Arguments Against Political Action
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
were an act of self-defense, would it be
? 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 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.
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
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
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
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