A general election will take place on December 12th 2019 in the United Kingdom. I haven’t voted for nearly eight years. Here’s why I won’t vote this year, or likely any year for the rest of my life.
No party represents me
The premise behind representative democracy is that I get to vote for people that represent my values in the institutions that make political decisions that affect my life. I am not an apathetic – I’m deeply concerned about how politics shapes the world around me. The problem is that none of the parties represent my values.
There are some that represent my values more closely than others, but it’s marginal. Most parties have some policies that I agree with, but I disagree with the majority of their policies. On net, any given party that gains power in the House of Commons will likely make my life worse, not better.
My vote will not matter
One could argue for pragmatism – if there are any differences between the parties at all, I ought to vote for the party that will do the least damage. However, even if I could completely endorse a particular candidate, my vote almost certainly will not affect the outcome of the election. The only scenario in which it might is if it was decided by a single vote, which is statistically close to impossible.
Another way to understand this is to ask this question: If I had voted in the previous general election, could I have prevented my current member of Parliament from being elected? The answer is clearly no. He had such a majority that to swing it would require thousands of me to vote the same way. I don’t have control over others, I can only decide who I alone vote for.
The winner-takes-all approach to the election of members of Parliament means that it’s not relevant to the final result whether the winning candidate wins by 10,000 votes or 10. If I don’t like the most popular candidate, I might be inclined to vote for one of their opponents; but they would lose regardless. The loser doesn’t gain any more power by virtue of the fact they came second rather than last.
Yes, it is true that the aggregate of voters’ decisions will affect the outcome. But remember, we’re discussing whether I should vote, not the aggregate. Only individuals make decisions, not groups. If my vote counted for 10,000 in disproportion to everyone else, the pragmatist might be on to something. But I can only decide what I will do.
It’s not a moral obligation
A common rebuttal to the “won’t matter” argument is “but what if everyone acted like that?” invoking Kant’s categorical imperative. If all the people who didn’t vote voted for people who represented their values, the country might not be in the mess it is in now.
The problem with this hypothetical is that it’s not a controlled experiment. In a world where the democratic system did actually allow my values to be represented, it might be valid. As it is, the system is rigged, intentionally or not, against pro-liberty worldviews such as mine.
Our ethical choices can’t be subject to utopian hypotheticals. They’re contingent on how other people behave, how the world is. Some things are right in certain conditions, and wrong in others. If I voted, it wouldn’t be wrong – it would merely be wasted time.
Many repeat the very true statement that people have died for my right to vote. I have sympathy for our ancestors, well-intentioned, who sought liberty for ourselves and accountability for our leaders, and the sacrifice of those people was extraordinarily brave. This merely makes the failure of our democratic system all the more tragic. The aim is noble: Autonomy over how we live our lives. Unfortunately, in practice, the system we have now does not achieve this.
Rights are not the same as obligations. There are many rights that we have that we are not morally obligated to exercise. We have the right to free speech, but we also have the right to not speak if we so choose. We support the right to gay marriage, but we are not obligated by that support to marry someone of the same gender. The right to abstain is as sacrosanct as the right to vote.
It doesn’t make a particularly good statement
As I have demonstrated, any given individual voting “pragmatically” in hope of getting a particular candidate elected is pointless. Alternatively, one could vote for the person one thinks is best for the job regardless of how likely it is they will be elected.
This satisfies both Kant’s categorical imperative, and in theory, the “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain” people. One could, with a clear conscience, pledge support for the candidate that most represents one’s values.
Some argue that this is a more solid statement of one’s preferences than non-voting. Elected officials have to take into account where the people’s ideological wind is blowing, even if their ideas seem dominant for the moment. Our values might not be represented now, but they may be that little bit more noticeable next time. Surely being slightly pandered to is better than not being pandered to at all?
This signalling theory, if you will, is overrated.
Firstly, elected officials’ first obligation is to the special interests that enable them, not the people that vote for them. The voters aren’t the most powerful body in politics, unfortunately. Politicians are more influenced by corporate lobbyists than to fringe voters by order of magnitude.
Secondly, my values are so anathema to the political system that there’s an inherent anachronism. Politicians don’t want my values represented because they represent a direct threat to their livelihoods. Ideally speaking, I would abolish politics altogether. The most likely scenario is that they attempt to pull the wool over my eyes by bland concessions to individual freedom in some narrow sense, as many “libertarian” politicians have done. Rulers tend to like to rule.
My peers tell me, “You have no right to complain if you have forgone your opportunity to state your preferences.”
Let’s analyse that for a moment.
The only way I could fully express my preferences via the ballot box would be by either spoiling my paper or writing in the person who I think would literally be the best person for the job, regardless of whether they were even running.
The spoiled ballot paper is ambiguous. The state can’t read it in a particular sense. They can assume that the spoilers are unhappy with the system or any of the options put before them, but there’s no information on why, so can’t act accordingly. And what exactly would happen if everyone spoiled their ballot paper? Would all parliamentarians just resign in shame?
Writing someone in does get closer to a value statement. That is exactly what I did the last time I entered a ballot box: I wrote in the long-dead American economist Murray Rothbard. Why are you rolling your eyes? I thought the point of writing someone in was to put forward the best possible candidate in accordance with my values?
Regardless, stating my preferences in that way seems an odd play when there are multiple platforms available to me that might allow people to actually read them. As soon as this is posted I can send this to my local member of Parliament. It won’t be some anonymous name in a register, but a clear statement of values from an individual.
The idea that by not voting I’m somehow choosing not to make a stand is nonsense. I can tell the world my preferences right now. In fact, here it is: Leave me alone. Stop bombing, stealing from and exploiting people. Stop imposing your grand vision of society through the barrel of a gun.
Not too much to ask, eh?
To conclude honestly, I can’t do much better than Bob Murphy. He’s talking about the US system, but it’s equally applicable to the British:
“And if you are really feeling radical, consider following my example. I haven’t voted for years. This system is obviously rigged, designed to give Americans the illusion of choice when really both candidates in the two major parties are serving the same interests. Call these special interests what you will–the military-industrial complex, the international bankers, the New World Order–but clearly U.S. presidential elections are an enormous theatrical production, designed to keep the masses bickering over silly trivialities while the important issues (like the Federal Reserve and U.S. military in the Middle East) are off the table.
The function of periodic elections is to give the appearance that Americans have actually endorsed the monstrosities of the welfare-warfare State. If more of us stopped participating in this rigged game, that alleged “legitimacy” would appear more and more dubious.”
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