The 2014 midterm election delivered both good news and bad. The good news is that the losers lost. The bad news is that the winners won.
Journalist Mike Barnicle says he’s never seen an election in which the people feel so distant from the government. I wish his diagnosis were right, but I suspect it is not. True, voter turnout likely set no records for a midterm, but this doesn’t indicate alienation as much as disgust with the particular cast of incumbents. Who wouldn’t be disgusted?
Despite what the voters may think, however, this isn’t really about personality and character. It’s about the limits of human nature. No one is qualified to govern us, considering how “govern” is defined today. The national, state, and local governments attempt to manage all aspects of our lives. In various ways, they undertake to “get the economy moving” and keep it “humming.” On top of that, the national government maintains a global empire in the service of which the national-security apparatus presumes to manage foreign societies.
Even if doing these things were morally proper—which it assuredly is not—it would be beyond the capability of human beings. No person or group could possibly possess the knowledge that would be required to manage a society—this one or one in a foreign land. Any “leader” who presents himself as fit for that job is a poser. No one is qualified to do what politicians today aspire to do.
That goes for Republicans as well as Democrats. Republicans talk about shrinking government, but don’t believe it. They certainly have no intention of shrinking the American empire, much less dismantling it. Quite the contrary. And while they talk about freeing the economy, that usually means removing restrictions on privileged economic interests without also eliminating the privileges. Republicans give the free market a bad name, because too often their policies amount to unabashed corporatism. But, then, the Democrats are no different. Both parties have a vested interest in the essential status quo, whatever their differences at the margin.
The election season is when we most often hear hosannas to democracy. Every public figure, including supposedly hardboiled news people, urges us to vote. “Every vote counts,” they say.
As the late Gordon Tullock explains, “It’s more likely that you’ll get killed driving to the polling booth, than it is that your vote will change the outcome of the election.” Think about the elections you voted in. Not one would have turned out differently had you done something else that day.
Since no one vote is decisive, most people have no incentive to invest time and money acquiring the knowledge necessary to act responsibly on election day. (The responsible thing could be to stay home.) Government at all levels imposes burdens on our economic activities—the so-called economy is just people and their pursuits. How many voters study economics so they can competently judge what candidates promise to do? And how many study moral philosophy to better decide whether existing and promised policies are moral or immoral? The great American social critic H.L. Mencken said, “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” How would we decide if he is right or wrong?
To really become an informed voter, you would have to do nothing but study these and other subjects. But since your one vote won’t be decisive, why would you take time away from your family, friends, work, and voluntary community activities, where your choices are decisive?
You wouldn’t, and you don’t.
Moreover, the costs and benefits associated with electing the candidates you vote for are dispersed among the multitude, so even if your choice wins, your share is minuscule.
Thus your vote has virtually no personal material consequences and no influence on the outcome. So remaining ignorant and voting your biases and feelings turns out to be the rational thing to do.
In other words, voting rewards irresponsibility. That’s just one problem with democracy.
In the end, democratic representation—the opiate of the masses—is just a way to stop us from complaining. The people in Washington aren’t our representatives. They are our rulers.
But fear not. The alternative isn’t dictatorship. It’s individual freedom, responsibility, contract, and voluntary mutual aid.
Sheldon Richman is vice president editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.