Why I Do Not Vote
by Butler Shaffer
This originally appeared November 14, 2000.
With the 2000 election behind us – if, indeed, it will ever be behind us – I have now gone 36 years without participating in the voting process. It was not always thus. Upon my graduation from law school, my first full-time job was that of executive secretary of the Nebraska Republican Party. I later became a member of the State Central Committee, the Young Republican State Executive Committee, one of the incorporators of Barry Goldwater’s first national fund-raising campaign, and a member of the Nebraska delegation to the 1964 Republican National Convention. The Goldwater movement was the precursor to the modern Libertarian Party, and was largely energized by young men and women who were convinced that state power had become destructive of individual liberty and social order, and that “working within the system” could change all of that. My experiences in the Republican Party convinced me otherwise. Like Karl Hess, a man who was to become one of my dearest friends years later, I quickly lost my appetite for politics and have never returned.
Is there a case to be made for voting? Indeed there is, if one believes that social order is a quality that can be instilled, by violence and other coercive means, by political authorities. I do not accept this proposition. To the contrary, I believe that social order is the product of unseen, spontaneous influences of which most of us are not consciously aware. The study of economics helped me to understand how we respond, marginally, to fluctuations that are continuously generated by one another’s self-seeking pursuits. I also came to understand that politics – like a rock thrown through a spider’s web – disrupts these informal processes as well as the existing patterns of interconnectedness upon which any social order depends.
I suspect that most of those reading these words share my sense of liberty and social order, and so I shall not address the mindset of the statists herein. I understand the temptation, born largely of a sense of frustration, of wanting to participate in the political process in order to get persons elected who more closely reflect one’s views. The illusion of a short-term reduction in the rate of increase of state power clouds the longer-term consequences inherent in political participation. Political systems derive their power not from guns and prisons, but from the willingness of those who are to be ruled to expend their energies on their behalf. For state power to exist, a significant number of men and women must sanction the idea of being ruled by others, a sanction that depends, ultimately, upon the credibility of those who exercise such power. When we vote in an election, we are declaring, by our actions, our support for the process of some people ruling others by coercive means. Our motivations for such participation – even if they be openly expressed as a desire to bring state power to an end – do not mitigate the fact that our energies are being employed on behalf of the destructive principle that liberty and social order can best be fostered through the coercive machinery of the state.
One of the sadder comments that I heard, just prior to the recent election, was from a radio talk show host whose thoughtful and analytical mind I generally respect. In response to a caller who complained that Gov. Bush was philosophically inconsistent upon some issue, he declared that “politics is the art of compromise,” and that if one wanted principled consistency, one could find it “only in a religion.” It is this attitude upon which I wish to focus, for I believe that the conflicts we experience – both within ourselves as individuals and socially – derive from a sense of division. The attitude that one’s philosophic principles are nothing more than interesting “ideas” that have no relevance to how we behave with others – an attitude that is implicit in this talk show host’s remarks – is what is destroying us, both individually and societally. It derives from the same sentiment, articulated in the actions of Bill Clinton, that truth-telling is simply one of a number of strategies available in efforts to reach political “compromise”; that a lie is as good as the truth if you can get others to believe it. It is the notion that principles are nothing more than fungible commodities – to be traded according to the prices dictated by prevailing fashion – that now directs the seemingly endless cycle of vote recounts in Florida. As Groucho Marx put it: “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
I have long found nourishment in the words of Richard Weaver: “ideas have consequences.” If I am of the view that politics is destroying our world – and let us not forget that politics managed to kill off some 200,000,000 of our fellow humans in the 20th century alone – am I prepared to direct my energies into such a destructive system? If I answer “yes,” which I would do if I voted, then do my philosophic principles have any real-world meaning to them, or are they simply amusing ideas to be talked about, debated, or dispersed across cyberspace? If I cannot end the division within myself by living with integrity (i.e., by having my behavior and my principles integrated into a coherent whole) then what hope is there for the rest of mankind doing so? I am mankind, as are you, and as Carl Jung so eloquently put it: “if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either”; that the individual must realize “that he is the one important factor and that the salvation of the world consists in the salvation of the individual soul.” To participate in politics is to consciously devote one’s energies to mass-mindedness; to the statist proposition that collective thinking and collective behavior preempt the will of the individual.
Still, there is a basis for optimism. Just as the marketplace generates its own responses to government regulatory schemes, there are informal processes at work undercutting the foundations of statism. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of state socialism generally; anti-taxation and secessionist movements throughout the world; the study of chaos – whose major tenet that complex systems are unpredictable strips away any rationale for state planning and control; the Internet as an unrestrained expression of information and ideas; and, in America, the contributions of Clinton and Gore to bringing discredit upon and destroying the credibility not only of the presidency, but of government itself, have all been major contributors to the terminal condition of Leviathan. How remarkable, that the Internet – which Al Gore advised us he created! – should now be the undoing of the imperial presidency that he and Mr. Clinton sought to enlarge! What better confirmation of the power of unintended consequences!
At no period in my lifetime have the opportunities for reversing the dehumanizing nature of politically dominated societies been greater. Leviathan is dying as a consequence of its inner contradictions. Those of us who love liberty should rethink any temptations we might have to rush to the deathbed of statism and attempt to revivify its corpse by giving it a transfusion of our energies. The society upon which statism has fed will doubtless undergo a few headaches, fevers, and upset stomachs in the interim. But like a case of the flu, it may be better to let the sickness run its course rather than continue our habit of suppressing the symptoms.