Ron Paul, Rothbard, Anarchists, Voluntaryism, and Non-voting

There was a recent discussion in my time-line on twitter about Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard in regards to voting for Ron Paul. Now non-voting is a controversial and misunderstood tactic in politics; to those committed to non-voting the reasons they give are either that voting is impractical or the voting is unethical.  Let us keep in mind that the grand goal is to reach a state of affairs where there is no State. No government. No entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given region. Anarchists have argued for centuries over the best strategy and tactics to use to achieve our grand vision of a new world. Today I will try to make the augments of the various sides more clear.

Many who advocate non-voting typically hope to see a large percentage of the voting population unite in a refusal to vote. It is hoped that this would delegitimize the State and signal that the people were withdrawing their consent to be ruled by the government. This is a worthy goal and one can see that for strategic non-voters the act of non-voting looks to be more practical than voting. Strategic non-voters also view the participation in political life in general as a diversion from other allegedly more fruitful activities one could be involved in.

There exists a different brand of non-voter: the ethical non-voters who reject voting outright because they view the act as participating in the aggression of the Nation-State. Even worse, they also see voting as granting consent to be governed by the state. This view holds that one will violate the non-aggression axiom if one votes.

Some anarchists don’t vote because they are believe in both strategic and ethical non-voting. Ideologies that generally advocate non-voting as a key strategy for social change include voluntaryism and agorism. Many Anarcho-Capitalists also do not vote. Famous AnCap law professor Butler Shaffer is one example and he gives his reasons here.

Murray Rothbard expressed criticisms against ethical non-voting and did not see voting as violating the non-aggression axiom because you don’t sign on to a “social pact” with the government by the act of voting. Murray did not vote or donate money to any candidates, but did root for various politicians over the years including Ron Paul.

According to Rothbard, there was nothing inherently unethical about voting since the voter was placed in the position he finds himself by the state.  Thus, in Rothbard’s view, it is not unethical to use voting as a tool of self-defence, just as it is not unethical to use government-controlled roads. Rothbard gave an interview to a small NYC newspaper in 1972 on this very issue:

NEW BANNER:  Some libertarians have recommended anti-voting activities during the 1972 election.  Do you agree with this tactic?

ROTHBARD:  I’m interested to talk about that.  This is the classical anarchist position, there is no doubt about that.  The classical anarchist position is that nobody should vote, because if you vote you are participating in a state apparatus.  Or if you do vote you should write in your own name, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this tactic in the sense that if there really were a nationwide movement — if five million people, let’s say, pledged not to vote.  I think it would be very useful.  On the other hand, I don’t think voting is a real problem.  I don’t think it’s immoral to vote, in contrast to the anti-voting people.

Lysander Spooner, the patron saint of individualist anarchism, had a very effective attack on this idea.  The thing is, if you really believe that by voting you are giving your sanction to the state, then you see 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 don’t think this is true, because as Spooner said, 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 — 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.  And 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.  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 either Nixon or Muskie is the greatest libertarian since Richard Cobden! — which many people, of course, 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 directing 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 Robert LeFevre, one of the spokesmen of the non-voting approach, will he deep in his heart on election night have any kind of preference at all as the votes come in.  Will he 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.

So we see that Rothbard held the view that ethical non-voters are falling prey to the democrat’s theory of the State which is that one grants consent to the state through voting and that the vote is the tool through which one agrees to a social contract.  Rothbard maintained that the state remains unethical regardless of whether one votes because the vote simply cannot ever imply legitimate consent given the coercive nature of the system in which the voting takes place.

Is voting an act of aggression violating the NAP? I say no, but I think non-voting is the best strategy. I’ll vote for a statesman like Ron Paul over a hack like Mitt Romney any day, but other than that I don’t vote.


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