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Arguments Against Political Action

John Pugsley

The following is from an open letter written to Harry Browne in 1995 when he decided to run for president of the United States.

1. One vote doesn't matter. The front-line argument against voting, and the reason that most people don't vote, is simply the belief that one vote doesn't matter.

This is one of the weaker arguments against voting, since we all know that this is not quite true. It's more correct to say that one vote probably won't matter. But it could. Elections have been won or lost on small margins. Since voting could swing an election, the low probability of casting a useful vote should not be considered a valid reason for abstaining from political action... providing that political victory could eventually lead to a free society. I think you properly qualified this argument when you said in HOW I FOUND FREEDOM IN AN UNFREE WORLD, "...the individual's efforts become almost irrelevant to the outcome." The operative word was "almost."

2. Libertarians can't hope to win. The futility-of-onevote argument above is harmonic with the argument that the Libertarians can't hope to win. Because of the power of the two major parties, the great sums of campaign money they command and the bias of the media, the odds against free market advocates are overwhelming. Furthermore, even if free-market advocates gain media coverage, the majority of individual voters will probably prefer to vote themselves benefits in the shortterm because they fool themselves into believing that somehow they will personally be able to avoid paying the price in the long-term. Again, I think this is one of the weaker arguments against political action. There is no law of nature that says a Libertarian candidate couldn't win. Victory is not impossible, just unlikely. The low probability of winning an election is not an insurmountable reason for abstaining from political action ... providing, that is, that political victory could eventually lead to a free society.

3. Natural rights. The central anarchist argument against political action, and the first one, it seems to me, that is impossible to refute, is that of "natural rights." As stated in THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If each person has a natural right to his body and property, then another individual cannot have a right to aggress against him. In a political democracy or republic, voters appoint a candidate to be their agent and implicitly sanction him to aggress against others in the community. It is equivalent to saying that you have the right to give A permission to aggress against B. The anarchist argues that no individual, including you, has the right to give anyone else permission to aggress. According to the natural rights hypothesis, voting is an immoral act. ...

The would-be-voter, in a fall-back defense of voting, argues that he is not voting for just anyone, he is voting for Harry Browne. You're ready to swear that you'll never, never use the gun of political power against anyone, but are seeking that gun only in an attempt to destroy it once you hold it in your hands. If the other candidate wins, he may aggress, but you will not.

You and your voters know the office carries with it, by law, by Constitution and by tradition, the power to aggress. Each voter admits he knows the authority exists and delegates it to the individual for whom he votes. The voter implicitly agrees that whoever wins the election is entitled to those powers—the power to regulate, power to tax, the power to imprison and the power to kill. If you are elected, you'll be required to swear an oath to carry out the duties of the presidency and uphold the laws, as specified in the Constitution. You and the voter don't set the contract, but your participation is your agreement to abide by its rules. You condone the existence and authority of the office by the very act of entering the race and entering the voting booth so you must therefore be responsible for acts of aggression performed by whoever wins the election. Where on the ballot is there a box that you can check saying you do not agree that the person elected should be given the powers of the office? Where on the ballot can you withhold the authorization for some or all of the powers that are attached to the office? Where on the ballot is there a box to check denying personal responsibility for the acts of any of the candidates once they are in office? If an appointed agent acts within the boundaries of the office to which he is appointed every individual participating in appointing an agent to that office is responsible for the acts of any agent appointed to that office. The voter is not absolved of his responsibility simply because his candidate didn't win. In truth, what is missing from any ballot, and which should be printed on it, is the entire Constitution and body of laws setting down in detail the duty and powers of the office being voted on, as well as the place to check the person you want to fill the office. It would then become crystal clear that every voter endorses the office and is thereby responsible for all acts carried out in its name.

In response to the moral argument, your campaign manager, Michael Cloud, asked me: "If Libertarian politics were an act of self-defense, would you consider it morally acceptable?"

In order to understand the implications of this position, burrow down to the basic principle on which the question rests. Political action, as explained above, is a synonym for aggression, and the term "Libertarian politics," becomes, by definition, an oxymoron. Substitute "aggression" for "politics" and he's really asking, "If aggression were an act of self-defense, would it be moral? Well, something can't simultaneously be moral and not moral. The proper question is, "am I justified in aggressing against B in order to defend myself from aggression by A?" While aggression in the name of selfdefense is widely accepted, I'm not certain Michael or you would be comfortable absolving yourself of guilt in this way. If you are threatened by a lion, are you justified in throwing me to the lion in order to save yourself? What if the lion is about to attack our group? Can individuals in the group vote to throw me to the lion and claim that it's an act of self-defense? If the mugger tells you he's stealing your money to defend himself against his neighbor, or hunger, or illness, does that make his aggression morally acceptable? ...

By definition, any attack on the life, property or freedom of an innocent third party is aggression. It does not become right or moral simply because it is carried out while acting in self-defense. Voting does not become moral simply because the voter declares that he is acting in self-defense.

In summary, according to my reading of morality, the voter can't deny responsibility for the acts of elected officials, nor can he deny being an aggressor because he appointed them in self-defense. Just as much as those who voted for Hitler share in the guilt of his atrocities, voters in the allied nations share the responsibility for the deaths of the innocent civilians who died in the bombing of Dresden. Those who voted in the Clinton/ Bush election have permanently stained their hands with the blood of the families who died in Waco. Those who vote in the next presidential election will share responsibility for the theft, coercion and destruction the next administration will wreak on all Americans as well as on innocent people around the world who fall victim to American intervention. ... Since a voter appoints an agent and empowers that agent to aggress against others, the act of voting is immoral. It is wrong.

Unfortunately, for the majority, including the majority of libertarians, the moral argument is often brushed aside. Just as the preacher's sermon fails to make all in his congregation honest, moral suasion consistently fails to deter some libertarians from endorsing coercion as a defense against coercion. It's far too easy to believe that the end justifies the means—in just this one case, of course. Political action to end political action is like drinking for temperance, gluttons against obesity, stealing to end theft, waging war to end wars.

4. It doesn't work. In spite of the moral arguments, your supporters may still argue that although it may be immoral to vote, if a minor violation of principle might result in a free world, it would be rational to vote. If it was possible to elect you to the presidency you would dramatically reduce the power of the state and the ends achieved would justify the means. Even though it violates morality, even though political action may be wrong on some erudite, ideological, hoity toity level, why don't we just give it a try? What do we have to lose? Maybe this time the country is ready to abandon government and all it needs is the right voice to lead it. Let's give it one more try.

The cry to give politics one more try reminds me of P. J. O'Rourke's book, GIVE WAR A CHANCE! Those who are swayed toward political action have forgotten that we have given it a try. It has been tried for thousands of years in thousands of nations, in tens of thousands of elections and through hundreds of thousands of political parties and candidates. Even if political action only had one chance in 100,000 of resulting in a free nation, statistical probability alone would suggest that there would be at least one free nation today. Mankind has reached the brink of self-extinction giving politics a try.

Thus, the most obvious, and therefore most overlooked reason to eschew political action is that it simply doesn't work. All of political history can be summed up as a struggle to throw the bad guys out and put the good guys in. Just as Sisyphus was condemned to spend eternity in Hades rolling a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down again, so the human race seems to be sentenced to spend forever trying to put the good guys in office only to find out they turn bad once there. I'm sorry to say, but when it comes to placing power in the hands of humans, there are no good guys. Which brings us to the next argument against political action.

5. Human Nature. It hasn't yet occurred to most freedom- seekers that the reason political action hasn't succeeded is not a matter of bad luck, bad timing or inarticulate candidates. The reason is that it can't work. How about just one more roll of the dice? No matter how many times you roll the dice, they will never come up thirteen. Let me explain exactly why political action must fail no matter how many times it is tried.

A principle is a fundamental truth derived from a natural law. As A. J. Galambos so clearly pointed out in his courses on volitional science, the proper means to reach any objective is to establish a set of first principles. Thus, scientists establish a set of principles that describe the basic mechanisms of physics and from this they design the devices to reach their objective. If an engineer wants to design an airplane, he first tries to understand the principles governing the nature of the materials involved. He then tries to design the plane according to those principles. If he violates one principle of physics, the plane will not fly.

Just as the principles of physics are determined by the nature of physical objects, the principles of human action are determined by the nature of man, a nature that has been created through thousands of generations by natural selection. As sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson argues [in his book, ON HUMAN NATURE (1978, pp. 50,159)],"...mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature. ... Individual behavior, including seemingly altruistic acts bestowed on tribe and nation, are directed, sometimes very circuitously, toward the Darwinian advantage of the solitary human being and his closest relatives. The most elaborate forms of social organization, despite their outward appearance, serve ultimately as the vehicles of individual welfare." We are programmed to be selfish, although we may not always be conscious of the fact.

The species exists because genes that impelled the individual toward personal survival were replicated more frequently, surviving more often than genes that impelled the individual toward unsuccessful behavior. Man's genetic programming requires that his actions be self-centered. Those species whose individual members cared more about others than about themselves are extinct. Man isn't bad or good because of his individual selfishness; he exists because of it. And this leads to a curious mistake made by most people.

When you talk to the average person about the advantages of a stateless society, the quick retort is that such an idea is Utopian; it would never work. Government is required to control man's selfish nature. But clearly, the truth is precisely the opposite.

Because of the selfish nature of man, it is Utopian to give a human being authority over the lives and property of strangers and expect that person not to consider his or her own well-being first. Because he is genetically programmed to be self-interested, man cannot be given authority over another without taking advantage. The idea is utopian that a government composed of human beings would consider the well-being of the population before those in power considered their own. Historians have completely rewritten history, making it appear that political leaders have acted in the interests of nations, rather than in their own, but you and I know that behind every law some politician or political supporter benefitted. For individuals elected to positions of authority, acts of altruism are almost nonexistent. Lord Acton's famous maxim, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," is merely an astute observation about the nature of man. We find the statement compelling because it so perfectly describes the history of state power. ...

Political activists of all persuasions are uncomfortable when confronted with the corruptibility of anyone given political power. All candidates assure voters that they will never be corrupted by power. A few, such as yourself, Harry, have a reputation for adhering to principle. And perhaps, in this one case, you may be that exception among humans who will not be corrupted in the slightest, no matter how many temptations are paraded before you, no matter how many "means-toan- end" choices you are faced with. Even if you are not corrupted once in office, can you find hundreds more incorruptibles to populate the legislative and judicial branches? Can you find thousands of incorruptible appointees to staff the executive agencies? Even assuming you are incorruptible, and I believe you probably are, you must see that your candidacy will lend respectability and attract resources to the Libertarian Party, making it a more potent tool for your successors, who may not be so pure. Hasn't history proven that once a political mechanism is given life, it becomes a magnet for the corruptible?

6. All political action ultimately enhances state power. I have described the pragmatic arguments against political action. I have described the moral arguments against condoning the political process. I have touched on the scientific evidence that indicates political action must fail because of the nature of man. Yet if you reject all of these arguments, there is still a compelling and overriding reason to abandon political action.

On a practical and immediate level, political action is not only futile, it is not only immoral, it is not only bound to fail scientifically, it is always destructive. I once published "Pugsley's First Law of Government." It was: "All government programs accomplish the opposite of what they are designed to achieve." In fact, the same is true of political action. The libertarian's involvement in politics always will achieve the opposite of the result intended. No matter who the candidate is, or what issues motivate him, political action will not reduce state power, it will enhance state power.

Consistently down through history, all efforts to put the "good guy" in power have resulted in more government not less—even when the person elected was overwhelmingly elected to reduce the size of government. Let us not forget the mood in the United States when Ronald Reagan first ran for president. Here was a popular hero, a man of the people, who rode into Washington on a white horse. His campaign was simple and directly to the point: government was too big, it was taxing too much, it was spending too much, it was strangling the economy with regulations, and it was no longer a servant of the people. His mandate from the American people was clear: balance the federal budget and reduce the size of the federal government.

Yet what was the result? In 1980 federal spending totaled $613 billion. In 1988, at the end of his tenure, it totaled $1,109 billion. In 1980 federal tax revenue was $553 billion. In 1988 it was $972 billion. Total government debt went from $877 billion to $2,661 billion. Then, to prove the ultimate futility of electing a white knight, the electorate decided that the government wasn't doing enough, so it put a liberal democrat back in office. All of the rhetoric of the Reagan campaign is forgotten. All of the public anger over the bureaucracy is forgotten. Government is bigger than ever. Political action will solve the problem? In some other universe, perhaps.