David R. Henderson  

My Case for Activism

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The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.

~ Chinese Proverb

"That will be thirteen ninety-nine plus a dollar and one cent for tax," said the clerk at Orchard Supply Hardware. I handed him my Visa card. After leaving the store with my wife on a beautiful Saturday morning in Monterey, the world looked suddenly rosier. I felt a profound sense of freedom. The reason was that I had paid $1.01 in tax, rather than the $1.04 I would have paid had the tax rate been 7.75% instead of 7.25%. The word for what I felt was eudaimonia, a word I remember from my college study of Aristotle for a feeling of well-being. I felt a love for my fellow Monterey County residents, or at least 38% of them. I felt that in the politicians' rush to take away our freedom, my allies and I had slowed it down and surprised the hell out of a ruthless, well-funded juggernaut. In the process, I discovered how even a fairly badly organized small group that is willing to make a moral case, take the offensive, and not back down when attacked can beat a much bigger group that thought it had the moral high ground and didn't. Why, you might ask, would I get this excited about paying an outrageous tax instead of an even more outrageous tax? Had I, a man who believes that taxes should be close to zero, gone off my rocker? Maybe, but that's not how I see it. Let me explain.

These are the opening quote and paragraph of the first article in my three-article series on my excursion into political activism. The article is "The Reluctant Activist, or Not Only Can You Fight City Hall, You Can Actually Win," LewRockwell.com, January 2, 2004. The two follow-on articles are "How to Stop a Tax Increase," and "Lessons Learned From Our Successful Fight Against a Tax Increase."

I thought of this while reading co-blogger Bryan Caplan's post "Why I Don't Vote: The Honest Truth," this morning. It made me realize how different Bryan and I are. One of the sentences that made our differences really clear to me was this one: "But I refuse to traumatize myself for a one-in-a-million chance of moderately improving the quality of American governance." Unlike Bryan, I don't find voting traumatizing, or anything close to traumatizing.

And, as you'll see from the above article of mine, I went way beyond voting to actually trying to persuade voters.

By the way, I have previously posted my skepticism about voting in the past. My skepticism has been mainly about bad arguments for voting. Here's a post where I implicitly argued for voting. Commenter GregS has expressed my current view of voting.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Khodge writes:

Thank you for this post. It is so frustrating reading economic posts (like Bryan's) constantly expressing the futility of individual participation and individual action without ever hearing counter-arguments. To draw out GregS a bit further, there seems to be a movement among economists to suppress the economically literate vote.

Yaakov writes:

What you describe is a totally different issue from what Brian is talking about. Brian is talking about voting for politicians, who lie and betray their voters. You are talking about voting for a specific proposal. Both of you are right.

hanmeng writes:

The "proverb" you cite is unlikely to be Chinese.


Shane L writes:

I actively enjoy voting! With Ireland's proportional representation by single transferable vote (PR-STV) system, we are confronted with a list of all the candidates by name, with photos, and indicators of their political party. We then list our preferred candidates from 1, then 2, then 3 and so on, like so:

PR-STV is slightly complicated to explain, but the general result is that even if your preferred candidate does not win, your vote could help the second or third preference candidate to win.

That way you are not faced with the sense that you must vote for the lesser evil. There are few "wasted votes" and it can be strategically sensible to vote with your conscience, even for a candidate who has little chance of winning, and then seeing your second preference go to an acceptable alternative. That way at least you can signal your support for your preferred candidate, perhaps influencing policy as the winning government can see that there is interest in this candidate's ideas.

In any case, far from traumatic, I enjoy my tiny kick of power at the election booth! Many people died to change our countries from inherently unjust feudal societies with governments of, by and for the landlords to our current, imperfect, but greatly superior political systems.

Charley Hooper writes:

I don't find these pro-vote arguments compelling and yet I've voted in every election since I turned 18. Why? With me, I think of reviewing my life: Have I done everything within reason to make the world a better place?

Did I speak with friends? Yes. Did I write articles and books? Yes. Did I donate money to good causes? Yes. Did I raise good children? Yes. Did I help my community? Yes. Did I vote? Yes.

Voting is a cost but it gives me the power that comes from knowing I'm doing a reasonable amount of work toward making the world a better place. Most people overestimate the expected value of voting in terms of affecting policy but underestimate it in terms of increasing their own power.

I still remember how successful and powerful I felt the first time I bought my aunt and uncle lunch. It was emblematic of my transition from childhood to adulthood. When we feel satisfied with our efforts, when we work toward important goals, when we are responsible, we are empowered, and that gives us the strength to do things that are more substantial than voting.

BC writes:

After thinking about it a few days, here is my best rational case for voting. Even if one is unlikely to influence the outcome of any given election, having the right to vote, even *if left unexercised*, is beneficial. I think even Bryan Caplan would agree that democracies are generally better places to live than non-democracies. Even if policies favored by the majority aren't always good policies, deterring government from exercising powers that the majority dislikes is an important check on government powers.

If one's fellow citizens regularly vote, then arguably they will appreciate the right to vote more, and will be more willing to exert effort and incur costs to preserve that right to vote, than would be the case if they were non-voters. So, even if one doesn't want to vote oneself, one should want to encourage one's neighbors to vote as a means for reinforcing the importance of preserving the *right* to vote.

It's much more difficult to convince one's fellow citizens to vote if one is unwilling to vote oneself. Precisely because one is unlikely to influence the outcome of an election, voting (or at least pretending to vote) sends a signal to one's fellow citizens that one is willing to incur personal cost to preserve the right to vote. We vote to encourage everyone else to vote.

(Interestingly, I used to have the opposite view: that it made no sense to talk about the "duty" to vote because, when fewer other people voted, than one's own vote would count more. However, preserving a culture that values the right to vote is much more important than the infinitesimal gain in influence one gets in any given election from decreased turnout.)

As an aside, I would be skeptical of mandatory voting. Forcing someone to vote is unlikely to instill in them an appreciation for the right to vote. Instead, voting would be seen as a chore. We want people to vote voluntarily so that they will see it as a benefit, even if voting could actually be a cost. (The right to vote is the benefit.)

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