In Praise of the Cynical Voter

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Ryan McMaken – November 20, 2020

I don’t subscribe to the rather strained arguments some libertarians make about voting. I don’t think casting a vote implies the voter is tacitly endorsing the political system. I don’t think a vote means the voter implicitly agrees to blithely accept the outcome.  I don’t even think a voter necessarily likes the candidate for which he or she has voted.

Many of these ideas date back to the libertarian anarchists of the late nineteenth century, during which Benjamin Tucker, for example, wrote “[e]very man who casts a ballot necessarily uses it in offense against American liberty, it being the chief instrument of American slavery.”

And then there was Francis D. Tandy, who concluded, “Political methods must be condemned without even these qualifications. The ballot is only a bullet in another form.”

The problem with these claims is that they tend to rest on the assumption that the voter and the regime both agree on what a vote means.

As far as the regime is concerned, of course, a vote should mean the voter agrees to peacefully abide by the result of a free election. The regime also believes a vote means the voter endorses whatever laws or policies are adopted by the voter’s “representative.” This is why the regime wants high voter turnout and why it claims that democratic elections provide the regime with a voter “mandate.” 

[RELATED: “No, Voting Doesn’t Mean You ‘Support the System‘” by Ryan McMaken]

But do voters agree that this is what a vote means? Perhaps some voters do. But more likely, many voters attribute no such meaning to their votes. There is no reason to assume, for example, that a voter thinks a vote for a certain candidate is an endorsement of every monstrous piece of legislation handed down by the regime. Nor can we assume voters believe their vote grants a mandate to the regime in general. This is especially true when the voter’s preferred candidate loses. Any number of  “not my president” memes in recent years would suggest this is the case.

It’s just as likely that a great many voters view voting as a means of playing defense against a state apparatus they view as threatening. That is, the voters may view the act of voting as merely one means of objecting to certain candidates or policies. Whether or not the voter’s intent is accurately interpreted by the regime, of course, is another matter.

Rather, a voter’s actions could be likened to those of [a] prisoner who is given the option of voting on which prison guard he prefers. Prison guard A beats the inmates ten times per day. But prison guard B beats them only five times a day. Clearly, it would be a stretch to assert that a vote for prison guard B implies that the voter approves [of] the whole prison guard apparatus and that the voter therefore endorses beatings. Rather, the situation is simply one in which the voter was given a chance to try to slightly improve his situation and acted accordingly.

[RELATED: “”The Will of the People” Is a Myth“ by Ryan McMaken]

This type of voting we might call “cynical voting.” The cynical voter casts a vote with the belief that it might improve his situation, or at least throw some obstacles in front of a regime that is bent on inflicting greater damage on the voters.  But the cynical voter also understands that his vote might do very little to change the situation and that his preferred candidates may also all lose. 

In our prisoner analogy, let’s assume a voter casts his ballot in favor of fewer beatings. But then a week later that same voter gets his hands on a contraband machine gun with enough ammo to kill every prison guard. Does an earlier vote for fewer beatings somehow preclude the voter from later using that machine gun? There’s no reason to assume so.  Nonetheless, the “voting implies consent” argument rather strangely seems to assume that the voter views his vote as the end-all be-all of political action. 

The cynical voter doesn’t believe the act of voting limits his range of options in other areas. He doesn’t think, “golly, my candidate lost, but I voted, so I guess every horrible thing the government does to me in the next two (or four or six) years is a-okay!” If other methods of fighting the regime present themselves, the cynical voter is not afraid to use them. Only someone who has fully and utterly bought into propaganda would accept the notion that a vote precludes other possibly-more-effective forms of political resistance.

Moreover, the ideal cynical voter rejects all the myths underlying the proregime philosophy of voting. The cynical voter understands, for example, that elected representatives do not actually represent the voter. Given the diversity of voters, this is an impossibility. The problem gets worse as the jurisdiction gets larger.

[RELATED: “No Matter How You Vote, Politicians Don’t Represent You“ by Ryan McMaken]

The well-informed cynical voter also understands that voting does not grant a mandate to the winning side. This is especially true if the winning side wins with anything less than 100 percent. What if the winner receives only 90 percent of the vote? Does that make the wishes and preferences of the other 10 percent null and void? In reality, of course, few politicians ever win a race by 90 percent. Many of them win with less than 55 percent of the vote. Some win with only a plurality of less than 50 percent. Clearly, such a situation cannot honestly be said to provide the winner with any sort of mandate. More naïve observers—exactly the sorts of people who think a ballot is just like a bullet—may believe this, however. 

Essentially, the voting-is-violence crowd is buying into the regime’s preferred view of voting. But in reality, it is likely that countless ordinary voters take a far more cynical and sophisticated view of voting than their detractors think. Many by voting are simply trying to rid themselves of the most dangerous threats they face. It’s hard to fault them for this.

Originally published at Mises.org.  Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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