Olbermann in the Neutral Zone

Keith Olbermann, mad strangler I got a giggle out of Keith Olbermann’s claim (conical hat tip to Lew Rockwell) that he refrains from voting in order to maintain his objectivity and neutrality – as though Olbermann’s relentless attacks (70% laudable and on target, 30% barking mad) on the Republicans haven’t provided far more help to the Democrats than his periodically marking a box or pulling a lever could possibly do. What is this mystique about the magical power of the ballot – which is actually one of the least effective forms of political action for an individual?

One reason I don’t embrace the agorist/voluntaryist anti-voting position (though I like its arguments a lot better than the pro-voting arguments) is that both the anti-voters and the pro-voters strike me as making the same mistake of vastly exaggerating the significance of voting. Whatever contribution it makes to the good result of getting the less bad doofus in power, and whatever contribution it makes to the bad result of helping to sanction and prop up the system, are both minuscule. (Mind you, I think minuscule contributions can be morally relevant. But public advocacy still has a heck of a lot bigger impact than either voting or not voting.)


5 Responses to Olbermann in the Neutral Zone

  1. Richard Garner November 14, 2008 at 4:08 pm #

    I think I’ll write an article on voting. However, it seems to me that one of the central arguments of the anti-voting anarchist is that voting somehow lends legitimacy to the state. An anarchist argument that it [i]doesn’t[/i] do this, might be:

    P1: Only a state that rests the consent of those it claims sovereignty over could be legitimate.
    P2: Voting is not (necessarily) a sign of consent (see AJ Simmons, or Spooner, or Spencer)

    Conclusion: Therefore voting does not make a state legitimate

    I suppose that an additional premise may be that voting is not sufficient to make the state legitimate, since the state rules over those that don’t vote for it, too.

    The anti voting anarchist must refute one or both of the premises, but I don’t see how they could without weakening their anarchist position.

  2. Alex Koumparos November 20, 2008 at 6:05 pm #

    As an anti-voting anarchist myself, I think that voting lends a veneer of legitimacy to the state (as distinct from actually lending legitimacy to the state).

    My concern with voting is as follows:

    It is necessary to first establish that voting is illicit. The basis for this determination is that the result (the rule over those who do not consent) is itself illicit. Any action which aims to establish this illicit state of affairs is itself wrong. The act of voting is an assertion by the voter that he has the right to impose his rule (or proportionate share of rule) over others. The critical response to this might be as follows:

    1. Yes I vote, but I do not expect it to make any difference
    In this case, the voter admits to wasting their time, but is not conceding a lack of intent. Put another way, suppose that the voter’s selected candidate actually wins the ballot, is the voter in this instance seriously maintaining that he will dispute his candidate taking office because the election is unjust? The voter intends for his candidate to rule, even if he does not think it likely, and thus this does not address the ethical issue of voting;

    2. Yes I vote, but only in self-defence / lesser of two evils
    In this case, the voter is arguing that he is defending himself by voting for the candidate who is likely to do the less harm to him or is voting for the ‘lesser of two evils’ and voting for the candidate who is likely to do the less harm to society at large. The problem here is that self defence is not a sufficient argument. For example, if I am attacked by a gun-wielding aggressor, I am entitled to defend myself. If I grab you and use you as a human shield, I am reducing the risk of harm to myself from the aggressor and am thus defending myself. However, my right to self defence does not include aggressing against you by using you as a human shield. Similarly, I am entitled to defend myself against a representative of the state but I am not allowed to use a means that constitutes an aggression against you to do so. To the response that the means is not, in fact, an aggression against you, I would ask how the voting could possibly amount to self defence without the voter’s intent for the vote to be counted (and acted upon)?

    3. Yes I vote, and I acknowledge that democracy is wrong, but if my candidate wins, he will dismantle the unjust system and this is the only way to accomplish that goal.
    As in the previous point, it is not permissible to use immoral means (democracy) to achieve noble ends (stateless society).

    4. Yes I vote, and I acknowledge that democracy is wrong, but my candidate is committed to only acting in a licit way and electing someone to behave legally cannot be unjust
    Notwithstanding the claim by the candidate to act licitly, the voter purports to grant to the candidate more powers than he can lawfully possess and to that extent is an aggression on all other members of society. To the extent that the voter disclaims responsibility for acts inconsistent with candidate promises, see 5.

    5. Yes I vote but I’m not giving consent since elections are illicit and thus the result of the vote is null and void, however, given that the vote will happen and someone will win and will rule, tactically voting (self-defence) against the worst candidate is reducing the harm of the elections without giving consent if the candidate voted for wins (since the election is void) (the ‘have one’s cake and eat it’ argument).
    Is it sufficient to just assume that because democracy is unjust, the election (and voting) is simply void?
    There is actually an implicit admission that the voter wants his vote to count – the voter is trying to prevent the ‘worst evil’ from winning, therefore wants ‘lesser evil’ to win and is contributing to the victory by voting. He declares that the forced choice is illicit but still chooses the lesser of two evils (with the intent that the choice take effect). In this case his conscious choice is a contributing factor and he becomes tainted by the evil. He cannot escape responsibility for his choice by denying that his vote has any validity, for if he truly believed that, he would choose not to cast a vote for either and let the state actors take full responsibility for their actions.

    I apologise if the above appears a bit of a muddle, I don’t get to seriously debate these sorts of points very often, so it’s a challenge to articulate really clearly.



  3. Black Bloke November 21, 2008 at 2:03 am #

    Excellent write up Alex K.

    Have you read Roderick’s (sort of) defense of voting? If so, how do you square all of that with objection 3?

  4. Alex Koumparos November 21, 2008 at 9:17 am #

    I haven’t (at least not that I recall), but I’ll take a look and get back to you.

  5. Alex Koumparos November 21, 2008 at 11:24 am #

    Ok, I’ve read through Roderick’s discussion of the issue, and would respond as follows:

    Suppose I vote Roderick for President, who happens to be running on a strict anarchy platform, and he actually wins. However, as per Acton’s immortal dictum, the corruptive powers of DC mutate Roderick into a statist and as he takes office as President he shrugs off all his original anarchist fervour and goes about exercising all of the powers explicitly granted him by the US Constitution (but no more). Suddenly, all my non-voting anarchist friends are pointing accusing fingers at me, implicating me in having unleashed StatistRoderick upon the populace. My response, of course, is to say, “Tsk tsk, the conventions associated with the office of the President are accepted only by the minions of the state. I never consented to the exercise of those powers, and you are affected by them only to the extent that you accept those conventions.”

    Now, first off, even accepting that my response is 100% true and correct, I think I’d still be feeling a bit guilty and would have to have a long, hot shower to try to make myself feel clean.

    But I think some argument can be made to dispute the position I have taken with my non-voting anarchist ex-friends (it turns out they were very unforgiving in this case). After all, I knew of the powers that the election purported to grant to Roderick, and I participated in that process. I can’t get past the feeling that it is like giving a box of matches to a compulsive arsonist who insists, “I just want to look at the matches, I’m not going to burn this house down, honest”. Can I really, sincerely, claim that I have no ethical involvement at all in the subsequent inferno? After all, I certainly didn’t consent to the exercise of the use of the matches to burn down the house, yet on the other hand, I knew perfectly well that the recipient was a compulsive arsonist. Now, I’m not (necessarily) suggesting that our generous match donor should be held legally responsible for the damage to the house, but I still think there is an ethical basis for a principled objection to giving matches to compulsive arsonists.

    Strictly, the analogy is not 100% fair – in the arson case, I know (or at least have a reasonable expectation) that the arsonist cannot resist committing aggression (burning down houses), whereas in electing Roderick I don’t actually know that he’s going to flip out and become a statist. On the other hand, the record of (political) power corrupting the wielder is pretty consistent.

    Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, in the arson case, the matches IN FACT cause the fire, but in an election, the votes do not cause the authority, they only apply to the extent that individuals, through their subjective perceptions accept the election results (and the resulting Presidential authority). I acknowledge this is harder (perhaps impossible) to answer. This analogy just occurred to me, perhaps it might help: Suppose a torch wielding mob of Ha-Ha Hat-wearing Minions of Moloch are intimidating a non-voting anarchist (they are angry with him for not voting Roderick for President). As the mob advances on the terrified anarchist, he retreats. Eventually the anarchist finds himself with his back to a cliff. The leader of the mob gives the anarchist an ultimatum, “Jump to your quick and relatively painless death or we will slowly torture you and then murder you”. The anarchist, does a bit of mental arithmetic and reckons that he could probably fight his way to freedom past X Minions of Moloch (and let us assume his calculations are correct), but unfortunately he counts X+1 Minions of Moloch, and thus to spare himself the torture, leaps to his death. Now, it turns out that actually, one of the mob members was me, who would not have consented to, or participated in, the torture of the anarchist, but I just like hanging out with people wearing Ha-Ha hats and holding torches. Although I did hang out with these individuals, I did not consent to the torture, etc, recognising that such torture would be an illicit act of aggression, so should I feel no ethical qualms about my involvement with the mob? I would feel pretty guilty, yet the dead anarchist is dead not because of me but because of his own choice. I wouldn’t even have tortured him.

    I appreciate that I have not, actually, refuted Roderick’s sort-of defence, and I’m not sure that even if I could fully articulate my position, it would be a refutation, but I can’t escape the feeling that if I actually voted (even for a libertarian anarchist), I would feel guilty (perhaps wrongly) afterwards. I would welcome any observations from others who have considered this issue.

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