Back in early summer, Tom Woods wrote a brief piece1 regarding the morality of voting for Ron Paul. The tone was one of moral recommendation and not obligation, but the piece itself was logically incoherent. The structure of the argument was a non sequitor. How does showing voting for Ron Paul is rational demonstrate that voting for Ron Paul is not “consenting to the system.”? To me, there was an obvious disconnect between the premise and the conclusion. If the argument started by addressing the moral premise that voting shows consent, you have to demonstrate the falseness of the premise. A separate argument that voting for Candidate A is in your best interest does not demonstrate this. The morality of voting and the rationality of voting are two separate issues.
Woods corrected this logical flaw in a subsequent post. 2 That post addressed the moral premise of voting and consent. Here, I’m in agreement with Woods. I have no idea who the “great Robert Fellner” is, but I can give the short reason why liberal political theory invalidates the voting and consent claim. Liberalism does not place the social contract in the legislature. The Social Contract sanctions the legal system, but it is not a product of it. To make a moral claim that voting demonstrates “consent,” from a social contractual stanspoint, serves to likewise validate, for example, the progressive/social democratic position that the social contract is rooted in the legislature. How many times have you heard “progressives” talk reverently about pieces of legislation, like “Social Security,” or the “New Deal,” constituting a “social contract.” This, of course, is a liberal violation, and progressives who talk like this are not liberals. But in a similar sense, anarchists who equate voting with social contractual consent, are implicitly granting social contractual sanction to the act of voting. Understand, of course, this is not an argument for a moral obligation to vote but rather an argument against any moral claim/obligation of not voting.
Once we have falsified any moral premise regarding voting–there is no moral obligation, pro or con, with respect to voting–we can turn to the rational argument. However, given that I ascribe to Rational Choice Methodology, I’m skeptical about any claims of rational demonstration of voting. Voting, from a rational choice perspective, is actually type of a “public goods” problem, implying it is rational not to vote. Put another way, there is an opportunity cost argument against determining/differentiating between who is a “good” and who is “bad,” in terms of the best candidate. If you rely on everyone acting on their own interest, then, because different people have different interests/objectives, elections likely then result in everyone being worse off. A strictly self-interested argument–that your vote matters–to the extent it motivates turnout, almost guarantees that your vote makes no difference.
Let us review Woods’ rational argument for voting for Ron Paul, and examine how that argument answers the rational choice critique against voting. Here are Woods’ reasons below:
(1) If you were stuck in a prison camp, and the guards let you vote on whether you were to have gruel or prime rib for dinner, would you be “consenting to the system” to vote for prime rib, or would you simply be doing the best you could under the circumstances to improve your material condition?
(2) Many Americans won’t consider even listening to a point of view that barely registers on the political radar screen. Whether out of intellectual laziness, cowardice, whatever, they just won’t. So it hurts us if Ron Paul gets 1% of the vote. But if he gets solid double digits, those people who might be faint of heart might realize they aren’t totally alone in supporting him, and will be more willing to do so. Yes, this is ridiculous and unjust, but that’s how it is. That’s why I think it hurts the cause of the free society not to vote for Ron Paul.
The problem is (1) establishes a principle why everyone “should” vote(improve your material condition), not just Paul voters. Everyone voting then implies a 100% turnout that guarantees Paul votes makes no difference. If you want to argue (2), you have to impose a constraint condition on (1) to produce a turnout that would perhaps allow Paul votes to matter. But this constraint would be a type of public good problem.
To demonstrate: to pit voting as a choice between (a) gruel vs (b) prime rib for dinner is the crass self-interest model. A rational agent, in the game theory sense, will not vote if that agent expects others to vote their own crass self-interest. If, however, the agent expects others the vote the best candidate, then it might be rational for that agent to invest resources to determine the best candidate to vote for and to actually vote. But there is no reason to actually expect others to invest the resources to determine the best candidate and vote the best candidate.
This type of problem perhaps suggests an agency as means of reducing uncertainty. And, of course, in this context, by agency, I mean Political Parties. But political parties introduce an obvious Principal agent problem. It is this principal agent problem that changes the payoff matrix. For example, we really have something like:
(a) gruel vs (b) (prime rib AND a kick upside the head that causes neurological damage so that you can no longer taste food)
So the reason I don’t particularly support Ron Paul is not so much because my disagreements with him on substantial issues like abortion and immigration, but rather because he is a member of the GOP. This membership substantially reduces any expected payoff because the GOP represents the kick upside the head. A Paul Admin would carry the GOP agency with it.
So, if we include Principal agent problem deductions in the expected payoff calculations for someone with a claimed high payof, such as Paul, we find that it is not rational to invest much resources in supporting Paul, given (i) the odds and (ii) the payoff is not as high as you think it is.
Of course, many may find great emotional utility in having “libertarian views” expressed on a national stage. There indeed likely value in having clear anti-war sentiment and anti-monopoly sentiment regarding money expressed on a national stage. But this is different than a moral or rational argument that demands voting for the candidate. However, Woods’ argument does not suggest obligation but merely recommendation. In this sense, there can be “gentlemenly” disagreement.
The Moral Obligation
It is Walter Block who provides us with the “moral obligation” argument regarding Paul as a “libertarian litmus test.” Block restates this litmus test in a recent article disqualifying Wendy McElroy from being a libertarian because of her refusal to support Paul’s candidacy. The best thing I can say about Block is that he clearly demonstrates the folly of treating libertarianism as a moral theory. Block introduces the moral category of “being libertarian” as some first order condition. To be a libertarian requires adherence to a first order moral condition of “being a libertarian,” which means acting in a way so as to promote liberty. Violations of this first order condition disqualify you from being a libertarian.
This kind of moral farcity is what inspires satirical comedies like, um, say, “Mozart Was a Red.” Instead now we replace Mozart with McElroy in the title and Rand with Block as our protagonist. Block sits authoritatively erect on the couch while passing out “What Would Ron Paul Do” wristbands to the tribe while earnest debate ensues regarding the the proper first order moral constraint on the number of times you should wipe your ass when you take a shit. After all, the declining marginal utility of ass wipes and the use of scare resources, such as toilet paper, suggest that deployed resources after, say, the fourth wipe would be better served–in the cause of liberty– by being redirected to Ron Paul Money bombs.
I’m not being facetious. I’m being crude to illustrate the point that “Being Libertarian” is not some libertarian moral constraint, but rather the moral foundation of a cult. “Being Libertarian” has nothing to do with the actual libertarian social problem, which is enforcing compliance to contractual arrangements. Compliance and/or the legal recognition of it, is a market good. It is not a moral good, meaning it does not serve any moral ends. A tribe of libertarians dedicated to abiding to the ends of “being libertarian” would still require a DRO mechanism to function as a social entity. How many times you wipe you ass is not an enforceable problem; put differently, you probably wouldn’t want to live in a social arrangement where it was treated as one. To extend this: you probably wouldn’t want to live in a social arrangement where Block’s first order condition was treated as a moral enforceable problem.
Here, I’m in agreement with Aschwin de Wolf who recently wrote:4
If you think of a libertarian society as an emergent outcome that arises from evolving social interaction between rational individuals instead of an “ideology” that requires people to conform to categorical imperatives like the non-aggression principle, a lot of the debate about the morality of voting is not useful.
In previous posts, I’ve addressed the scientific problem of moral foundations: namely, they cannot demonstrate their own consistency. Put differently, any moral foundation can be presented with a “liar’s paradox.” This includes NAP. Anyone who claims that a given moral foundation can demonstrate it’s own completeness and consistency is essentially making a totalitarian claim–meaning it can prove anything. The conclusion is that no formal moral System can trust itself.
Wendy McElroy, in past archived posts, has expressed reservations about libertarianism divorced from moral foundations. Block’s attack against her might suggest a greater reservation about the totalitarianism implied by the inevitable enforcement against a Liar’s Paradox.