Sunday, June 19, 2011

Should Anarchists Vote? A Response To Tom Woods

Over on LRC, the esteemed Tom Woods recently put together the following arguments with regards to why he believes anarchists (those who understand that a voluntary, private property society is most just and most economically efficient) should vote for Ron Paul:
(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? (I owe this argument to someone but can’t remember where I got it from. Roderick Long, maybe?)

(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.
Before I begin, I want to make the following clear:
  1. I like Tom Woods, as a thinker at the very least and as a person I would like to think (I don't know him personally so I can't know for sure)
  2. Ron Paul is alright (by this, I mean, this is not a Ron Paul hit-piece, nor is it a Ron Paul-support piece-- this might seem hard to conceive given the subject matter but I don't think Ron Paul should have anything to do with this but rather it should be the principles, not the person, that guide our conclusions in this matter)
  3. My aim overall here is to further the thought experiment, not start an argument or attempt to draw blood
With that, my response...

In regards to the first point, I enjoyed the metaphor but I think it misses the point. It accepts the prison conditions as given. The reason the (average) anarchist doesn't vote and suggests others do the same, or not do the same depending on your perspective, is because the anarchist believes that voting is one of the means by which the political elite arrive at the desired ends of imprisoning all of us.

In effect, the prison conditions are not a given. They are a choice. And they are chosen, in part, by voting. Voting is the means by which the great mass of people are deluded into thinking there should rightfully be someone else above them wielding the kind of power the voted-for politician wields. Voting is not, as Tom Woods characterizes it, the means by which the already imprisoned choose gruel over prime rib.

This is tangential to this point but, I am not sure why a person would endeavor to give his prisoner a choice over gruel and prime rib when he's gone to the trouble to imprison him in the first place. Maybe he's just that sadistic? The assumption, however, is that the political elite have designed a system which is most beneficial to them and that life is not a video game where you figure out the one weakness the "boss" had control over engineering yet left open for you, the player, to strike, and to strike mercilessly, in this case that weakness being voting. If voting really offers us the choice between gruel and prime rib, we have to assume that the people in charge of the political process left us this choice on purpose, in which case making the choice serves their purposes, or by accident, in which case they made a serious blunder that they have yet to figure out the danger of after hundreds of years of experience with this particular form of imprisonment.

In short, the prison is not a given, or rather, it doesn't have to be. If it is, what are we bothering about trying to get out of it for? We're stuck.

With regards to Mr. Woods's second argument, I can't say too much other than that I am uneasy with the consequentialist tone of it. Liberty should not and can not be built on the logical edifice of consequentialism-- it is an intellectual foundation known to be lacking in affirmative, lasting architectural support.

It seems rather simplistic, as well. This is it? The reason Ron Paul and the ideas of liberty are unpalatable to the average person is because of a series of accidents of history which resulted in the current political "dichotomy" being mainstream while Ron Paul-libertarianism is not? People won't vote for it, because people won't vote for it, and people won't vote for it because people won't hear of it, and people won't hear of it because people won't vote for it? Somehow communists and other radical programs get on the ballot and get into the public consciousness in other societies and at other points in time whereas before achieving these relative states of awareness they had none, but somehow this is a limiting factor for these ideologies only in the American political system?

I can't help but wonder if there isn't a little bit more to the equation than that, as tantalizing as the potential consequence of action here may be?

Those are my few thoughts on Mr. Woods's, for the time being. And in the meantime I'd like to plant seed for a future tree of debate, a sapling which hopefully will be watered by Mr. Woods himself in due time, that being:
  • If we were not to vote for Ron Paul (because he didn't exist or were no longer interested in running for office), then who?
  • And if the answer is, "Nobody", then why? (That is, why is Ron Paul uniquely qualified for compromise in this regard.)
  • And furthermore, if not Ron Paul and if not anybody else, then what? (What could and should we all do in the absence of a qualified candidate worthy of our vote, anarchist and non-anarchist alike?)
The answer or answers to the last question is or are potentially most interesting to a person of my disposition, as the time to engage in such strategies is afforded at all present moments, not just those corresponding to the willful candidacy of a "Ron Paul", and, I would like to think, being derived from something more closely resembling a set of eternal and immutable principles rather than contemporaneous consequentialism, has the highest potential of being something which is a verifiable truth. I find most comfort and most success in the truth because the truth is intimately connected to reality and furthermore, as it was said, "The moral is the practical", so I like to begin there whenever I can.

I invite further comment from ladies and gentlemen alike, especially and most hopefully from gentleman scholars such as Mr. Woods.


  1. Sir Conant,

    It is a rare man to call for the purest dedication to principal, even when less bad seems so appealing.

    Carry that torch onward.

  2. I find the example of prisoners voting for beef or gruel an interesting one. I don’t find it to be particularly far-fetched. It would actually be a clever way to keep the prisoners under control. Giving them treats from time to time would probably hold down discontent but allowing them the illusion of choice would involve them with the system and give them a stake in it. Of course, the votes should not be so clear-cut. Perhaps they could vote on whether they got playing cards or dice. The point is to give them the illusion of control.

    As you suggest, it is difficult to equate Ron Paul with prime beef. I also think that comparing Obama to gruel is unfair. Gruel contains calories and other nourishment. In this extended metaphor, Obama more closely resembles an emetic. Below are my reasons for not voting.
    Five Reason Why I Won’t Vote
    1. My voting would be reprehensible.
    I believe that it is reprehensible to take money from strangers and use it for your own purposes. The average person would regard this statement with bewilderment because he sees the state as inevitability. He believes that nothing is certain but “death and taxes.” We, however, know that there were other forms of social organization in the past and can imagine future societies without government. We see that the state is nothing more than those people who hold the monopoly on the acceptable use of violence. We know that they use this violence to take money from some people and give it to others.
    Is it not reprehensible to use violence to compel people to perform or refrain from certain activities? This is the essence of the law, and I am too good to use violence except in the most extreme circumstances.
    See the rest at

  3. If you really believe that by voting you are giving your sanction to the state, then you are really adopting the democratic theorist's position. You would be adopting the position of the democratic enemy, so to speak, who says that the state is really voluntary because the masses are supporting it by participating in elections. In other words, you're really the other side of the coin of supporting the policy of democracy — that the public is really behind it and that it is all voluntary. And so the anti-voting people are really saying the same thing.

    I think prison conditions are a given because people are being placed in a coercive position. They are surrounded by a coercive system. They are surrounded by the state. The state, however, allows you a limited choice, and there's no question about the fact that the choice is limited. Since you are in this coercive situation, there is no reason why you shouldn't try to make use of it if you think it will make a difference to your liberty or possessions. So by voting you can't say that this is a moral choice, a fully voluntary choice, on the part of the public.

    It's not a fully voluntary situation. It's a situation where you are surrounded by the whole state which you can't vote out of existence. For example, we can't vote the Presidency out of existence, unfortunately. It would be great if we could, but since we can't why not make use of the vote if there is a difference at all between the two people. It is almost inevitable that there will be a difference, incidentally, because just praxeologically or in a natural law sense, every two persons or every two groups of people will be slightly different, at least. So in that case, why not make use of it? Even if Paul dropped out for some reason, I don't see that it's immoral to participate in the election provided that you go into it with your eyes open - provided that you don't think that Palin is a great libertarian! - which many people talk themselves into before they go out and vote.

    The second part of my answer is that I don't think that voting is really the question. I really don't care about whether people vote or not. To me the important thing is, who do you support. Who do you hope will win the election? You can be a non-voter and say "I don't want to sanction the state" and not vote, but on election night who do you hope the rest of the voters--the rest of the suckers out there who are voting--who do you hope they'll elect? And it's important because I think that there is a difference.

    The Presidency, unfortunately, is of extreme importance. It will be running or affecting our lives greatly for four years. So, I see no reason why we shouldn't endorse, or support, or attack one candidate more than the other candidate. I really don't agree at all with the non-voting position in that sense, because the non-voter is not only saying we shouldn't vote; he is also saying that we shouldn't endorse anybody. Will you, deep in your heart on election night have any kind of preference at all as the votes come in? Will you cheer slightly or groan more as whoever wins? I don't see how anybody could fail to have a preference, because it will affect all of us. Even if your preference is for the candidate that leads the Empire off the cliff first.

  4. I am putting the rest of the essay here and will follow it by some remarks.
    2. My voting would sanction the state’s activities.
    Perhaps, you suggest, I might vote only against certain taxes or laws. Suppose that a group of thieves convenes a conference. One thief rises and says, “I don’t think we should rob the Smith’s home.” The thieves disagree among themselves and call for a vote. Am I a righteous man if I agree with the speaker and cast my vote against robbing the Smiths? I don’t think so. I may help the Smiths but I do so at the expense of the Joneses. With my vote, I have tacitly said, “You thieves have the right to decide who you will and will not rob.” By voting, I have submitted myself to the Parliament of Robbers.
    3. My vote does not count.
    My vote would never decide an election. If, by some improbable stroke of fate, my vote did sway an election, the authorities would immediately call out the National Guard to protect the ballot boxes and call for a recount. They would soon discover that my vote was not really the deciding one. But suppose I knew that my vote would actually choose one candidate or another. I would hide in my basement so that no one could compel me to choose one evil over the another.
    4. My voting would involve me in the governmental system psychologically.
    Any sports event is more entertaining if you have a favorite team in the contest; the game is even more enjoyable if you have a bet on the outcome. The act of voting would give me a mental stake in the election and increase my pleasure in the political process. But what is this pleasure? It is the pleasure in seeing ambitions dashed, or worse yet, ambitions realized. It is the joy of knowing that money will be taken from some and given to others. It is the happiness of knowing that laws will be passed and jails filled. It is a delight in violence, not the controlled violence in some sports or the false violence in others, but the real violence of the state. Whatever pleasure I might take in the political process is a negative pleasure, a pleasure in other people’s failures.
    Why do all the politicians tell you to vote? The Republicans know that a lower voter turnout favors their chances at success. They could make a very good case that if a citizen is not informed on the issues or is indifferent to the questions or is simply lazy, the republic would fare better without his vote. And yet they all sing the same tune. “Get out and vote.” They know that the act of voting pacifies people. People believe that they still retain some control over the state (and hence their own lives) when they vote. This single, symbolic act blinds more people to the realities of modern government than all the lies of politicians put together. Voting makes slaves think they are sovereigns.
    Some people say, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” Certainly, a more reasonable saying would be, “If you do vote, don’t complain.” You got what you wanted: the chance to be heard. I want more. I want control over my own money and my own actions. I will gladly sacrifice the illusion of ruling other people for that power.
    5. Voting is slightly inconvenient.

  5. First of all, I believe that government is an evil institution, akin to slavery. I don’t believe in litmus tests or purity of theory. Bad government leads to more government to “solve the problems.” That’s why I would be happier with better (libertarian) government. I have no problem with other people’s voting, for whatever reason. However, I don’t think I can overstate reason 3: “My vote doesn’t count.”

    If we accept that our votes don’t really matter (and what sort of person over 6 years old could believe that his vote actually mattered?), why do so many people vote? The benefits of voting must be psychological. This conclusion is not really surprising when you consider that the benefits of government itself are not material (except for the chosen few) but psychological. My wife was talking to a lady who fled Red China in the 1950s. The lady finally remarked that things were very bad under the communists, “but we were all in the same situation,” i.e., the rich had been brought down. In a similar vein, you would think that President Obama would have a single-digit approval rating, but he continues to please about half the country. The economy is a complete mess and even the Democratic left wing has many complaints about his administration. However, there is a feeling around that everyone is in the same boat and many “fat cats” have been brought down a peg or two. I believe that many people will vote for the president not because he has helped them but because he has hurt those they don’t like.

    Consider my final reason for not voting: “Voting is slightly inconvenient.” In 2004 my daughter waited for more than hour to vote. There are many people who don’t vote simply because of the slight difficulty. However, there is a school of thought that says that the mind does not really understand cause and effect. For instance, if a man were to lose his leg in a war, he would regard that war as very important. The claim is that the mind works like this: “I suffered a great deal because of that war; therefore, that war must have been worth my sacrifice.” Such reasoning is the opposite of the stated thinking: “That war was worth my sacrifice so I was willing to suffer for it.” If the mind has a tendency to work this way, then the government only gains by asking its citizens to sacrifice for it. In the small example of voting, the mind might work thus, “It was a pain for me to wait in line to vote, therefore, it must have been important. For the record, my daughter hasn’t voted since: too much trouble.

    I have nothing against those who vote. I also wish the government were better. My reasons for not voting are psychological. I don’t want to make myself a part of the system. I don’t want to inconvenience myself.


  6. Bob E,

    Thank you for the thoughtful response. In answer to your inquiry, I do not quiver in fear (or delight, as the case may be) when the winner is announced on election night. I honestly do not care. I had trouble remembering who the other "contender" was in the last election when you mentioned it above.

    As for conceding the democratist's argument, the point is well taken. You are familiar with Etienne de la Boetie, are you not? Perhaps the vote is not an affirmative action in favor of the State. The question then is, from where does the State derive its power if it is a minority that nobody agrees with?

    Your thoughts?

    And let us not forget that there are many, even outside of the State, who view the State as necessary and legitimate, and very much see their voting as affirmative support of this belief.


    Thank you for your comments and considerations. I appreciate your viewpoint on the subject. However, my intent was not to argue for or against voting itself. I was trying to contain my thought experiment to the confines of Mr. Woods's original plea, which was a justification of voting for Ron Paul in the name of (marginal) freedom enhancement.

    While the topics are similar in scope, after reading your reply I couldn't help but think we were discussing slightly different ideas somehow. I appreciate you stimulating my brain juices anyway.

  7. I must admit to being less than forthcoming in my prior comment, as it was derived nearly verbatim from an interview with Murray Rothbard:

    Of course, names have been changed to make the comments current (and to protect the innocent/[guilty]). However, the last sentence is my own creation.

    I must also admit that I as well felt zero stake in the last presidential election. Would Rothbard himself have cared? We'll never know, but at present, I know of very few non-beltway-type libertarians (LINO's) that believe there will be any non-trivial advances in liberty absent a full scale state-wide meltdown (likely brought on by the state itself).

    "[F]rom where does the State derive its power if it is a minority that nobody agrees with?"

    Good question. To answer, it would be necessary to define the terms and concepts precisely.

    Who is the state? Clearly, politicians and top level bureaucrats of the Federal US government are part of the state. It would also be an easy case to make that all direct employees at the Federal level are part of it. What about employees of state and local governments that get Federal funding? What about contractors like GE and Boeing and their employees? What about direct welfare recipients? What about people that send their children to public schools? Subsidized utilities? These things are usually financed at least in part by the Feds. Perhaps the state is the majority, or even a supermajority.

    Who is not the state? In the extreme, maybe only a tiny minority that are able to live off the state grid. Or, maybe it is those who try to minimize their state grid footprint. Maybe those who act at the margins more in favor of liberty than against it. One might have to resort to the Potter Stewart method of subjective classification (i.e., I know it when I see it). While liberty in the abstract might be able to be objectively defined, perhaps it is only possible for acts committed within the confines of a state to be judged relative to each other, as the context of state regulation and authority is ever-present. Such a ranking system might be very Austrian indeed.

    I would say the state derives its power by co-opting as many non-state actors into its ranks as possible, while exercising enough violence to suppress the marginal non-state actor from rebellion. You're either being bribed or intimidated, and most people take the bribe.

  8. Bob E,

    Do you see a qualitative difference in deciding who is within the State and who is without between those who can exercise violence on behalf of the State (or are critical to the exercising of that violence and have direct control over its velocity -- speed and direction -- such as politicians and bureaucrats) and those who are "merely" indirect beneficiaries of it, ie, welfare recipients, non-bureaucratic employees of the State, etc.?

  9. Yes, I see a qualitative difference. For instance, the authors of PNAC vs a couch-sitting welfare recipient. It gets gray somewhere in the middle.

  10. Doesn't Ron Paul want to use savings from ending foreign wars to "pay" for decades of social security and medicare "benefits"?

    What kind of people will he appoint to the Supreme Court? Wouldn't they rule on day one that those programs are unconstitutional and must be enjoined forthwith?

    Just thinking and trying to cause some trouble....

  11. Bob R,

    1.) Doesn't he? What is your point?

    2.) I have no idea. Where would these people come from? Would they be approved by the Congress?

    Does it make sense that the country would elect a libertarian president before it elected a libertarian Congress?

    1. My point is that he is promising only a slow winding down of "entitlement" programs that he simultaneously claims are unconstitutional. Thus, if there was sufficient libertarian sentiment to elect him president, then there might be enough sentiment to elect a libertarian Congress which perhaps would put an early end to those programs. One would think he would also be nominating judges to the courts who believe those programs are unconstitutional because they are completely unauthorized. Those outcomes are inconsistent with attempting to pay current "beneficiaries" over several decades. No one asks him such questions.