Sometimes people say, “If you didn’t vote, don’t complain.” Nonsense. Everyone can complain. Complaining about pompous politicians and oppressive regulations doesn’t require participation in popularity lotteries. In fact, if one were to stipulate who has less reason to complain, it would be those who do vote, not those who ignore the charade.
To the extent that voting is a kind of ascent to the political process, those who do it are implicitly agreeing to abide by the outcome. I don’t really think voters can’t complain or that voting means you submit to any outcome of politics, but for many who believe in the process, the ritual is an attempt to cleanse oneself of guilt. Your show of support for thug A means you can feel self-righteous when nearly identical thug B advocates bad things. Yet it’s the process, the institutional setting itself not those elected within it, that creates the bad things.
Voting is not the way to cleanse yourself from guilt or attempt to achieve social objectives. Many people argue that voting shows you are civic-minded and highly engaged. This is a lot of horse manure. Voting makes you less engaged, less humane, less civic-minded, and less effective at creating the kind of world you want to live in. There are three primary reasons voting is problematic:
1) Sometimes it works. If your candidate wins and implements the policy you like, you might feel good because now people will be told to do things the way you prefer. But consider what this really means. It means violence. It means your preferred social change is being generated by force. That’s an ugly reality any decent person should want to distance themselves from. If you can’t get there peacefully, maybe you shouldn’t try to get there at all.
2) Whether or not it works, it has side-effects. If your person or policy wins or loses, whatever political ploys are put into practice have myriad deleterious effects on the world. Well-meaning minimum wage laws make the poor less employable. Well-meaning environmental laws encourage waste, fraud, abuse, and price the poor out of many markets. The list goes on. You probably don’t know enough about the complex world to know the unintended consequences of top-down enforcement of any policy. Let the more dynamic, adaptable, open social process figure out the trade-offs instead of a zero-sum either/or ballot box.
3) It reduces the incentive to engage in civil society. When you vote for something you relieve the pressure to do something more meaningful. Voting offers just enough satiation for your heart and mind so you can return to your regularly scheduled programming. It makes people self-righteous and annoying. It incentivizes signalling you care instead of figuring out how to really care enough to bring about change. It turns friends into enemies. It saps creativity by offering a brute, ham-fisted quick-fix. If you get a bunch of kids together and they disagree about toys or rules of a game they’re less likely to find a creative solution if you also give them a magic authority hat that anyone who wins a vote can wear, thereby conferring the power to dictate all rules and dole out punishments and favors. Voting makes us little barbarians.
Don’t let people tell you a good citizen must vote. Quite the opposite. Abstain, and get busy building your own life and world in a positive, productive, cooperative, and civilized manner.
This was originally published on isaacmorehouse.com in April 2015.