2012-11-06

The Puzzle Of Democracy

I'm not sure if you know this, but... Today is Election Day in the United States of America. Today, and over the past weeks, we have been accosted from all sides by those urging us to adhere to a particular philosophy on voting. Let's see if I can cover the major points made.

In a blog post endorsing Gary Johnson, Scott Sumner urges us to vote libertarian. Sumner offers a pragmatic take on the virtues of voting:
If I lived in Ohio and God told me I’d have the deciding vote between the top two candidates in this election, I’d vote for Johnson.  The whole point is to sway policy, and you don’t do that by winning elections, you do that by getting votes.  If the libertarians ever start stealing 5% or 10% of the votes from one of the two major parties (or both) you can be sure that next time they’ll shift their position closer to the libertarian direction.  Obama will think twice about sending in the Feds to shutdown those medical marijuana clinics in LA.
As Sumner has it, "the fact that Gary Johnson won't win is exactly why you should vote for him." Sumner wants to have an impact on the issues some time in the future. This demonstrates an admirably lengthy cognitive time-horizon, and for that I applaud him.

Meanwhile, over at Mises Daily, the often-acrimonious Danny Sanchez argues against voting for anyone whomsoever:
For one thing, a vote helps provide a mandate for all of the elected officer's policies, whether the voter supports those policies or not. As one author has said, voting "just encourages the bastards."

Furthermore, every vote for a federal office is a vote for the hyper-state known as the US federal government, and for hyper-states in general. It is effectively an endorsement of centralized power and a vote of no confidence in localism.
Sanchez is not alone among so-called libertarians who oppose democracy. All libertarians of this stripe draw heavily on the arguments of the like of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of the book Democracy: The God That Failed.

And so liberty-loving people and average, every-day Americans alike are faced with a puzzle. Given that precious few of us actually buy into the whole platform of one candidate or another, what do we do?

On the one hand, we can vote for the so-called lesser evil. On another hand, we could vote for someone who most closely represents our views in hopes that one day our liberty-loving demographic will be appealed to by mainstream politicians when it finally achieves a critical mass. On a third hand, we could refuse to vote at all, and therefore spare ourselves having to offer an "endorsement" of any one set of atrocious policies.

The Democracy Problem Is A Real One
Modern society has managed to get itself into a real catch-22 here. If voting is our means of affecting a change we can believe in, yet no option on the ballot represents a significant change for the better, then where does that leave democracy?

It would appear that casting a vote in this kind of environment is not so much an endorsement of a particular set of policies - since few of us actually seem to buy into the majority of any candidate's platform - but rather an endorsement for "democracy" in the abstract. When we head to the polls, therefore, we are doing so merely because we seem to hold some hope that a democratic system, rigorously adhered-to, will produce favorable results for us.

Reality is much different. The last three presidential elections have been neck-and-neck. The voting population seems to be at a roughly 50-50 split between the two major parties, and the only ones whose vote actually counts are those in the so-called "swing states," where the race is so close that voter turnout becomes a material issue in deciding the winner of the election. Blue citizens in red states, therefore, have no voice in the general election. Likewise for red citizens in blue states. And for those of us unlucky enough to feel close to either major party, there is no voice for us in the general election at all.

Another problem with democracy is that it is remarkably susceptible to mob mentality. One major national news item can be enough to provoke a call for major federal policy changes from the electorate in general. The prevailing notion is that any change will do. "We" want change, and "we" proclaim our desire for it; then, the overlords come up with some hare-brained "solution," and the issue devolves into a choice between ratifying the solution offered or "favoring the status quo." Lost in the noise is any consideration for whether any change is necessary, or whether we should be offered a choice between, say, the best of five solutions.

So, in a democracy, we lack a true voice, and the options proposed are insufficient to solve the problems they purport to solve. Democracy does not seem to be working. What to do?

Some Thoughts
I'm no genius. I don't have all the answers. I think this particular problem is so large and so serious that it requires a great deal of thought from some of the most powerful minds in the world. But I can offer my own thoughts as a consolation prize.

First of all, please keep in mind that the presidential election is not the only election going on today. When you vote, you will be voting to elect people into a variety of local government positions, too. While you may not have a sufficient voice to impact the presidential election, your vote may be very important in the scope of local politics. Don't get so caught up on the national race that you forget that you might be able to affect a local one.

Second of all, and on that same note, we may all be well-advised to make participation in local politics a priority in our lives. The city bylaws under which you live more directly impact your day-to-day life than does trade policy with China. Don't get me wrong, both may be important matters. The point here is, though, that a major shift in local politics will have a more significant impact on your life than an incremental shift in national politics.

Third of all, therefore, in society today, we may start to discover that relying on the federal government to solve all of our problems is not only less potent a means to improve our lives, it is also a less democratic means. Perhaps, given the many wonderful improvements in technologies, we are better-equipped to solve some problems locally than nationally. If so, our local solutions may be far superior to anything cooked-up in a faraway land. Maybe it's time to start empowering our communities to solve their own problems. Federate, if you will.

Finally, a vote is just a vote. However important it may be to your political situation, it is something that only happens once every couple of years. In the meantime, there are myriad other ways to impact your community, whether through personal charity, or ideological contributions, or philosophical waxing, or educating, or whatever else.

Conclusion
Voting is only part of a participatory government, not the whole thing. It may be the attribute of our government that makes it "democratic," but there is more to the story than mere democracy. There is also federalism, philosophy, and community involvement.

So, cast your vote today, if you like. If you don't want to vote, don't vote. But whatever you choose to do or not do, and for whomever you choose to vote, don't forget that there will be four years between today and the next presidential election. If you want your political system to improve, you'd better start thinking up some ways beyond a mere vote to make things more like you want them to be.

Good luck.