Why Mandatory Voting Is a Bad Idea
Freedom means the right to ignore the state and live peacefully.
President Obama thinks that forcing us to vote might be a good idea. That he could favor punishing people for not voting—which means taking their money by force and imprisoning them if they resist—is unsurprising. The essence of government is violence—aggressive, not defensive, force. Government is not usually described in such unrefined terms, but consider its most basic power: taxation. If you can't refuse the tax collector with impunity, you are a victim of robbery. It doesn't matter that government claims to render "services" if you don't want them.
Most of us learn young that violence is wrong except in defense of self or other innocent life. To those who say society without government would be problematic, I reply that most of us also learn that even a good end cannot justify a bad means. Besides, most of the ills that government "protects" us from—such as economic distress and terrorism—result from its own policies.
Aside from the violence inherent in the system, mandatory voting has conceptual problems. Enthusiasts of modern government often say that voting is a right—the most sacred right in some people's eyes. [More sacred than the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?] It's also said to be a duty. Can it be both?
Having a right means you may freely decide to take—or not take—an action without forcible interference by anyone else, including people in the government. Your right to the car you bought signifies that you are free to use it peacefully, or not use it at all. It makes no sense to say that your right to your car obligates you to use it or face punishment. Anyone who talks that way simply does not understand what a right is. A right, then, differs from an enforceable duty.
The story is the same with voting. If one has a right to vote, the idea of making the exercise of that right mandatory is absurd. No matter how many good consequences Obama dubiously foresees from compulsory voting, they can't change the fact that forcing people to exercise a right makes no sense. It's a sad commentary that he is not ridiculed widely for his suggestion.
If voting is a right, it can't be a duty, and if it's a duty, it can't a right. Perhaps it's neither.
I've assumed people have a right to vote, but let's not be too hasty. It's an odd right, indeed, because it entails participation in the process by which government officials are chosen. But as we've already established, government's essence is aggressive violence. Can you have a right to participate in what would be condemned as a criminal operation if it were run "privately"? Can you have a right to help determine who will govern others against their will?
If for the sake of argument we concede the right to participate in the political system, shouldn't we have to acknowledge the corollary right not to participate? I don't mean just the right not to vote, but the right to opt out of government altogether—voting, taxation, war, regulation. Yet government does not let us theoretically free people opt out of individual programs (try opting out of the Mideast wars or Social Security), much less across the board.
In other words, no matter how often we're told that the government exists by the consent of the governed, it really does not. Were you asked to consent? Please don't say that remaining in the country counts as consent, for that would assume what is here disputed: that before any specific consent, the government has legitimate jurisdiction over the territory known as the United States of America. In fact, consent is merely presumed, and nothing you can do will ever be taken by the government as legitimate withholding of consent. Yet if that is true, then nothing you can do could logically constitute consent either. To repeat: if nonconsent is impossible, so is consent.
Individual freedom in moral communities requires not an impotent "right" to cast one vote among multitudes, but the right to ignore the state and live peacefully.