In the discussion and debate that goes on among libertarians, it is disputed as to wether or not libertarians should vote and participate in party politics. Some see voting as the only practical option, some think that there should be a multi-pronged approach that includes voting, some are die-hard supporters of the Republican politician Ron Paul, some are adamantly opposed to the Libertarian Party, some think that voting is immoral and some think that voting is impractical and strategically counterproductive or suicidal.
In a fundamental sense, however, perhaps in this context libertarians could be broken up into two basic camps: political libertarians and apolitical libertarians or anti-political libertarians. Quite simply, it breaks down to a matter of those who support some kind of active participation in the political process, as well as engage in it themselves, and those who do not support such activity. It is important to realise, however, that this dichotomy does not entirely mirror the divide between libertarian minarchists and anarchists, for there are some anarchists who fall on the political side and there are some minarchists who surprisingly fall more on the apolitical side. Even free market anarchists do not have a particularly unanimous consensus among themselves on the question of voting and participation in the political process. And opinions among libertarians on figures such as Ron Paul may vary from the highly enthusiastic to the downright hostile.
My purpose will be to argue for an apolitical approach to libertarianism. I intend to back up the premise that libertarians, especially anarchists, should not vote or run for office or contribute so much as a penny of their money to a political campaign. This includes the official Liberty Party. My argument will primarily be a practical or strategic one, although I also intend to explore the question in terms of ethics. The arguments will particularly apply to those who hold a stateless society as an ultimate goal. It must be shown precisely why a sensible libertarian institutional analysis of modern representative democracy leads to the conclusion that active participation in the political process is not a reasonable or efficient means at obtaining that goal and that it may even violate some fundamental principles. Furthermore, I intend to demonstrate that the market itself is the proper means to substitute for the political process and that there are a plethora of non-violent alternative strategies for libertarians to pursue.
Voting as a lack of consumer choice
David Friedman once made an analogy between voting for politicians and the way that we “vote” for cars as consumers on the market. Imagine if we voted for cars in the same way that we voted for politicians or governments. No matter which car you vote for, or wether or not you vote for one at all, every single person gets the same car. No matter how you vote, or even if you don’t vote at all, the results are the same for everyone. This is true even if only a small numerical majority of a given population “wins” in the rat-race. In short, there is no individual consumer choice in political democracy. As a voter, you cannot truly boycott the “product” or sell it off as if it were truly yours. You must bear the costs of and patronise or make use of the “product” or “service” (i.e., the government) regardless of wether or not you voted for it. There is no genuine option to opt out as a consumer of the state’s “services”. The entire thing is a great big package deal that one has no option to refuse. Even many currently existing unfree markets could be seen as at least have some degree of consumer sovereignty in comparison to states.
This is all aside from the fact that for the most part one’s voting options are restricted from the get go to the “choice” between one Democrat and one Republican, or Labour and Tory. Throughout the primary process, the options are usually whittled down to two candidates. In most contemporary democracies, there is often only two or three main parties that have any significant influence over the state apparatus. Since these parties make up the same overall institution, they end up “colluding” and compromising with each other to some degree in order to maintain the status quo. While there may be some degree of disagreement and competition between the parties, combined, they ultimately end up still constituting one ultimate party or group of individuals who are directly in control of the state apparatus. Whatever it is that such state agents end up doing, it still ends up effecting every citizen, regardless of their vote or lack thereof.
Representative democracy: Oligarchy in disguise
The very idea of representative democracy is a sham in that the control is not direct. It inherently creates a significant gulf between “the people” and the government. An exclusive elite still directly controls the state, only the citizenry is given the illusion of control by being given the option every few years to select among a handful of prepackaged people who already are from this elite to have further or continued or new access to direct control over the state. As an individual, the citizen has no real say in decision-making internal to the institution. Once the politician makes it into power it is they who have that control and they may basically defy your wishes at will. They have no real legal or institutional obligation to live up to their campaign promises. Even if you manage to vote them out of office the damage has already been done and they are legally shielded from owning up to the consequences of their actions. In effect, they are above the law. They do not have to compensate their victims and quite likely will go on to live a fairly comfortable and privileged life.
There is also an application of the calculation problem, or more broadly the information problem, to the political process in a representative democracy in that it is simply impossible for one individual or representative body to accurately or adequately represent the diverse and often conflicting desires of an entire society even if they genuinely tried to. In short, it is impossible for such an exclusive and centralised body to appease the demands of the citizenry. Furthermore, the very nature of the state as an institution cannot be a genuine case of participatory democracy. A state that fits the criteria for truly being controlled by “the people” is an impossibility because the only way for the criteria to even remotely be met would be for every single citizen to literally be members of the state apparatus themselves and directly control and vote on all matters. This is a utopian impossibility due to the fundamentally exclusive and oligarchical nature of the state as an institution. But even granting such a possibility, it still would not work out in the absence of unanimous consent because the majoritarianism problem would arise and hence it could not be said that “the people” as a whole have proportional or equal control over matters. “The people” are highly conflicting in their desires and personal preferences to begin with.
The classic definition of democracy, as being “government of the people” or “government by the people”, can be seen as anarchistic in that it could easily be interpreted to imply a self-governing society, as if government is literally absorbed by civil society itself. However, the concept of democracy has historically been abused by rulers and the intellectuals who weave apologia for them as to manipulate people into thinking that the current state of affairs truly is consensual and under the control of “the people”. The ideal of democracy is invoked by those who truly control the state as a way to try to legitimise their power. Politicians want people to vote for them so that they can trumpet themselves as being freely chosen agents of the people, as to effectively disguise their power. Statist intellectuals try to persuade the public to accept outrageous notions such as “we are the government”. Democracy has thus ended up being the greatest propaganda tool a state could possibly have in modern times, as it is a convenient way of presenting the illusion that the emperor has clothes. Participation in the political process and the impression that it can lead to significant change is encouraged as a way of allowing the status quo to continue running smooth.
Checks and balances
The problem at hand could be thought of in terms of institutional analysis and checks and balances. When working within the framework of a single institution, you cannot really have real checks and balances, even if you break that single institution up into different sections while still having these sections within the same institution. This is because real checks and balances requires external competition, that is, the existence of independent or separate institutions. So long as it’s all within one institution, it is just a vein attempt to simulate competition. You can’t break up a monopoly by creating more bureaucracies within it. You break it up through competition from other institutions. The political process in a democracy is fake competition because it is all within the framework of one monopolistic institution. At best, one is only changing which bureaucracy within the monopoly has ultimate control over the monopoly. If one truly wants to outcompete the monopoly, one must exit its framework and work within the framework of other institutions outside of it.
Unless the state actually presented everyone with the option to “vote” to dissolve the state or at least opt out of it as an individual, which seems like an absurdity, how can voting ever be a strategy for eliminating the institution itself? Voting only gives one the option to play a game of musical chairs by switching who heads the bureaucracy or which bureaucracy dominates within the institution. It could conceivably lead to moderate changes in the organisational structure of the institution, but it does not present any real option to do away with the institution itself. The purpose of anarchism is not to change the organisational structure of the state but to ultimately eliminate the state. Even a libertarian political party merely presents the prospect of another group, perhaps a more benevolent one, controlling the state. The institutional framework remains. As a consequence of libertarian political participation, the libertarian movement is merely absorbed into the institution itself rather than genuinely being in competition with it.
Quite simply, voting can never lead to a stateless society because it is within the institutional framework of a state. It does not and cannot lead to the destruction of that institutional framework. As Stefan Molyneux has analogised, it’s analogous to joining the KKK with the purpose of anti-racism. The institutional framework of the KKK is for the purposes of racism, so voting for who will be grand wizard doesn’t seem like a very logical thing for an anti-racist to do. Likewise, the institutional framework of the state is for the purposes of statism. Voting for who will control the state doesn’t seem like a very logical thing to do from the standpoint of someone who wants no one to be in control of it and for the institution to cease to exist altogether. The vested interests within the institution want to keep it going and keep receiving their paycheques. Their very livelihood depends on it. There is internal institutional inertia towards maintaining the system. A single individual or small group infiltrating the institution is not likely to have a significant impact on the overall institution. Even if people in positions of political power attempt to reduce the institution’s power, they are met with a resistance from inside of the institution as well as certain segments of the population.
The empirical record
For a number of centuries, classical liberals and libertarians have been trying to reduce the power of the state through the political process and use of the state apparatus itself. This attempt, while perhaps noble in its intentions, must be soberly diagnosed as a total failure. Neither constitutions or voting has lead to any net decrease in the state’s power, let alone the abolition of the institution itself. Instead, state power has steadily increased over time, more so than any of the eighteenth and nineteenth century radicals could have imagined in their worst nightmares. In playing the game of politics, libertarians have had to compromise their principles and make questionable alliances. Some acquiesce to state-socialism, while others move towards conservatism. Out of desperation, many libertarians started to resort to means that are intrinsically opposed to their ends. And libertarian sentiments were effectively co-opted into the state apparatus itself as rhetorical devices. In America, this is particularly true in the case of the conservative wing of the establishment.
Barry Goldwater attempted to get into the white house using quasi-libertarian sentiments. He never made it into office and was demonised as a nutjob. Ronald Reagan ran for office and made it in using quasi-libertarian rhetoric. Once in office, he actively expanded the state in some cases and was unable to adequately resist institutional inertia against any attempts at reductionism. Ron Paul has been a congressman for decades and has deliberately tried to get reductionist measures through and for the most part he has ended up merely being a reoccurring singular no vote against a nearly unanimous consensus. Almost none of those no votes ultimately made a difference. And by even functioning within the institutional framework of the state he inevitably has to act in certain ways that may defy libertarian principles, even if they are his own cherished principles. As an individual, Ron Paul may be a very kind and ethical fellow, but as an institutional agent he cannot function without acquiescing to some degree to the fundamentally corrupt nature of the system.
The Libertarian Party
As far as the Libertarian Party goes, while it could be argued that it has brought more people towards libertarianism, it could conversely be put forth that it has brought libertarianism as a movement closer to people’s already existing notions. In other words, the creed itself has been watered down to appease the ideological climate of the populace. The Libertarian Party’s public relations campaign has created a misleading picture of libertarianism in public discourse. On one hand, the use of slogans such as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” are far too vague and seems to paint libertarians as mere “moderates” on the political spectrum. On the other hand, The Libertarian Party has also engaged in rhetoric that is along the lines of traditional conservative platitudes such as “limited government” and “personal responsibility”. This has lead many to view the libertarian movement has just another brand of conservatism, or “conservatives who like to smoke pot”.
As a result of all of this, the libertarian movement itself has become partially infiltrated by bad tendencies on both the so-called “left” and “right”, although in America it would appear to be the case that there is more of a so-called “right-wing” deviation tendency in the movement. It could be argued that the libertarian movement has experienced both paleoconservative and neoconservative infiltrations, along with various left-liberal infiltrations. Apparently many Objectivists have soaked up neoconservative notions with respect to foreign policy. Other segments of the libertarian movement have soaked up protectionist and nationalistic sentiments from the paleoconservatives. Still yet others have significant caveats in their positions on economic matters which would place them closer to the contemporary left-liberal paradigm. The libertarian movement seems very confused about where it stands on the political spectrum relative to others. There clearly has been a process of ideological disorientation. The “open tent” approach has perhaps been too open to be safe.
In either case, if the Libertarian Party is viewed in light of its alleged goals it clearly must be diagnosed as a complete failure even by minarchist standards. It certainly may have made the term libertarian more visible to the public eye but it has not truly made libertarian ideas significantly more acceptable to most people. The primary concern of the party, as is the case for all political parties, is to get elected. In turn, this neglects the actual philosophy of libertarianism, which takes a back seat to institutional and pragmatic considerations. Instead of time and resources being used to educate people about libertarian ideas, it seems that the political approach to libertarianism has squandered it in the name of political acceptance and playing the game. In effect, it has lead to the de-radicalisation of the overall libertarian movement. The Libertarian Party in and of itself is part of “beltway libertarianism”.
The opportunity costs of electoral politics
Participation in the political process has an opportunity cost. In terms of resource allocation, in order for the process to take place, resources must be diverted away from the market. What is not seen is how those same resources would have or could have bee otherwise used on the market. And the time spent organising for elections, campaigning, researching the positions of candidates, voting and setting up poles could have otherwise been used in more productive ways. It could have been used to build private and alternative institutions to the state, private commerce, philanthropic efforts, direct education, acts of civil disobedience and valuable time with family and friends. All of the time spent trying to figure out who should govern us could have been used to make us less governable in the first place. There is no rational reason to assume that the only alternative to voting is either inaction or violent revolution. Characterising non-voters as lazy or apathetic is nothing but a way to shame or guilt people into voting.
Some libertarians may argue that voting may sometimes have short-term benefits that at least marginally advance the cause of liberty. But when one weighs the long-term vs. short-term benefits, it should become clear that there really are no long-term benefits to voting, particularly if one’s goal is to ultimately do away with the entire state apparatus. A proper understanding of the nature of the state as an institution would reveal that the long-term drawbacks outweigh any possible short-term benefits that may come about from participation in the political process. To use a Frederic Bastiat analogy: What is seen is a short-term or marginal gain in liberty for some people. What is not seen is that the productivity of the marginal liberty is then used to take liberty away elsewhere. What is not seen is the inherent negation of liberty necessary for the process to take place to begin with and that the institution of plunder is reinforced in the long-run. The political process forces its participants into a dangerous state of pragmatism that inherently leads one to sacrifice one principle or application thereof in order to protect another one. Since the individual voter does not have an option to entirely be free, they are put into a submissive position in which they beg their masters for a little bit of leeway in this, that or the other respect.
But while a slave may certainly prefer a policy of a few less beatings a day or slightly increased food rations, the implementation of such policies would not negate the fundamental ethical wrong of the situation, nor would it be a path towards the abolition of the institution of slavery itself. A more lenient policy does not mean that the slave should henceforth be content in their servitude. It could easily be argued that the slavery reformists only legitimised the institution by merely trying to soften its effects while still passively accepting its existence. Only the abolitionists had the correct position on the matter. Libertarianism is abolitionist rather than gradualist or reformist. While a more moderate or lenient policy might be preferable to a more harsh one, this does not mean that the libertarian should enthusiastically endorse the lenient policy as if it were the ideal and then go no further. All of the precious time wasted on reformism could have otherwise been used to more directly oppose the institutional problem itself. In short, politics is a high time preference process. The greater value of the ultimate goal of abolition is sacrificed when one concentrates too much on the comparatively lesser value of moderately alleviating present ills to make them a bit more bearable. Perhaps a certain degree of patience and vigilance is called for.
Voting as self-defence?
Some libertarians have tried to defend the act of voting by referencing to Lysander Spooner’s notion that it is possible for there to be certain situations where one could vote as an act of self-defence. But even if one grants the premise of voting as self-defence, this merely begs the question: is voting an efficient means of self-defence? When was the last time an individual was able to defend themselves against whatever the government happens to be doing by voting? Quite clearly, we have already established that voting does not guarantee representation and that the whole representative structure is inherently removed from the decision-making power of the individual citizen. An agent of the state cannot be said to be defending someone against the overall institutional effects of the state, for an agent of the state must use the institutional means that cause such effects in the first place. Even if an agent of the state genuinely attempted to defend the rights of an individual or group who voted for them, it would require some kind of aggression towards or grievance imposed on innocent bystanders or third parties of people, and it may also require new or continued violations of the liberty of the very people who are supposed to be defended. It’s analogous to a game of Russian roulette that everyone must play, and the gun is loaded in the same pattern for everyone.
The premise itself should be questioned. The effects of the institution of voting does not reflect that of self-defence. Clearly, the individual voter is not directly defending themselves. They still are effectively participating in a process that is meant to delegate such power to a master or bureaucrat. An individual is free to voluntarily choose a leader for themselves, but they do not have the legitimate decision-making power to choose a leader for other people. The individual voter cannot be said to be engaging in a free association for the purpose of self-defence. Voting isn’t an act of self-defence, at best it is an act of acquiescence. While a vote for a politician does not imply consent on the part of the voter to whatever that politician goes on to do, it does imply acquiescence to one’s own plunder and that of others. There is an important distinction between explicit consent and acquiescence. So while voting might not necessarily be unethical in any strict sense, it could be said to represent a certain lack of virtue or as an act of desperation. The voter cannot entirely escape the charge of complicity at least in a limited and somewhat passive sense, as they are acquiescing to the process by which institutional plunder sustains itself.
Disengagement is the only true means of self-defence against the state. The gun in the room is certainly not in the hands of the voters. It’s in the hands of the state apparatus. At best, the voter is only choosing which bullet that both them and innocent third parties of people will be shot with, or wether they are going to get their arm or leg broken. When the smoke clears, everyone is going to be plundered somehow. Nonetheless, the voters continue to participate in the ritualistic charade of the political process anyway. Every few years they are effectively either duped or self-deluded into thinking that this time around or next time around there will be significant changes for the better, while in reality it never seems to actually work out that way.
The apolitical libertarian may often be accused of having no suggested alternatives. However, there are many alternatives to political libertarianism.
Agorism is one of the primary alternative theories that has been developed. Agorism fundamentally involves the idea that the means towards reaching a voluntary society should be pursued through the market itself, especially those sections of the market that are most shunned by and far removed from the state (i.e., black and grey markets). It would seem to logically follow that if the market competition is the most efficient means towards the provision of goods and services, it is also the most efficient means towards the end of political freedom. And what better way to do that then to compete with the state by disengaging from it as much as possible and forming private and underground alternatives, i.e., economic secession? Agorism is supposed to involve a multiple staged process in which a critical mass is built until eventually the market itself essentially outcompetes or absorbs the government. The risk factor is obviously high in the early stages and perpetually lowers as critical mass is built up. Agorism is not an overnight strategy, it is actually long-term. It places emphasis on use of black and grey markets. Considering that the very existence of such black and grey markets is a product of the failure of the state to stamp out those activities and services in the first place, it isn’t really possible for them to truly stamp them out in a complex and dynamic society. The more complex it becomes, the harder it is for a central institution to truly control (think the calculation problem).
Education and the spread of information is also very important. The illusory ideological cloak of the state must be removed, and it cannot be done by directly participating in the political process and as a member of the institution of the state itself. If there are statist intellectuals who attempt to ideologically legitimise political power then there must also be what Hans Herman Hoppe has called “anti-intellectual intellectuals” with the purpose of functioning as delegitimisers of political power. Except the “anti-intellectual intellectuals” should function outside of the political process and as counter-economic and market oriented agents. Organisations such as the Ludwig Von Mises Institute do a decent job at serving this function, although perhaps not necessarily in a counter-economic or agorist sense. Other strictly non-governmental organisations could be erected that serve a similar function.
Mass civil disobedience in general is a very underestimated tactic. This could include secession, which is an act of mass civil disobedience in and of itself. An entire political system could theoretically be ground to a halt within days if the correct routes of mass civil disobedience are pursued. There is much truth to Ettiene La Boetie’s observations about the mystery of voluntary servitude, and it could be said that it has implications favourable towards an apolitical and anti-voting approach that substitutes civil disobedience for political means. If the people actively engaged in civil disobedience and bluntly refused to grant any legitimacy to their masters, the power of the rulers would instantly have no real weight anymore. They would be forced to either give up or resort to brute force and consequentially reveal the inherently corrupt and violent nature of their power. The masses at large outnumber the rulers by far. But so long as the people acquiesce to their own enslavement, the power of the rulers is secured despite their rather extreme numerical inferiority.