The immorality of voting

The relatively inconspicuous task of voting doesn’t seem to arouse much suspicion of a moral dilemma in most people — myself included. Virtually the only thing all of our party élites seem to agree on is that everyone should vote no matter who it is that they vote for.  It seems to most people therefore, as not only a relatively innocent act, but even as a moral obligation.

Wendy McElroy sees it differently.

In this entirely engaging and interesting recent talk, Ms. McElroy gives a compelling argument exploring both moral and other reasons why we shouldn’t cast a ballot (or why we should spoil our ballots) in certain elections.

I am a regular voter, and I do plan on voting this Tuesday in the Canadian federal election, but the argument presented by Ms. McElroy is not silly.  In fact, Ms. McElroy’s argument is serious enough that I believe every responsible voter must address the argument one way or another even if one plans to continue voting in the future.  Ms. McElroy approaches her argument from a peculiar version of the anarchist school of thought rather than the Marxist and socialist schools of thought which I tend to emphasize here at Paulitics.  Unfortunately, however, this brand of anarchism is anarcho-capitalism which I strongly disagree with.  That said, I assure my regular traditional leftist readers that there is no element of pro-capitalist rhetoric in this particular conversation and I believe that regular anarchists, Marxists and left liberals can and should all give Ms. McElroy’s argument a serious airing.

Ms. McElroy’s arguments about voting as legitimizing élite-controlled democracy — or what we leftists used to more commonly refer to as bourgeois democracy —  I find very compelling.  On the other hand I was relatively unconvinced by the implication in her argument that voters who elect a government remain morally responsible for the authoritarian acts of said government even if they later withdrawn any moral or political support from the candidate or party in question.  For me, activism, agitation, disruption, organization and other subversive acts in between elections can absolve a voter from the moral culpability of electing an odious government into power.

But, nevertheless, I strongly encourage any regular Paulitics reader and any potential voter to listen to Wendy McElroy’s talk below before they consider voting.

16 Responses to “The immorality of voting”


  1. 1 Nick J Boragina 12 October, 2008 at 10:35 am

    I dont know if I agree with the argument, but I agree that we should not have to vote for a totally different reason. I’ve spoken to people in my life that think Africa is a country, or that France is the capital city of England, which is itself another name for Europe. The best example I like to use comes from Public Transit (of which I’m a fan) in Brampton Ontario.

    Brampton has some buses called Nova LFS. They come with the option (that Brampton took) to have a rear door opened by motion sensor. To inform the public of how to open the rear door they placed a large Yellow and Red sticker, at eye level, with a huge Hand outline on it, that says “TO OPEN DOOR WAVE HAND HERE”. Yet over and over, I see people standing at the rear door, staring at it, and expecting it to just open. When it does not they turn to the driver and yell, of all things, “The door is broken!”. My guess is that this group of people is very similar to those that I’ve run across that think that, and I quote, the United States is far away from us because “It’s in the Western World”

    Frankly, if people with this intellect level were to vote en masse, who knows what kind of mess they’d get us into.

  2. 2 paulitics 12 October, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Nick J Boragina,

    Considering your comment above, I thought you might enjoy some of these quotes from H.L. Mencken:

    “Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.”
    -H.L. Mencken

    “The Fathers who invented it [democracy], if they could return from Hell, would never recognize it. It was conceived as a free government of free men; it has become simply a battle of charlatans for the votes of idiots.”
    -H.L. Mencken

    “There is no underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
    -H.L. Mencken

  3. 3 Gérald 12 October, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Spam comment deleted

  4. 4 martinp 12 October, 2008 at 1:00 pm

    That’s an often quoted argument, its always ‘other’ people who are stupid, not ‘me’. Only people ‘smart like me’ should vote. Of course there is the very real possibility that it is ONLY those people who are voting. The reality is that democracy doesn’t advance in this country because so many people are simply scared of other canadians. That’s not surprising, canada’s media is the most tightly controlled in the ‘democratic’ world. But its very amusing how often I’ve seen people writing online about what ‘sheep’ OTHER canadians are, or how stupid OTHER canadians are. The above is certainly a bad example, people may not see the sign, may not understand what its for. Virtually EVERY person can point to a new incident where in hindsight what they thought or said was stupid. The more time that you spend WITh a person and the less time ‘observing’ them will show just how intelligent people are (guess what, most are just as smart as you).

    It’s of course elites like Mencken who sit around doing nothing but make up pithy quotes about OTHER people’s stupidity, but there’s also a good one from him: “all the problems of democracy can be resolved with more democracy”.

  5. 5 paulitics 12 October, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Matinp, I think your comment is a very important one (although I don’t think the democracy quote was from Mencken).

    I should mention that my interest in Mencken is a weird one. While I quote him often and while I find his quotes hilarious, I often don’t agree with them fully. I think there’s a grain of truth to much of what he says, but that doesn’t mean that everything surrounding that truth is necessarily accurate.

    That said, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong in calling some people ‘stupid’ or ‘incompetent’ so long as one also accepts oneself as ‘stupid’ or ‘incompetent’. Keep in mind, when the Oracle of Delphi was asked who the wisest man in Greece was, she responded that it was Socrates because just like everyone else he knew nothing, but unlike everyone else, he at least knew that he knew nothing.

    I have no problem admitting my incompetence and stupidity in certain areas and contexts. I think the real problem comes not necessarily when we call other people stupid but rather when we think that they are stupid AND ALSO THINK that we aren’t.

  6. 6 freedomainradio 12 October, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    Spam comment deleted.

  7. 7 Robert 12 October, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    Yep. I think she’s got it right on. Besides, let’s face it… this election the left has nothing real to offer us… and they won’t represent our vote. The Liberals won’t take down the Conservative Minority,(they’re broke and can’t afford another election), the greens are asking us to NOT vote for them, and the NDP(although too far left for me but our only leftist hope) are promising the moon while they know they mean NOTHING when promising the moon and stars to every class of people. It’s useless. Hell no, I won’t go…to vote on Oct. 14th.

  8. 8 martinp 13 October, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    Keep in mind while there is moral culpability in voting, there is also moral culpability in NOT voting. There is still a fair bit of freedom in our society, so simply abrogating the responsibility of voting doesn’t put one in the moral clear. Refusing to take part in an injustice is only part of it-you also have the responsibility to end the injustice if possible. There is no doubt that the entire system is skewered, however, NOT voting doesn’t change anything. In fact, if only TEN percent of the voting public voted, then there is still no certainty that anything would change. In fact, if you look at the actions of the canadian federal parties- ALL of them, its clear that they are MORE than happy when canadians aren’t voting. That means only party supporters vote, and they are easy to control. So when you gleefully say you aren’t voting, you are playing right into their hands. That’s especially true with this election, policies mean very little, however, there is a VERY real benefit of a minority government, which is worth voting and becoming involved in just for that. There are many anti harper vote swaps on facebook, and there are LOTs of parties who can use the financial support a vote gets them.

    For the other point, human beings are especially creative although not always ‘smart’. However, democracy is about seeing one’s own self interest as much as anything else. I may not know how to signal a bus driver about a sign, but I can still decide whether, say, I want X tax dollars to go to a new water treatment plant-like they voted on in Richmond, British Columbia. Or I can decide whether I want my town to spend money on a swimming pool, or a bigger library. Those decisions have nothing to do with ‘intelligence’, although people who want a swimming pool are likely to call those who want a library ‘idiots’ who don’t know whats good for them, etc. That’s the problem with ‘representative democracy’ or worse ‘responsible government’, people can’t get anywhere near the ISSUES and are stuck voting in a biased system. NOT voting though, doesn’t change that, I remember one politician saying that if people ONLY vote then they have no right to complain.

    And I’m pretty sure that’s a Moencken quote, I looked it up.

  9. 9 Nick J Boragina 13 October, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I’ve always felt that it’s those who vote for the winner that have no right to complain.

    Anyway, I think my earlier comments were misunderstood. My intent was to say this: Low turnout is not a bad thing. I dont see why we are fussing because turnout is dropping, these are people who cannot be bothered to vote, do we really want to force them to do something they do not want to do?

  10. 10 martinp 13 October, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    People are fussing because lowering turnout is a problem. IF canada had a functional electoral system than it may be different, but the first past the post system is so blatantly unfair that virtually every ‘democracy’ has abandoned it. So not voting IS a ‘bad thing’ because of its result. In fact, IF canada had mandatory voting, like Australia, then the political map would look far different. It’s well established that the poor disproportionately don’t vote, and the young. Not coincidentally it is their interests that are most often ignored, resulting in the self fulfilling prophecy-don’t vote= no representation, no representation = don’t vote. Plus, lets look at what our society actually says-it is important that you don’t steal, don’t kill, that you work, pay taxes, etc. So if you HAVE to pay taxes, which is even MORE morally repugnant in a government that favours military buildups and police tactics when dealing with natives, then why NOT ‘force’ people to vote? If they did, then I doubt we’d be worried about a Harper majority right now. Forcing people to vote would also politicize our environment more, which is a good thing. Most people simply don’t even talk about the election, they ignore it. That’s a BAD thing no matter how you look at it.

  11. 11 yoramgat 14 October, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Paul,

    Some of these arguments have been discussed some time ago on the Crooked Timber blog.

    Since I prefer a sortition based government over an electoral system, I presented at the time the position that voting legitimizes the powerful and thus not voting is a tool against the elite. I discovered that my position was untenable.

    It turns out that it is not the act of voting itself that legitimizes the government and thus the act of withholding your vote does not delegitimize the government. A government elected with a very low turnout (as many local governments are) is considered legitimate as long as the act of not voting is interpreted as an expression of apathy rather than an expression of dissent. On the other hand, if it is known that many voters vote despite the fact that they consider the system illegitimate, the government would enjoy very little legitimacy, even if the turnout is high.

    The important act, therefore, is to let it be known – in every possible way – that you consider the electoral system illegitimate. At the same time, you might as well vote – seeing it simply as the political tool it is rather than as a moral act.

    Crucially, however, delegitimizing the electoral system is very difficult unless you offer a better government system. That is why McElroy’s moralistic tone is uncovincing and even phony. Sure, elected governments can do bad things, but what is the alternative? Unelected government? No government at all? McElroy doesn’t explicitly say so, but it seems that she favors “no government at all”, believing in the emergence of some kind of right-wing-libertarian utopia. I understand that in this forum, such nonsense does not need to be seriously addressed.

    As I wrote above, I have my own favorite alternative, which I believe is superior – and is only because this alternative exists that I feel justified in attacking the electoral system. I strongly prefer the current system over McElroy’s alternative.

  12. 12 Ken Furber 15 October, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Paul,
    I must admit when it comes to voting, I’m a bit of an idealist. I hope that by deciding to vote and then doing that, people will actually start paying attention more to what’s going on in our political system. That’s opposed to just giving up and tuning out. Of course, a voter also has to take some responsibility for what happens, or doesn’t happen, after an election. If they don’t like what a certain candidate or party does they’ll have another opportunity to express themselves again next election.
    Elitists only control what they’re allowed to control. In their eyes we’re all stupid and confused so the way to get to them is to take their power away by voting.
    I get what she’s saying but not voting doesn’t make the situation better. It only gives more power to the powerful. I voted yesterday. For a candidate that didn’t have a chance in Hell. And guess what, he lost. I’d do that again in a heartbeat — and have many many times — because I believe in the system, cracked as it is. If you want to discuss patching those cracks, I’m all for a hearty discussion, but turning your back to the problem does nothing.

  13. 13 croghan27 16 October, 2008 at 10:04 am

    I can agree with not voting for what I would call legitimate reasons ….. that of validating the current political system being one of them.

    What can be seen as just not caring can usually be translated into a failure of our ‘democratic’ system to engage the voters and is legitimate – as is voting for Elvis.

    Yes, I do vote … but it is usually for the lesser of all the evils.

  14. 14 martinp 17 October, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    I think the above says it all, the system is ‘cracked’ but that’s all there is. Usually it is as the above says, the lesser of two evils. However, many are in the position where they know the difference in political parties is meaningless-and Harper has been more ‘liberal’ than Chretien ever was. It IS true that change doesn’t come from less political activity-but it does come from DIFFERENT political activity-in other words, join fairvote.ca and get to work. Voting doesn’t ‘hurt’ and voting for an independant is hardly supporting Afghanistan missions or military expansion-its supporting your local independant.

  15. 15 yoramgat 17 October, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Elections is an inherently oligarchical institution. Politics cannot be fixed by better voting – it can only be fixed by moving away from voting.


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