Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Value of Political Involvement

“Which presidential candidate are you going to vote for,” asked a colleague “seeing that you don’t like either of them?” He asked this before acknowledging that he is the least satisfied with the available choices of any election in his adult life.

I told him that I had three answers to his question. The first reflects the reality of living in a republic that is a representative democracy. In Utah, it simply won’t matter who I vote for. Senator McCain will undoubtedly garner far more than the necessary number of votes to win all five of Utah’s electoral votes. I could vote for Senator Obama or anyone else, but it won’t matter.

The second answer comes from humorist Uncle Jay. When a supposed viewer asks whether dissatisfied voters can simply vote NO when voting for president, Uncle Jay says, “No, they can’t.” But they can select from a number of third party candidates or they may even write in a name. Doing so, Uncle Jay explains in a humorous aside, is essentially casting a vote for the major candidate they dislike most. (Click here to see 3-minute video segment.) The suggestion is that you derive the most benefit from voting for the guy you dislike least. More about that in a moment.

My third answer is that what the Supreme Court does probably has greater and longer impact than anything a chief executive does. Democrats have a strong track record of appointing liberal justices and judges. So do Republicans, for that matter. But Republicans sometimes end up appointing more conservative members of the judiciary. If you care for judicial restraint, your best chance — such as it is — is to vote for a Republican. If you prefer judicial activism, you would do better to vote Democratic.

True libertarians would disagree with Uncle Jay about voting for the major party candidate you detest the least. In fact, many libertarians argue that the marginal value of voting is lower than the cost of informing oneself about the candidates. They argue that from a results-based analysis, the margin of difference between how the different candidates would actually perform in office is incredibly small.

While rhetoric tends to differ substantially between opposing politicians, their tangible actions in office vary minimally, the argument goes. Once in office, they respond to the incentives produced by whatever political winds happen to be blowing at the moment. This is true, they say, for our most revered and our most despised politicians, as well as all in between. When their actual behavior differs from their campaign rhetoric, they always have an excuse for the difference: changed conditions, newfound understanding, bipartisanship, traded for something of greater value, it’s in the best interest of the country, etc.

Some of my libertarian friends argue that a President Obama simply isn’t going to be much different than a President McCain. It will simply be a rearrangement of the deck chairs. The ship will pretty much continue sailing as before.

The political differences about which we argue so vociferously are actually infinitesimally small, says my friend. We are really quibbling about nothing. The same old stuff will happen regardless of who is in office. And for that reason, people like my friend see no sense in spending their valuable time messing with politics. After all, choosing not to vote is a way of voting against the political system altogether.

The usual comeback to this kind of attitude is that people that refuse to vote get the kind of government they deserve. They have no right to complain about it because they did nothing about it. They are slacking and leaving the rest of us to do their duty. The counter to this is that they are already doing their part to make a positive difference simply by living their lives and making their choices.

Those that favor doing one’s civic duty find these kinds of attitudes abhorrent. GMU economist Don Boudreaux thinks otherwise. Check out his post titled Get Involved By Avoiding Politics for a sampling of this brand of thought. To be sure, Boudreaux paints private business to look cleaner than it really is, but he makes a valid point.

While we wring our hands about the politically uninvolved, participation in general elections has steadily increased over my lifetime. To people like Boudreaux, that’s a bad thing. It indicates that people are increasingly incentivized to participate politically because politicians are continually expanding the amount of control they have over citizens’ (and even non-citizens’) individual lives. In fact, it is my observation that many people clamor for and welcome such increased government control.

As a side note, many libertarians don’t bother with the Libertarian Party because they believe political involvement is a poor investment of their time and resources. Per this viewpoint, the party represents the antithesis of what they believe.

I am in the civic duty camp. I believe in doing my civic duty. I think that some of my libertarian friends underestimate the value of political involvement. On the other hand, I think it would be unwise to dismiss my friends’ arguments out of hand. They aren’t completely wrong.

1 comment:

Charles D said...

Although we are obviously on polar opposite sides of almost every political issue, we agree that the two "major" political parties in this country do not represent the views or the will of the American people - or at least American people like us.

There is a reason for this. It is not so-called judicial activism - a feature of both "conservative" and "liberal" judges. Nor is it a because of apathy on the part of the electorate. Nor is it a function of the relative control that government is able to exercise over the lives of citizens. None of these explains the disregard elected officials have for public opinion.

IMHO, the basic reason is the dominance of money in today's campaigns. If a candidate needs millions to even run for the House, much less a higher office, then the candidate will do and say what is necessary to obtain those millions, and rarely do the interests of ordinary citizens coincide with the interests of those able to contribute large amounts to political campaigns.

We have no practical alternative to political involvement, so that is what we must continue. However, we need to realize that we face insurmountable obstacles in the contest to win the attention and support of our elected representatives. We also have to recognize that a 3rd party alternative from left or right is all but impossible.

For myself, I have no delusions that either party's Presidential candidate will act in the interests of this country and its people. There are however, candidates for Congress (particularly the House) who may, at least in their initial terms, work in the interests of the people. My time, energy and money will be used in support of those candidates.