"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Voting Is Not Rational
Column by Stephen Nichols.
Exclusive to STR
While reading Paul Bonneau’s recent column on STR entitled “Voting Is Not Irrational,” I was taken aback by the obvious flaws in his analysis and the conclusions resulting from that analysis. It’s been a few days since his article was published and I’ve been formulating my response to it for some time. Let me now share with you my counter-analysis and thinking as to why voting is clearly not rational.
Paul outlines several arguments in favor of voting and in support of voting non-interference. I really appreciate the effort Paul has put into his writings. Each of his arguments should be given a moment of consideration and a measured response:
Paul wrote: “Given a particular worldview, voting is not all that irrational. If one already accepts that some people should be ruled by others, then the process by which rulers are chosen becomes crucial. This is why voters are not moved by our arguments. They have accepted, as a given, the legitimacy of the state. If the state is legitimate, if it is right and good that some should be ruled by others, then of course people should vote!”
They key phrase here, in my mind, is “Given a particular worldview.” That phrase may be followed up by anything that can be rationalized by a particular worldview. Which, it turns out, is pretty much any behavior yet conceived by man. By this reasoning, if my particular worldview tells me that I should skewer, roast and eat babies, then my desire isn’t all that irrational, right? Well, in reality, that depends on the thinking behind my rationalization.
It’s obvious that people who accept the legitimacy of the state are likely to accept the means used to choose rulers, be it voting or appointment or divine right. This is not the issue. The issue is the chain of thinking behind this acceptance. If any link in that chain of reasoning is weak, then it is susceptible to productive attack.
Paul is right to point out “particular worldviews” insomuch as the desire to emancipate ourselves from the coercive state is related to those competing worldviews. If one agrees that it is competing worldviews that fuel the coercive state, then it is desirable to attack the rationality behind support of those destructive worldviews.
Paul wrote: “The probabilistic argument – that one’s vote is highly unlikely to decide an election – is one that actually is independent of worldview…”
This section of Paul’s column was a bit contradictory, but I believe I understand the thrust of what he’s saying: that voting works and the probabilistic argument is a dead end. It’s hard to argue with that assessment for two reasons:
- Given a “particular worldview,” voting works as intended.
- Most people don’t understand probabilities. Read more about that at cracked.com.
At best, the probabilistic argument might engender some voter apathy. But, because most people don’t understand probabilities, the argument is essentially lost on them. And even if the argument were well understood, it’s just not that moving because it doesn’t engage the destructive worldview that supports the coercive state. It’s just a mere intellectual curiosity.
At this point, Paul calls for a more productive strategy that involves directly attacking the legitimacy of the state. He writes:
“A much more productive course might be to directly attack the legitimacy of the state. Once that comes into question in a person’s mind, it seems unlikely there will be much voting from him any longer. And that should be our aim anyway. We want people questioning the state. It doesn’t help if we somehow talk them into not voting when they still believe the state is legitimate.”
I wholeheartedly agree that it is most productive to directly attack the legitimacy of the state. The point that Paul seems to miss is that voting is the portcullis to that attack. Let me explain:
Unless you’re a convicted criminal, state employee or otherwise dependent on the government, involvement with the state is limited by your level of activism. And, for most people, that activism is limited to voting every year or so. For most of the time the state is tolerated and ignored by these folks. Yet, when the chance to vote is offered, those of conscience (given their worldview) line up to influence the direction of the state on Election Day. Quite literally, for most people in our society, involvement with the state is predicated on voting. Indeed, many are emotionally invested into their right of suffrage.
Arguing with someone about the abstract legitimacy of the state is not productive unless that person is fertile ground for such ideas. Take some time and have that discussion with an avowed statist and watch their eyes glaze over. You’ll lose them in almost every case.
However, calling the practice of voting into question really pushes their buttons! Tell a voter that you don’t vote and you’ve got their attention. I’ve seen more voters than I can remember give me the look of shock and horror when I tell them that I don’t vote and why. They happily engage with me to try and convert me to their religion. And, make no mistake; voting and politics are religious beliefs for many people. By my reckoning, politics is the largest secular religion around. Screw Jesus, long live the bald eagle!
This is the rub. People are not rational about why they vote. They just do it “just because.” Really dig in on this with voters you know. Ask them why they vote. Probe them for their reasoning. If their head doesn’t explode after you ask the question, you’ll find, in nearly all cases, a logic vacuum replaced by unreasoned faith. What you’ll find is their sense of civic duty and emotional defensiveness.
This is why voting is not rational--because people engage in it based on irrational thinking. They engage in it based on emotional investment and feelings. There is no clear line of thinking that supports voting as a rational act. If there is, I’d love to hear it! Of course, given a “particular worldview,” anything can be rationalized. But rationalizing something doesn’t make it rational.