A couple of weeks ago the thought struck me that it was
about time I wrote something about the personal ethics of voting. That turned
out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.
At first, I thought that I should argue that it is unethical
to vote because politics is a dirty business. As a person who often espouses
principles of libertarianism and decentralism (see the preceding
post on this blog) I see voting as akin to online shopping with known fraudsters
– you know that the package of goods they deliver will never be the same as the
one you thought you were buying. You should avoid shopping with known
fraudsters, and you should avoid voting because whoever you vote for a
politician will be elected.
Then I thought of some problems with that analogy. What
happens if you really need the goods that the politicians are advertising? Who
will mend the potholes in your road if you don’t vote for a politician who
promises to get it done? Perhaps you might tell me that you and your neighbours
could organise a working bee and do it yourself. Good idea!
However, if you don’t vote, who will restrain government
spending? I expect that the more cynical among you will respond that no-one
will restrain government spending, irrespective of whether you vote, or who you
When my reasoning took me to that point, I couldn’t immediately think of an appropriate response. That was when I decided that to bring clarity to my mind I should read again the book, “Don’t Vote – It just encourages the bastards”, by the late, great P J O’Rourke. My discussion of the book provides only a small sample of the humor and wisdom in it. Despite having been written over 12 years ago, the book contains insightful comments about people who are still on the political stage in America, including Donald Trump. However, that is somewhat tangential to the focus of this article.
You might think that this book would make a strong case
against voting, but the old saying about not judging a book by its cover does seems
to apply in this instance. O’Rourke suggests that voting does have a purpose:
“We vote to throw the bastards out”. The
problem, as I see it, is that when enough voters manage to persuade each other
to vote to throw politicians out of office, that doesn’t establish a regime of
peaceful human flourishing without any interfering politicians. Voters throw
out one lot of politicians by voting another lot into office.
One of the funniest parts of the book is a listing of the
personality characteristics of people who are drawn to politics. The first item
on the list is “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity”. After listing 9 other
characteristics, O’Rourke acknowledges that he has just quoted from the
American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality
Nevertheless, O’Rourke acknowledges that “individual
politicians are, after all, individuals like the rest of us and should be
“It would be wrong—very tempting, but wrong—to think of them
all as simply bastards”.
“I’ve spent some time with politicians. I like politicians.
I’m friends with politicians from both sides of the aisle. Politicians are fine
until they stick their noses into things they don’t understand, such as most
things. Then politicians turn into rachet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and
Unfortunately, I must agree. The politicians I have met
personally have all been likeable. When you meet them, they seem to be pleasant
people (perhaps in the same way that the scammers who seek my friendship on Facebook
often seem pleasant). A few politicians I have met even had their hearts and
heads in the right places. The one who comes to mind most readily is Bert
Kelly, an Australian politician whom I have written about previously.
Sometimes when I see a politician performing on TV, I wonder
how a nice person like her, or him, ended up like that – I mean, like
a bad actor saying things they don't believe. The fact that their future political careers are at stake is no consolation.
Is there something inherently evil about politics? O’Rourke
“Maybe politics is inherently evil. Maybe politics is so
evil that anything we do for it, even attempting to supply it with morality,
just feeds the beast. I trust this isn’t true but I can’t say the thought
doesn’t trouble me.”
That thought troubles me, too.
In his discussion of morality in politics, O’Rourke introduces
(on page 88) the Venn diagram, reproduced at the top of this article. He drew the
two circles to intersect, implying that there can be such a thing as moral political
It seems to me to be appropriate to maintain some optimism
about democratic political processes. They don’t do much to protect our liberty
and pursuit of happiness, but not many of us would freely choose to live under
any of the available alternative forms of government. Many people claimed that
democracy could not exist as a permanent form of government because it would
not take long for citizens to learn that they could vote themselves largesse
out of the public treasury. Indeed, that is largely what democratic politics has
been about for as long as it has existed. Yet democracy survives! Perhaps democracy’s
secret of success has been the existence of sufficient voters and politicians who
have been willing to stop playing politics when crises have become imminent.
I often wish that I could be apolitical, but O’Rourke has
persuaded me that is not practicable:
“The democratic political process is like the process of our
children going through adolescence. There’s not much we can do to improve it
and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We cannot, however, just declare
ourselves to be apolitical any more than we can declare ourselves to be “aparental.”
Here are the car keys, son. Dad’s stash is in the nightstand drawer. Why don’t
you take my ATM card while you’re at it? See you when you’re thirty.”
It certainly appears that there is not much that we, as
individuals, can do to change the outcomes of the political process. The chance
that your vote will be decisive is miniscule. But people do talk about politics
and influence one another about how they will cast their votes. Paradoxically, even
those of us who would like to be apolitical can make a difference if we decide that
we don’t like the direction that politics is taking and choose to vote.
Before concluding, I should offer a personal explanation
about the relevance of the personal ethics of voting to me, as a person who lives
in a country where voting is compulsory. It is possible to choose not to vote in Australia without displaying a great deal of courage. It is possible to
attend a polling place, chat with your neighbours, eat a “democracy sausage”, exchange
greetings with people offering “how to vote” literature, have your name ticked off on the voting roll, be handed voting papers, and still not cast a valid vote. In a
secret ballot, no-one knows what you write on the voting papers before you put
them into the ballot boxes.
When I began writing this article, I was not sure whether I
would end up persuading myself to vote, or to have nothing to do with the political
process. P J O’Rourke helped me to persuade myself that there is such a thing
as moral political behavior.
Democratic politics is certainly a dirty business. It doesn’t
do much to protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but most of us would
choose to put up with democratic immorality rather than to live under any of
the currently available alternative forms of governance. Paradoxically, the survival
of democracies may be attributable to the willingness of sufficient numbers of
voters and politicians to refrain from playing politics – to stop raiding the
public treasury - when crises become imminent.
Although the chances of an individual vote being decisive
are miniscule, individuals do influence one another in how they cast their
votes. Individuals who don’t like the way politics is heading are more likely
to improve outcomes if they choose to vote and encourage other like-minded people to do likewise,
rather than choosing to refrain from having anything to do with the political