Voting is a Lousy Way To Express Yourself

The progressive message is "vote or you have no voice."

By now we’re used to MSNBC’s adoration of government, expressed not only on its programs but also through in-house promotions.

These are often heavy-handed, such as Rachel Maddow’s spots asserting that only governments can accomplish “great things.” Sometimes, however, the promos are more subtle, such as one currently running. Voiced by prime-time All In host Chris Hayes, the spot shows a series of colorful shower curtains backed by a sappily whistled tune; the final curtain turns out to be not for a shower but for a voting booth — at which point Hayes says, "In America there are many ways to express yourself, but only one that counts. Speak out."

The message: vote or you have no voice.

Intended or not, no message could more effectively instill passivity toward the ruling elite and the status quo. As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

In year six of Barack Obama, is it necessary to say this?

Note the irony of the MSNBC message. Of all the ways to express oneself, voting is the way that counts least! Candidates typically hold a grab bag of vaguely stated positions (implied promises, actually), often contradictory, that they may not really believe or ever attempt to keep. Campaigns are merely theatrical productions designed to make various constituencies feel good. Voting thus conveys no clear message at all.

Then there’s the arithmetic of voting. Except in the tiniest jurisdictions, the chance of an election-day tie is far smaller than the chance of being hit by lightning on the way to the polls. It matters not at all what any individual voter does. The odds are that no election in your lifetime would have been different had you done something other than what you did that day — including staying home. One vote is like one drop in the ocean: inconsequential.

Some will say in response, But what if everyone thinks like that? This misses the point. No one is waiting to see what you do on election day. The rest of the country will do whatever it’s going to do — no matter what you do. (But if everyone did stay home on election day, think of the message that would send!) You control only yourself, and you undertake actions only when you believe they have a good chance of effecting consequences that matter. Otherwise you don’t act.

If your voting can’t determine the outcome of an election, attempting to determine it is a poor reason to vote. Plus, it takes time and money (for gasoline) that could have gone to something that would have actually made a difference.

Observe that I ruled out only one reason for voting: to determine the result. My argument says nothing about other motivations, such as feeling good or identifying with a particular community or getting a sticker to display to your co-workers.

The point is that casting a vote is hardly a way to express oneself that counts. It’s a really poor way to “speak out.”

This all has deep implications for the political system. Since the individual act of voting has no practical consequences  — even if one’s preferred candidate should win, one would pay only a tiny percentage of any resulting expense; most of the burden would fall on others — the system encourages irresponsibility. An individual voter is like a toddler in a car seat with a pretend steering wheel. Under these circumstances, most people have zero incentive to undertake the considerable effort and expense it would require to become seriously informed. It would mean, not only learning about the candidates, but also studying economics (among other disciplines) in order to judge the candidates’ promises. The overwhelming majority of people are too busy making a living and caring for their families, or otherwise disinclined, to invest so many hours and dollars for so little benefit. That is why people, who are constantly urged to vote, know so little about the political system or the raging controversies.

The “informed voter” is thus a chimera. Since people can’t vote on the basis of serious knowledge, they vote on superficial bases, such as how candidates make them feel about themselves or how well candidates conform to long-held, unexamined irrational biases. (I must put in a plug for Bryan Caplan’s excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.)

Compare this systemic irresponsibility with the responsibility people routinely exercise in the marketplace and the rest of civil society, venues where their choices and actions really matter because they expect to reap the benefits and pay the costs.

In this light, sacralizing voting looks like a cruel joke, a costly distraction if we value liberty and justice. Benjamin Constant, the early nineteenth-century French (though Swiss-born) classical liberal, would call it a manifestation of the ancients’ mentality. Progressives like Hayes may think they are ultramodern in their thinking, but Constant shows otherwise.

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  • Pompey||

    That was an extremely interesting read. Thank you.

  • Lou Dobz||

    It matters not at all what any individual voter does. One vote is like one drop in the ocean: inconsequential.

    That's right. All the individual drops together do not add up to an ocean. The ocean is illusory. It's inconsequential. DO NOT SWIM IN THE OCEAN.

  • Agammamon||

    Well, not in Imperial Beach when the Mexican sewage plant overruns - oh wait, were you trying for some sort of metaphor?

  • Lou Dobz||

    If nobody votes, nobody can win.
    Because winning -- unlike voting, which is illusory -- is real!

  • Free Society||

    No. His argument merely points out the logical fallacy in the "every vote counts" argument that whooshed over your head.

  • Ted S.||

    Lewd Obbs is, I think, a sock puppet for somebody. Murkin?

  • playa manhattan||


  • pmains||

    Quick. Say it three times into a mirror and she will leave you dozens of insane voicemails.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    In defense of the crazy lady, before her post I was unaware that drops of water chose, acted according to their complex individual nature, or had subjective internal states that we typically describe as a psyche.

    Or maybe I misunderstand her meaning. Maybe she's a philosophical zombie without any subjective emotions, thoughts, or knowledge of the phenomenal world that at least some of the rest of us inhabit. That would explain why she believes there's no difference between human beings and drops of water or why an abstraction like "society" is just a word without real meaning in comparison to "Agammamon" or "Nick Gillespie."

  • OneOut||

    Hey Barney.

  • OneOut||

    One of LBJ's earliest state wide elections was won by one vote. Many claim it was a stolen vote as well.

    Ask any Vietnam vet if that one vote how that one vote election changed history.

  • db||

    ... and banning peaceful uses of the ideas in their heads through intellectual-property laws.

    I think this misrepresents IP protection. Setting aside the way IP law of large interests, the.concept of it is to allow people to exclusively benefit from the product of their own thought and labor for an arbitrary time, meant to encourage them to put such effort into creative thought and labor.

    IP protection is inaccurately trashed by those who see the effects of the.warping of its original intent. Why should individual creators with limited r3sources be prey to parasites who would.steal their thought and the form of their ideas, plans, writings, and compositions by reproducing them and reselling without compensating the creator?

    If I put years life into developing a better chemical process for production.of, say, a fuel, why shoukd.I.have to worry.about someone else coming along once.I.have.taken, and duplicating it knowledge or consent, or.without.compenasating me?

    Often, opponents of IP protection forget that IP works favor.of (in its warped, lobby-crafted form), but against such large.concerns that would, absent such protection, benefit.from individhals' creativity witout.paying just.compensation.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "Often, opponents of IP protection forget that IP works favor.of (in its warped, lobby-crafted form), but against such large.concerns that would, absent such protection, benefit.from individhals' creativity witout.paying just.compensation."

    Yes, it is a similar logic to Tony's assertion that the enforcement of property rights only benefit the wealthy, because the wealthy have more property to protect than the poor.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    Richman is intriguing as always and remains one of our most eloquent and thoughtful voices.

    I've torn through plenty of classical liberal and paleolibertarian texts, but I was unfamiliar with Constant until this article. His skill in capturing the distinction between individualistic, "human action" liberalism and what has become a collectivist, rights-denying liberalism is an impressive thing to behold.

    For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims. Finally it is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.
  • Satyrical||

    Id say that peoples actions in the marketplace are exactly as ineffectual as their actions in the voting booth, and for the same reason: your measley dollar is nothing but a drop in the ocean compared to total corporate profits.

    The simple and unfortunate fact is that these systems are so large and entrenched that any one mans actions WITHIN that system are meaningless. Which means you have to act EXTERNAL to the system to change it, which sadly is becoming more and more impossible to do through any method but outright violence. Which is exactly why violence is so strongly indoctrinated into us as "bad" our entire lives. The system doesnt want us to get any bright ideas about actually changing it.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    Your actions in the marketplace get you precisely what you desire of all the available options. Your actions in the voting booth are irrelevant.

    It's the difference between going to the movies and choosing which of two dozen films you want to see that night or being forced to watch a single movie that was chosen democratically or by a democratically elected representative.

  • Lou Dobz||

    "Your actions in the voting booth are irrelevant."

    Classic example of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  • LynchPin1477||

    I disagree. Markets aren't monolithic. They are made up of many smaller markets and sub-markets, which you can break down all the way to the level of individual transactions. That is important for two reasons: 1) even relatively small customer bases may find businesses catering to their preferences, and 2) as Richman points out, individuals bear the costs and reap the rewards in markets. So even if your actions don't have a big influence on prices or corporate policy, those actions are still hugely consequential for you. And chances are, you can find a business with a policy that you support if you look hard enough.

    And not only that, because markets aren't monolithic individual businesses can and do fail. Change is happening all the time, no violence necessary.

  • prolefeed||

    Id say that peoples actions in the marketplace are exactly as ineffectual as their actions in the voting booth, and for the same reason: your measley dollar is nothing but a drop in the ocean compared to total corporate profits.

    You're thinking of an individual action in collectivist terms.

    When I bought my Toyota Avalon a couple years ago, I got the car I wanted at the price I thought was a good deal.

    Your contention is that my purchase did not substantially change Toyota's behavior, which is doubly true since I bought it used. This is true, but so fucking what? I got the car I wanted, and I couldn't care less whether this changed the future behavior of a company 5,000 miles away.

    Compare this to voting -- I get nothing from the deal. In fact, I'm worse off, because voting requires telling some governments I loathe where I live so they can harass me with jury notices and car registration demands and whatnot.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    The contention *may* be that no, you didn't get the car you wanted, you only got the closest approximation available to what you would have wanted had you been able to design it yourself. Perhaps you would rather have had one inch more legroom in the back seats, or sightly different looks, or different gear rations, etc.

    But that is a false worry, if that is what he meant. Nothing we chose is exactly what we would have designed ourselves -- not the foods nature makes available, or custom houses which still havto obey the laws of physics and what materials are available, nothing.

  • prolefeed||

    The Toyota engineers did a surprisingly good job of coming up with a series of compromises that fit what I would have designed myself.

    I mean, the biggest complaint I have about the car is that if you put it on cruise control, it periodically revs the crap out of the engine when climbing hills or accelerating, which is totally First World Problem territory.

  • Tony||

    And you don't even have to share it with 350 million people.

  • playa manhattan||

    If I designed the car myself, it wouldn't work. I'm totally happy with my swagger wagon.

  • KWebb||

    Id say that peoples actions in the marketplace are exactly as ineffectual as their actions in the voting booth, and for the same reason: your measley dollar is nothing but a drop in the ocean compared to total corporate profits.

    If I want to change congressmen, I wait two years, change my vote, and still end up with the same guy because a few hundred thousand people still like him.

    If I want to change just about any of the goods or services I buy, I immediately change them by going to a competitor.

  • Tony||

    But there's always going to be a congressman! What is your point? Is it just to whine?

  • Ballz||

    "But there's always going to be a congressman! What is your point? Is it just to whine?"

    But there's always going to be an ineffectual asshole congressman!

    You confirm his point, T.

  • Acosmist||

    Except competition means that if a corporation pisses me, one guy, off, it's also pissing off thousands, maybe millions, of others, and a competitor will cater to us and take market share from the other guy.

    Unless you're trying to argue that all markets are monopolized.

  • eyeroller||

    If the libertarians tell each other "voting is not important," and the left-wingers and right-wingers tell each other "voting is VERY important," what effect do you think that will have?

  • Lou Dobz||

    As Emma Goldman said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

    Hey Emma, Math is fun!

  • Pelosi's Rabbit||

    It is. You should learn some.

  • LynchPin1477||

    This is a timely article for me, as I just finished Starship Troopers, with its vision of a society based on limited franchise. So I've been thinking a lot about voting and how that fits into the larger picture of liberty.

    Richman is spot on that voting isn't the only, or even necessarily the best, way to make our voice heard. Still, I can't say I agree with his dismissal of the "What if everyone else thought like that?" argument. In our political system, a strong enough turnout for a third party would have the potential to be very influential, given the way that campaign laws and traditions are based in-part on voter turnout. So even if all libertarians in the country voted, it might not result in victory for libertarian candidates, but if that stopped us from voting at all, it would guarantee that libertarian voices would have a much harder time being heard.

    And in alternative systems, like proportional representation, individual votes can have a much larger influence on the outcome relative to our own system. So voting, both within the practical confines of the U.S. system and in a more abstract sense, isn't something to be dismissed so lightly, even if you are only looking at how it influences election outcomes.

  • Rich||

    vision of a society based on limited franchise.

    It's fascinating how "our society" is so conflicted on this. We're told how vitally important voting is, how it has the power to change everything, how fundamental it is to our citizenship.

    Now, consider how that supreme action is treated when compared to the "duty" to serve on a jury, the "right" to keep and bear arms, the "privilege" to drive a car. Each of these three supposedly-lesser actions is severely restricted via massive regulation.

    Obviously, Emma Goldman's statement is correct.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Ah but in the mind of the progressive, the "lesser" right can be restricted precisely because voting is open to everyone. You had your chance to convince everyone to do things your way, we voted, so now accept the will of the people. Democracy is a justification in and of itself. This is pretty much exactly what certain frequent commenters here have asserted.

  • Tony||

    The more important rights are regulated less... what's wrong about that? What would be fucked up is arguing to heavily regulate voting but lightly regulate, say, corporate power. Now who could possibly be for something like that?

  • WTF||

    I see 'Tony' is corpse-fucking a dead thread to get in the last word. What a pathetic idiot.

  • Lou Dobz||

  • Rich||

    An individual voter is like a toddler in a car seat with a pretend steering wheel.

    Nice. Bumper sticker?

  • Lou Dobz||

    That's right, because, as everyone knows, all the individual votes for Barack Obama put Mitt Romney in the White House.

  • Free Society||


  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    You kinda missed the point. Reread.

  • Tony||

    (The point was that it's bad that Obama got in the White House, ergo fuck voting.)

  • Ballz||

    Romney sucked, Obama sucks. Stop whining.

  • Free Society||

    A philosophical indictment of the immorality of voting can hardly be reduced to a simple rejection of Obama. But that is the progressive narrative of every ideological disagreement for the last 5 or so years, so I can't expect you not to use it, Tony.

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    That is one sweet line I WILL be a stealin'....

  • RishJoMo||

    Joe Johnson looked up from his cup of Joe and said no way man.

  • Sheldon Richman||

    You might want to read the whole thing before commenting.

  • Sheldon Richman||

    This is for Lou Dobz.

  • Sheldon Richman||

    See paragraph 8.Thanks

  • Zeb||

    I very much doubt that the "Lou Dobz" commenter is interested in learning anything here.

  • Lou Dobz||

    The anarcho-nihilist fringe of libertarianism seems to believe that election results just happen, somehow, and that the sum of all the individual votes are unrelated to the outcome. One may just as well insist that a pot of pea soup is wholly undetermined by -- and independent of -- the individuals peas in the pot. It's sophistry most primitive.

  • prolefeed||

    I'm part of the anarchist wing of libertarianism -- hardly the fringe, though likely a minority of self-identified libertarians.

    I ran for office. I fucking well know how elections work. And yet, I've come to the conclusion that as an individual, I have better ways of enhancing my happiness with the most scarce resource in the universe -- the finite time I have left to live -- then choosing between a bunch of people to rule over me, almost all of whom I find loathsome.

  • playa manhattan||

  • prolefeed||

    Naw, but that is some awesome level of tweaked out.

    You wanna envision me, think of a kind of accidentally hipster-ish looking guy with long shaggy hair, a scruffy starter beard, a wry amused expression, and a cute young chubby Vietnamese girlfriend on his arm.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    And yet, I've come to the conclusion that as an individual, I have better ways of enhancing my happiness with the most scarce resource in the universe -- the finite time I have left to live -- then choosing between a bunch of people to rule over me, almost all of whom I find loathsome.

    Shorten it a little and add something about Aristotelian flourishing, and we'll have the voluntaryist credo.

  • Tony||

    You can't skip 10 minutes of jackoff time to exercise civic responsibility? Is getting on the internet and whining about how your government doesn't do what you want included in that precious limited time of happiness?

  • WTF||

    Or maybe he doesn't want to imply acceptance of the legitimacy of the results by participating in the process, corpse-fucker.

  • rudolf a van balen||

    Well put!

  • Pope Jimbo||

    I still vote in every election. However, I will only vote for someone I like. All the other races I leave blank.

    I once simply walked directly from where I picked up my ballot to where you drop them off and turned it in without voting for anyone. The lady who monitored the tabulator machine was freaked out. She kept trying to tell me I had to go to a booth to mark my candidates. I kept trying to tell her that there was no one I could vote for.

    My dream is that this will catch on and that there will be races where "no vote recorded" gets more votes than either candidate.

  • Rich||

    Right on.

    Further, make it explicit: "None of the above" should be a legitimate choice, and if it gets the most votes no one fills that office. Of course, existing procedures may result in someone filling in, but those could be changed.

  • Zeb||

    I usually write my own name in when there is no candidate I like.

  • Free Society||

    I only vote for people who either are, or are vocal advocates of my ethnic group. But I'm not a racist because that leads me invariably to the Democratic Party. /derp

  • LynchPin1477||

    That's a good idea. I would really love to see a "None of the above" option on all ballots.

  • LynchPin1477||

    And now I read Rich's comment.

  • HowRudeIsThat||

    Thanks for this wonderful, well-reasoned and very informative post. But I do have one question: do we even need to argue the importance of voting, when the other side of their argument (the idea that nothing matters more) is so easily taken down? Their ability to influence thousands (maybe millions) of progressive votes "expressing themselves" with their microphones at MSNBC is perfect evidence that other forms of self-expression do, in fact, carry a lot more weight than a single vote.

  • ~Knarf Yenrab~||

    That's my perspective as well.

    If you've got money or political pull--either as a public intellectual, a columnist, or a financier of well-known political or pop-culture publications--then it makes sense to use your position to influence the tens of thousands of votes that might conceivably make a difference. It makes a lot of sense for Bill Clinton to use the bully pulpit of the former presidency to influence voters to come out; it makes little sense for him to actually cast a ballot himself, outside of the symbolic value (and the propaganda value/damage).

    Whether MSNBC and the prepubescent Chris Hayes have the power to inspire a sufficient number of otherwise non-voters in their audience to vote is, uh, dubious.

  • Sugarsail||

    The progressives do want a vote for a state religion; that religion is earth-worshiping environmentalism. Why do you think they hate competing religions when they see them? When you recognize what religion is you'll realize we not only already have a state religion but the EPA is its church.

  • Tony||

    Do you think all of the environmental harm in this country is accounted for, paid for, and rectified? No? Then, do you think that people are entitled to despoil the earth, even the property of others, for free? Otherwise, it's hard to argue that too much is being done for the environment.

  • wwhorton||

    The environment as an abstraction, and the EPA as a federal agency charged with its protection, is a sham. It does nothing and costs time and revenue, as well as imposing undue harm on the liberties of individuals and businesses.

    Specific damages can be argued, and I fully support that. I live on the Chesapeake Bay, and it has become so toxic that swimming in it isn't recommended, and pregnant women are warned against eating fish caught in it. Some of that is runoff along the shores, but a lot of that is pollution in the watershed north of the bay, in PA. They've devoted absolutely squat in regards to preventing further damage. Show me a governmental agency that can effectively prosecute offenders in that regard and I'd be willing to listen. To date, no effort by the various "environmental" agencies at the federal or state levels have made any headway. It's simply not a priority, despite their claims.

  • Mickey Rat||

    In terms of no fetishizing democracy, i.e. a governmental policy is just because it was arrived at democratically. On the other hand, to the extent that governmental policies have to be decided in some fashion, are not democratic the least objectionable method, and therefore participation is a good even if the individual's influence is barely perceptible. Otherwise, the objection seems to that each individual cannot be a dictator.

  • Tony||

    Rachel Maddow’s spots asserting that only governments can accomplish “great things.”

    There are some great things only governments can accomplish is a more honest way of paraphrasing.

    What cynical drivel. Admittedly, individual votes don't count for much, but given that it's the only known fair way of collective decision-making, that's a trivial observation. While you're up in the magic world of theory in the sky, in the real world the only practical reason to advocate for low turnout among voters is to help the party that benefits from a low turnout. It will still govern, it will still abuse individual rights, it will just do so with less of an imprimatur from the governed. This is just the whine of people who don't often get their way. I find it disturbing to imagine what alternatives you have in mind in order to do so.

  • Vulgar Madman||

    Someday soon your god is gonna fall.
    I recommend barbiturates and alcohol.

  • Obbop||

    Far too complicated to back my belief so a simple declaration: voting my function at the local level but at the state and especially at the federal level... voting is a farce to convince the masses that they actually have a say in the workings of the political process and the many bureaucracies created by government.

    The USA has been in the throes of class warfare from its conception and around 2972 that war increased in intensity.

    We, the People, are losing that war... badly.

  • Rhywun||

    "But if everyone did stay home on election day, think of the message that would send!"

    I dunno, but 75% can stay home and the "winner" will still spin it into a "mandate". Ask Bill De Blasio.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    This AnCap thinks that there's nothing wrong with spending a few minutes to vote. Might even do some good. Most libertarians don't really do anything to advance the cause of liberty. Of course, there are things much, much, MUCH more effective than voting. Direct action is where it's at. Close your bank account and starve the Fed. Video a cop. Buy gold/silver/bitcoin. Evade, er, I mean avoid taxes by using trusts, being self employed, etc. Talk with young people of military age about NOT joining the military. Homeschool. Any of these are better than voting.

  • SQRLSY One||

    “Close your bank account and starve the Fed. Video a cop. …” How about, SHOOT a cop or two or twenty!?!? When they are out and about, shooting people and their dogs because some people DARE to believe that their bodies belong to THEM and not to Government Almighty!!??! Time now, or VERY soon, to give the piggly-wigglies a taste of their own medicine… VOTE?!?!?! THAT is gonna change things, more than shooting 10 or twenty pigs?!?! What planet do the vote-worshippers live on, anyway?

  • wwhorton||

    I sympathize with your point, and I mostly agree. I think I saw it referred to--on this site, probably--as "Irish democracy." Essentially, ignoring the state and going about your business delegitimizes the state's authority.

    Voting in local elections is mathematically the best bet, but then you expose yourself to the incredible corruption and voter ignorance of your neighbors. I speak here from experience as someone who worked with a neighbor's recent city council campaign.

    I'm willing to vote, partly for shits and grins, but I'm mostly interested in trying to change the culture as best I can. Trying to get people interested in economics, talking to people about the moral aspects of state authority and individual liberty, and just not engaging with the state to the best of my ability seems to be a better use of my time.

  • EWM||

    Voters attempt to impose on others. Therefore, voters are evil.


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