the latter side of the divide.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.