Ethics of Voting and Holding Office

On Nov. 2, tens of millions of Americans will exercise their political franchise to play their part in shaping the future of the country, or so the story goes.

I do not like it any more than anyone else. Most voters will gleefully cast their ballots for politicians openly seeking the legal sanction to aggress against others. It is enough that the state is illegitimate even if its sole purpose were to defend individual rights, but politicians across the spectrum make campaign promises to increase the level of state predation.

Indeed, “Law is force,” Frederic Bastiat said. This “legal plunder, organized injustice,” as Bastiat called it, has two sources. “One, as we have just seen, is in human selfishness; the other is in false philanthropy.”

Many libertarians take the stance that electoral activism, in and of itself, is an act of aggression since political power is vested in violence. As understandable as the anti-voting stance is, self-defense is ethically justified if I can support candidates who I believe will aggress less than another credible candidate. Still others say that voting either grants consent to the political system or at least gives the perception of consent. This is also dubious. For how can consent be granted if there is no credible opportunity to withhold consent? It is true that some could perceive voting as consenting, but so could choosing not to vote be viewed as apathy for whatever policy wins out. The solution would be to educate why libertarians participate in electoral politics despite not viewing the government conducting the election as ethical. Another objection is that it is fine to act in self-defense, but it would be unjust to elect a representative who would presume to rule someone else.

Now, I certainly do not think anyone is ethically bound to follow or support legislation simply because it is has received the majority’s support. A point Lysander Spooner makes is that no one in government can represent anyone but him- or herself. He said,

They say they are only our servants, agents, attorneys, and representatives. But this declaration involves an absurdity, a contradiction. No man can be my servant, agent, attorney, or representative, and be, at the same time, uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me for his acts. It is of no importance that I appointed him, and put all power in his hands. If I made him uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me, he is no longer my servant, agent, attorney, or representative.

If elected officials are personally responsible for their actions, what then are the ethics of holding office? Would it be necessary to only support an immediate abolition of aggression or a phased withdraw of government services?

Roderick Long argues that government aggression “lies in the fact that the services are funded by stolen money (taxation), and that competitors are often prohibited or severely restricted (regulation). Hence a gradual phase-out of government services (as opposed to immediate abolition) involves no violation of libertarian principle, provided some solution can be found to the problems of taxation.”

Except in those cases where private firms have been granted a monopoly on a product (or another artificial advantage in the market), a libertarian acting consistently with the non-aggression principle would have to advocate for a complete dismantling of regulatory controls. In those cases of that firms have been given a market advantage by government aggresion, any barriers to competition should be removed immediately, but pricing or other regulatory controls could be phased out gradually.

In order to raise funds for some of the more redeeming services performed by government, there are a few options that Long favors so long as a government regrettably were still in place.

  1. Raise money by selling off government assets
  2. Charge user fees for government services
  3. Solicit voluntary contributions
  4. Use non-coercive measures to get people to pay their taxes
  5. Tax the beneficiaries of state privilege
  6. Restrict the franchise to taxpayers

As an immediate matter, it most likely will not be possible to implement these methods. It would still never be ethically justified to vote in favor of any level of aggression. There are obvious pitfalls to avoid and cautions to take to prevent libertarian corruption or political backlash.

I do not support electoral politics as the primary method of political change. In fact, it is probably the least important factor compared to educating the population, leading by example, and raising emotionally healthy children. If libertarians have done the work necessary to spread these ideas, getting these policies implemented would be more of a formality.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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