Voting as a Moral Wrong

by Aaron Ross Powell

0064_vote_nobodyThe democratic process can’t transform immoral acts into moral ones. Therefore, participating in elections entails signing your name to countless misdeeds.

Election day sees a great many Americans behaving immorally, and I’m not talking about the ones who refuse to vote. It’s a day when millions head to the polls to flip a switch for a vanishingly small chance to force our preferences, via violence, upon everyone else.

Maybe you think that’s okay. Maybe you believe you’re morally justified in exercising the awesome might of government to make neighbors and strangers teach their children in ways you prefer or eat foods you happen to like or do business only with people you approve of. Maybe, in the end, you’re right. But on election day especially, we should take a moment to consider the moral questions raised by exercising that right to vote.

Start by noting that the “right to vote” really means two things. Only one of them can legitimately be labeled a right. First, there’s the right to participate in decisions about what the state will do to you. This stems from our basic dignity and from the autonomy that dignity demands. You have a right to control your own life and make your own decisions, provided those decisions don’t entail violating the rights of other people. When you vote, you’re articulating, to however small a degree, this personal autonomy. If you’re going to be ruled, you at the very least have a right to some say in how you’re ruled.

But there’s another side to voting, one that’s considerably less virtuous. When we vote, we aren’t just deciding for ourselves. We’re attempting to decide for others, too. We’re not just expressing a preference (“I prefer traditional taxis to ride sharing services.”), but also expressing a desire to see that preference made, through the application of violence or the threat of violence, the law of the land. We’re saying our opinions are so informed, correct, and important that we’re willing to have men with guns make our fellow Americans obey them, even if our fellow Americans also believe their own opinions are informed, correct, and important.

Imagine you and some friends corner an old man on the street with the intent to take his money. You’ve got an opinion about what’s best for that money, and it isn’t staying in that guy’s wallet. But beyond that shared interest in taking his cash, you can’t settle on what you’ll use it for. So you put it to a vote. To be nice, you let him participate. “You can vote what we’ll use the money for,” you tell him, “and if you want to, you can even vote to keep it.” Still, there are ten of you and one of him, and you all want to take the money.

In this case, clearly we wouldn’t applaud your participation in the vote, because no matter what you and your friends decide to do with the man’s money, you’ll commit a moral wrong. Whatever your opinion of its best use, it’s not your money to begin with. Nor would we view the harm as ameliorated by the victim’s participation in the vote. What choice did he have? At best, he’ll find enough allies that he gets to keep the contents of his wallet, which is exactly where he’d be if you and your friends had exercised even the most minimal virtue.

The obvious objection here is to say, “But the state’s not like that! Its authority is legitimate, and the will of the majority, exercised through the institutions of the state, creates its own moral justification.”

Anarchists, of course, reject this argument, because they reject the state entirely. Typically, they offer two reasons. First, there’s a utilitarian belief that a society without a state would be better—happier, freer, wealthier, more equal—than one where some rule and others are ruled. Second, there’s a moral claim that the necessary condition for a state to exist, namely that certain people get to tell other people what to do and get to enforce their commands via violence, is a moral wrong without justification.

The first we can set aside because the simple fact is no one knows. There are no existing anarchist societies, history records only a few, and the world and its technology are sufficiently different from the past that we can’t be certain how well historical examples apply today or in the future. But the second, moral objection to the state’s legitimacy is a good deal stronger than most give it credit for. I’ve written about this problem of political obligation at length. I won’t repeat the arguments here. It’s a rich literature, and one well worth exploring. The upshot, though, is that among scholars—overwhelmingly non-libertarians—who have given the matter a great deal of thought, the majority see every existing state, and likely every possible state, as morally unjustifed. There may be reasons to go ahead with creating or maintaining a state in the face of that, but at best the state will be a helpful moral wrong.

Even among those philosophers who deny this “philosophical anarchist” conclusion, the dominant conclusion is that the state’s legitimate authority is, at most, extremely limited. If the anarchists are wrong about the moral impermissibility of any state, they’re right about the moral impermissibility of very nearly everything done by, for example, the government we have today in the United States.

Which brings us back to election day. Almost every politician with his or her name on the ballot—and certainly every politician with much of a chance of winning office at the state or national level—will use that power to engage in political acts via the state that clearly lack moral legitimacy. That’s because he or she will use government to enforce preferences instead of limiting the state to that narrow role there’s even a chance of justifying morally. What about voting defensively, like the old man hoping to keep his money? Except for those who genuinely embrace the radically limited government that has a prayer of passing moral muster, every politician represents a bundle of policies. Some are the political equivelant of “Let’s not take his money,” but most aren’t. Most are rights-violating and immoral. Even by voting defensively, you endorse innumerable wicked aggressions against your fellow men.

If you cast a vote today, there’s a pretty high chance that in morally significant ways you’re acting just like those friends mugging the old man. You may think there are good reasons for doing this, that a world where you vote for violations of basic human dignity and autonomy will be more livable—happier, freer, wealthier, more equal—than one where you don’t. But you’re still party to countless immoralities. You’re still expressing approval as politicians fail to live up to basic moral standards—and as they do so in your name.