The Benefits and Hazards of Voting

[cross-posted at BHL]

Conventional wisdom has it that a) you have a duty to vote, and more specifically that b) at least in winner-take-all two-party electoral systems like the u.s., you have a duty to vote for whichever you regard as the least bad of the two major candidates (as opposed to “throwing away your vote” on a third-party candidate).


According to a contrary argument, one that enjoys some popularity in libertarian circles, c) voting – for anyone – is irrational, since the outcome is overwhelmingly likely to be the same whether you vote or not.

I think all three of these positions are mistaken.

(I’m not going to talk in this post about the argument that voting is immoral; but see my discussions here and here.)

Think first about (c), the argument that voting is irrational. If that argument worked, it would also prove that contributing to a Kickstarter is irrational – at least in cases where the total amount needed to be raised is significantly larger than the amount of one’s contribution. An example would be the Veronica Mars movie project, which raised five million dollars on Kickstarter; the average donation size was reportedly around $60. The odds that an individual’s personal $60 contribution will make the difference to a multi-million-dollar movie’s being made or not is vanishingly small; hence if not making a difference to the outcome is a reason not to vote, it’s also a reason not to contribute to a Kickstarter (except when the amount to be raised is small enough, or the amount one can personally contribute is large enough, that one’s contribution can significantly alter the probability of the project’s being funded).

Yet I suspect that among libertarians sympathetic to argument (c), few will be willing to issue a similar rejection of Kickstarter (or similar services). After all, Kickstarter is a libertarian’s dream; in the words of Reason editor Nick Gillespie, it “allows creators and funders to escape conventional financial, ideological and aesthetic gatekeepers who have long suppressed heterodoxy in media, business, the arts and more.” The ability to evade such gatekeepers is obviously a major benefit to libertarians and other politically heterodox thinkers.

Worse yet, if argument (c) worked against voting, it would also tell against being a libertarian activist as such, since (as noted elsewhere) “no one libertarian activist’s contribution is likely to make the crucial difference as to whether libertarianism triumphs or not.”

The truth is that civilisation depends on people contributing, in thousands of small ways every day, to practices whose maintenance will not stand or fall with any individual such contribution. Thankfully, people contribute to public goods all the time – and do so voluntarily, rational-choice arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. (See, for example, “Covenants With and Without a Sword: Self-Governance Is Possible” by Elinor Ostrom, James Walker, and Roy Gardner.)

And the same is true at an individual level; my success at any personal project depends on my reliably contributing to it over and over, even though success does not depend on any one of those instances, and so each individual contribution can look irrational. But if it were indeed irrational, then it would likewise be irrational to undertake any project that can’t be completed instantaneously – which is absurd.

The crucial fact to recognise is that we have an imperfect duty to contribute to public goods. (For a defense of the claim that we have such a duty, and that it is an imperfect duty, see my article “On Making Small Contributions to Evil.”) An imperfect duty, remember, is not optional or supererogatory; it’s a full-fledged duty. But it’s a duty that can be satisfied by performing the relevant action merely regularly rather than at every opportunity, leaving the agent with a free choice as to the occasions on which she discharges that duty. A duty to contribute to public goods, then, is not a duty to contribute to any and every public good that comes along; one can choose which ones to support.

Suppose I think that of two major political candidates, one of them (say, Hilnald Clump) is a bit less bad than the other (say, Donnary Trinton). Then I might regard a Clump victory as a public good, and might accordingly choose to vote for Clump as one of the instances in which I fulfill my duty to contribute to public goods. Hence the mere fact that the outcome of the election will not be affected by my individual vote does not render voting irrational.

To be sure, this argument does not generate a duty to vote, contrary to position (a). After all, even if one regards a Clump victory as a public good (given the alternative of the even more odious Trinton), the duty to contribute to public goods is an imperfect duty, and one need not choose this particular occasion as one to count toward fulfilling that duty. All the same, the argument does show how voting could be a way of fulfilling a duty, and so does give some aid and comfort to the pro-voting side, supporting a weaker version of position (a).

But it may give less support even to the weaker version of (a) than meets the eye. And in particular it may not give much support to (b). Let’s look closer.

Suppose there’s a third-party candidate – perhaps Gill Stohnson or Jary Jein – whom you regard as less bad than either of the two major candidates, but the third-party candidate has no chance of winning. Is voting for the least bad of the major candidates, rather than for the third-party candidate, the best way of fulfilling your duty?

Not obviously. After all, if you vote the way you’d prefer everyone to vote, as though you were choosing for everyone, then you should choose the third-party candidate. And if someone responds that it’s irrational to act as though you’re choosing for everyone, since in fact everyone else is going to vote however they’re going to vote regardless of what you do, that argument proves too much, since it’s an equally good reason not to vote at all; in fact it’s just the same voting-is-irrational argument (c) over again.

And once one considers what other results one might be contributing to besides someone’s simply getting elected, the case for voting third-party looks even stronger. After all, the larger the margin by which a candidate wins, the more that candidate can get away with claiming a mandate, thus putting him or her in a stronger political position to get favoured policies enacted. So if one thinks that both of the major candidates would do more harm than good if elected (even if one is worse than the other), then making the winning candidate’s totals smaller becomes a public good to which one might choose to contribute – perhaps by voting for a third-party candidate (though also, perhaps, by voting for whichever of the major candidates one thinks is most likely to lose).

Moreover, if you think that higher vote totals for a third-party candidate are a good thing even if that candidate doesn’t win (e.g., by garnering more publicity for alternative candidates and thus helping to build future support for a political movement you favour, sending a message of disenchantment with the political establishment, etc.), then voting for that candidate contributes to a public good other than just that candidate’s getting elected. Plus your total percentage contribution to the desired end will be greater, both because the number of voters you’re cooperating with will be smaller and because the result is incremental rather than all-or-nothing. All other things being equal, it seems plausible that the case for contributing to a public good gets stronger as the degree of impact of that contribution increases.

So whatever pro-voting case can be extracted from my argument seems more favorable to voting for third-party candidates (when they’re better than the major candidates) than to voting for a major candidate. There seems to be no strong case for position (b).


But in fact the case for voting third-party is not all that strong either; indeed, the problems with (b) turn out to be problems for (a) as well. Suppose your favoured third-party candidate, while better than either of the two major candidates, is still fairly lousy (in your view). Then the message you’re sending, and the cause you’re supporting, are a muddled mixture of good and bad. You might well contribute more effectively and unambiguously to the public good you seek by writing a clear and compelling op-ed or blog post rather than voting for a mixed-bag candidate.

Finally, suppose you’re an anarchist (as you should be). Trying to achieve anarchy via the route of electoral politics seems a lot less promising strategically than the agorist approach of building alternative institutions and trying to win people’s affiliation to those institutions and away from the state; the former requires convincing 51% of the electorate in order to accomplish anything, while the latter makes room for incremental success at the margin. Moreover, just as high vote totals for the winning candidate will be interpreted as a mandate for that candidate, so high vote totals in general will be regarded as a mandate for the system – whereas what we as anarchists should be seeking to do is to deligitimise the system.

In the light of those considerations, refraining from voting, thereby doing one’s part to deemphasise the importance of electoral politics in the wider culture, starts to looks like a better contribution to a public good than voting does.

And that’s why I’ll be boycotting the vote this Tuesday.

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13 Responses to The Benefits and Hazards of Voting

  1. oooorgle November 7, 2016 at 9:26 am #

    If the kick-starter were to fund a war of aggression then perhaps it would resemble voting a bit… it doesn’t.

  2. Irfan Khawaja November 8, 2016 at 3:02 pm #

    Not sure your site does pingbacks, so….see the postscript near the bottom:

    Not a particularly substantive comment on your post, but enough to say I enjoyed it.

    • Brandon November 10, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

      We send and accept pingbacks. I’m not sure why yours didn’t work in this one case, but I went to great lengths to prove beyond any doubt that we can send and accept them. You could make a trivial change to the post and then republish, which should resend the pingback. Failing that, using cURL and an xml file I can manually send one.

  3. MBH November 12, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    I’ve been in a coma the past few years. How has withdrawing-support-for-and-trust-from-traditional-institutions worked out?

    It hasn’t helped a clinically insane person become president or anything like that, has it? ‘Cause that would make our strategy self-defeating, since, indirectly, it would normalize insanity.

    • crossofcrimson November 13, 2016 at 11:16 am #

      I think there’s plenty of room for debate on what appropriate strategies might look like. But this, to me, seems like a bit like a hasty assessment. Why are the people who want to build such alternative institutions, the ones who have consistently wanted to withdraw their support for the current ones, more to blame than the people who have blindly held up “support-for-and-trust-from-traditional-institutions” as some kind of bulwark against change (both good and bad)?

      It seems to me that a good part of all this was due, in part at least, to the failures of those institutions, and the people who have perpetually defended them. Now, the current move “away” from those institutions seems clearly in the wrong direction (from my perspective), but it seems a bit unfair to put that at the doorstep of anyone and everyone who has withdrawn their support and/or participation. It doesn’t seem all-that-removed from the war-hawk response whenever there’s a terrorist attack; it becomes a question of institutional fortitude and resolve as opposed to actually looking to the past and figuring out how the actions taken by those very institutions have created, influenced, and shifted the motivations of other people…often in bad directions.

      • MBH November 13, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

        My frustration is with blanket distrust of traditional institutions. I distrust the blanket distrust, not distrust per se. Obviously many traditional institutions are or have been guilty of horrible crimes and no institution should be trusted indiscriminately. But, bitter as it may be, work that’s outside and irrespective of traditional institutions is always, or at least highly likely to be, subject to the power of traditional institutions in one way or another. It seems to me crucial to ensure that power is held by responsible wielders, whether their institutions are legitimate or not. I believe showing those institutions to be illegitimate doesn’t do much to move the locus of control.

        • crossofcrimson November 13, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

          I concur that it may not do much to move the locus of control…but only up to a certain point. That control, from my perspective, subsists almost entirely on the perception (of most people) that some kind of authority exists there, and would not maintain itself for as much of a second without it. So I do believe there is a point where the lines would blur, and that “locus of control” could weaken and dissolve.

          As to whether that would prove to have good or bad consequences, and in particular whether subsequent institutions would end up being subject to the power of older institutions at the end of the day, that’s part of a much larger discussion – one that anarchists and minarchists of many stripes have been having for a long time (obviously).

          But, in defense of many of the anarchists, that’s exactly why there’s such a focus on fostering the growth on natural institutions outside the system; the new in the shell of the old. A lot of people realize that simply flipping the switch on an old institution isn’t going to magically solve the problem, and will likely give way to the type of thing your fears/frustrations outline.

          At the end of the day, we know that no system is perfect. That’s always going to be a bottom line. So the question is really about what system provides the most checks against oligarchical power. And I don’t think the answer is anything like the institutions we currently have. Even if we blame the people “working outside of the system” as the reason this idiot (it’s the most polite term, really) has assumed power, we’re still left with the realization that that very system, that very institution, is exactly the venue to which he owes his power. It that structure hadn’t existed, he’d just be another petty man with a bad toupee.

          All of that being said, I can understand disagreements about what actually happened, and how to move forward. I just don’t think it’s feasible to heap more of the blame on people like agorists than all the people who have worked, relentlessly, to uphold and maintain the ship that this man is now steering.

        • MBH November 13, 2016 at 4:56 pm #

          I only want agorists to accept some of the blame, to keep in view that their work has negative externalities and high opportunity costs.

        • Roderick November 13, 2016 at 5:21 pm #

          You want agorists to accept the blame for Trump’s win?!


          If all agorists had voted for Clinton (your preference, presumably), Trump would still have won. Unless you think there are lot more agorists than i do.

          (And if there *had* been enough agorists to make an electoral difference, there would also have been enough agorists to make a significant contribution to the dual-power strategy, which would be a lot more valuable in the long run than defeating Trump.)

          And while i think that sane mass murderers are probably less dangerous than insane ones (in that they’re more likely to exercise a degree of prudential self-restraint), and thus that Clinton is probably less dangerous than Trump, the argument “you could have elected the actual mass murderer instead of the wannabe mass murderer!” is not particularly convincing.

        • MBH November 13, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

          Let me clarify my aim: anyone who feeds into blanket distrust of traditional institutions (of which agorists are only a fraction). I want agorists to accept that they feed into blanket distrust of traditional institutions, and that that form of distrust cuts both ways.

          BHO kills in the name of proportionality. Maybe you find it disproportionate. But that’s a matter of application, not principle. To kill in the name of white supremacy is a totally different principle. We’re not talking about low energy mass murders vs. bigly mass murders. We’re talking about a difference in kind.

          In the last two hours Trump named a white supremacist Chief Strategist to the President.

        • Brandon November 13, 2016 at 7:09 pm #

          No conservative could find anything in your comment with which to disagree. I thought you were supposed to be a lefty? BTW, who exactly are these “responsible wielders”?

        • MBH November 14, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

          Elizabeth Warren is now the functional head of the Democratic Party. Her position on what has here been called “mass murder” is to cut defense spending and the size of the army. I believe she would be a responsible wielder of power. Warren 2020.


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