Is it Useless or Wrong for Libertarians to Vote For Pro-Liberty Candidates?

Some libertarians believe that voting is wrong because it makes you complicit in the state’s oppression. This argument goes back to 19th century abolitionists, most notably William Garrison and Wendell Phillips, who argued that even voting for an abolitionist, anti-war candidate makes you complicit in the oppression of the state. This is because all government officials have to take an oath to uphold the pro-slavery Constitution, and judges have to enforce its pro-slavery provisions, such as the one that “required states to return runaway slaves to their master (Art. 4, sec. 2)”. An oath, according to Phillips,  is a “contract between him [the official] and the whole nation.” Even if the official’s aim in seeking office is to ultimately bring about a Constitutional amendment to end slavery, he has to support the Constitution till he succeeds (Garrison). So if you vote for a candidate, you will be partly responsible for his pro-slavery oath and actions. “What one does by his agent he does himself” (Phillips).

Garrison’s and Phillips’ arguments work, if they do, only if they are right that the Constitution is pro-slavery. But if it is anti-slavery, as Lysander Spooner and Frederick Douglass argued, and your candidate shares their belief, your vote for him does not make him – or you – complicit in supporting oppression.

However, even if the Constitution is pro-slavery, and your candidate believes that it is, he also knows that the Constitution allows speech critical of slavery, and thus of the Constitution. The Constitution also provides a process for amending it, and allows people to run for office in order to amend it. In other words, even if the Constitution is pro-slavery, it contains within itself the seeds of its own reform. So fidelity to the Constitution by someone committed to doing his part in ending slavery does not entail support for its pro-slavery provisions. Rather, it entails a rejection of these provisions. Hence, if this is why an anti-slavery candidate runs for office, he is not complicit in the oppression of the state, and neither is the voter.

We don’t have slavery any longer, but Garrison’s and Phillips’ rejection of electoral politics is still influential. Contemporary libertarians who reject electoral politics sometimes argue that to vote for a candidate, even a pro-liberty candidate, is to participate in the oppression of the state because no candidate is consistently libertarian. So if you vote for such a candidate, you are partly responsible for her oppressive actions. However, if your reason for voting for an imperfectly libertarian candidate is to defeat the anti-liberty candidate and reduce oppression, how can it make you complicit in the former’s oppressive actions? And even if it does, how can allowing the far more anti-liberty candidate to win not make you even more complicit in the perpetuation of oppression?

No doubt the anti-voting libertarian would reply (and I would agree) that there Is a difference between doing x and letting x happen. Letting someone drown when you can easily save her is not morally equivalent to throwing her into a river tied to a rock. But it is, nonetheless, wrong to sit on your hands instead of trying to save her. Likewise, under analogous circumstances, that is, when voting is easy and the pro-liberty candidate has a good chance of winning, I believe not voting for her is mistaken. And if  there’s nothing else you are doing to further your pro-liberty values, your not voting for her is wrong.

My brief in favor of voting might seem naive, since one vote makes no difference to a candidate’s chances of winning in a Presidential election. But not all elections are Presidential and not all “one votes” are truly one. If the race is a local one (county or municipal), and influential libertarians vote and defend voting for a local libertarian candidate, many others will also vote, and the candidate could win. This might also be possible in a state election. In any case, there’s a ‘performative’ contradiction in influential libertarian bloggers telling a readership of hundreds or even thousands that one vote doesn’t make a difference, as though every person’s “one vote” stays in its own corner instead of getting added up to every other person’s “one vote” to make hundreds or thousands of votes for the pro-liberty candidate. If the “one vote” argument were sound, it would apply as well to arguing for libertarian principles in books, blogs, or articles, since no one book, blog, or article makes a difference to people’s understanding of or support for libertarian principles (just think of how many have argued for these principles over the last 350 years, and how few they have persuaded).

In any case, victory at the polls is not the only goal of voting. Strong electoral support for a libertarian candidate even in a Presidential election can bring libertarianism to people’s attention the way blogs, articles, or books do not.

Libertarians are right that most people should not vote because they are ignorant of the issues, or because their views are mistaken, or because they can do more good by using their time for other ends. But they are not right to discourage libertarians from voting for pro-liberty candidates. Insofar as they do this, they play a significant role in the victory of the anti-liberty candidate, and become complicit in his oppression. They are like the non-rescuer who urges other people not to rescue the drowning victim. Libertarians are also wrong to discount the possibility of positive results from an electoral victory. Slavery was ended not by the intellectual and moral groundwork laid by abolitionists alone, but also by the electoral victory and actions of an imperfectly anti-slavery President, Abraham Lincoln.