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.