A Libertarian Duty for Political Participation

I feel moved to react to  body of work which I have yet to study properly, which seems perverse, but it’s in the air in libertarian influenced parts of the Internet, it represents an already existing strand in libertarian thought, and a blog is the opportunity to process thoughts which may appear in a more academic venue later, after further study, thought, discussion and writing.   Another issue is that the recent literature relies on a mixture of formal social science and analytic style political theory (also known as normative theory) which is not what I do, but clearly I need to engage with it in some way.

The position to which I am reacting is that there is no duty for political participation from a classical liberal/libertarian point of view, and even a duty to do something else if you are better at something else.  The end logic of this  is really that no one should bother with voting or political participation at all, though there is some variation among purveyors of that point of view about how far they wish to go down that road.  One reaction to this from the non-libertarian is that it is all mad libertarian nonsense not worth bothering about from any other point of view.  Much I object to the anti-political participation line, and I do object to it  very seriously, people who are highly competent in political economy, political science and political theory have put forward this point of view, and it deserves to be seriously debated.  I find it valuable from a devil’s advocate, contrarian, let’s test our basic assumptions point of view, but that is not the way the supporters of this view mean their view to be taken.  Clearly they believe this should be a positive belief of libertarians, and have some success with this, though not complete success.  This level of success is enough to confirm my feeling that the libertarian scene often looks like a grab bag of views which are marginal for very good reasons, and that is not me.  Given that I cannot identify with social democracy, socialism, conservatism or anything like these points of view, for reasons which are distinctly libertarian, I’m nevertheless rather stuck with the libertarian label.

The anti-political element in libertarian thought which writers like Bryan Caplan and Jason Brennan expresses itself in enthusiasm for ‘sea steading’, a quite serious belief, and I am  not making this up, that  pure libertarian communities, outside what Patri Friedman calls the ‘technology of democracy’ can be best created on deep sea platforms outside international waters.  There is linked interest in charter cities, linked amongst other things in personnel, since Patri Friedman move from directing a sea steading institute before surprise surprise any seaborne communities were created to directing a charter city project which attracted interest from the government of Honduras but was recently thrown out by the supreme court of that country.  Charter city refers to a city created on national territory which has been given extra-territoriality and is governed by a non-national law code, probably borrowed from a relatively ‘libertarian’ jurisdiction.  The idea is that people will want to move to a place where such a beautiful legal structure is entrenched though they have no right to change it.  This is all largely modelled on Hong Kong as it developed under British rule after mainland China became communist.  The context of people fleeing from Maoist tyranny and economic disaster is obviously lacking, and the highly accidental way Hong Kong emerged as a successful city state while still a British colony cannot obviously be replicated.  The Charter City project in practice means law of some US state being applied in some part of some Latin American state.  Well there is plenty of experience of Latin America of countries copying the US constitution, of US direct intervention to ensure the interests of influential corporations with extreme disregard for national sovereignty, international law, and any sort of basic decency.  Not surprisingly the left inclined in Honduras were really venomous in opposing the Charter City project, and well I don’t share all their venom, I certainly don’t reject all their criticisms.  The problem is that Charter Cities looks lie a polite version of the Chilean coup of 1973 which overthrew a Marxist government and introduced radical  market oriented economic changes.  The claim by many of the left inclined that the coup was itself designed to allow an experiment in Chicago School economics is misguided, the movement from coup to Chicago influenced economics was much more accidental.  Nevertheless, I can agree with the left inclined that after events like the Chile coup, that no one should be looking to introduce free market economics through any kind of abridgement or evasion of, or alternative to representative democracy.

I’m not aware of any support from Caplan or Brennan, or their fans, for charter cities or sea steading, but it’s hard to see how they would object to them.  I should also say that Caplan is anarcho-capitalist/individualist anarchist in orientation, and as far as I known Brennan is not, but is more inclined to a pragmatic politics of reducing state power without any ideal libertarian end state in mind.  When I say their anti-political views are well represented on the internet, I include the way that Bleeding Hearts Libertarians, a group blog for libertarians with a social conscience has at least half become a vehicle for Brennan, or to put it another way he does more posts for the blog than anyone else.  This means it is very easy to find brief presentations and links related to Brennan’s ideas, just visit BLH.  One thing I find a bit peculiar about Brennan’s style at BLH, and in various other fora, is his resort to a way of speaking which is that of the parodic Ivy League left-liberal academic, everything he says is apparently backed by some academic consensus with the implication that anyone who disagrees with him is rather lacking in academic credentials, and does not need to be taken seriously.  In general, he does not appear to be very interested in replying to, or acknowledging,  suggestions of errors in his reasoning or textual understanding.  Look at the first comment at this link (OK my comment) and the lack of a response. Anyway, it is surely peculiar to keep referring to how mainstream your views are when advocating libertarianism in general, and anti-politics in particular.

After more contextualisation than I expected, I’ve arrived at the moment of summarising the anti-political arguments.  You can also find a pro-Brennan summary by Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason Magazine.  Since Man-Ward is the managing editor of Reason which is one of the major libertarian institutes in America, and the world, probably in  a class that it shares only with the Cato Institute for influence, I have to say that Brennan style views are  mainstream for libertarians (though certainly mot unanimous), which I find deeply disappointing.  Again, there is nothing wrong with discussing these ideas, there is something most unpleasant about such a minimal attitude to democracy being put forward as a core belief in the libertarian scene.   Brennan it must be acknowledged can tap in a idealistic way about civic duty, but this appears to include keeping people who aren’t very smart or well informed from voting, by argument not force or legislative restriction, still I find it very creepy.

After all the scene setting some brief points.  Expanded versions of much these can be found in previous posts and will be in future posts.

Brennan/Caplan style arguments

1.  General level of information about politics is very low

2. General understanding of areas of knowledge connected to politics, particularly economics is very low.  The kind of point being made is that even most left leaning economists think free trade is very good thing, and the opposite view is held by most voters according to opinion surveys.

3. Time constraints do not allow most to gain knowledge about politics.

4.  Mostly voters do not vote according to self interest, but according to their idea of the common good.  Therefore voter ignorance is not compensated by the consideration of taking everyone’s interests into account.

5.  Time spent on voting could be  be better spent morally on personal commitments or on other forms of civic engagement such as blogging (hey I must be a real civic hero).

6.  The chances of any individual vote affecting the outcome of a national election are infinitesimally small and are not at all to be taken into account.

7.  Driving to the place where votes are cast increases the chance of road death.

8.  It is better for the cognitively more competent and information rich to vote than others ,which means the rich and educated.  The rich apparently do not vote in their own interest (reverting to point 4).

9.  Democracy does not increase the knowledge of citizens.

10.  Voting can be affected by non-rational and irrelevant associations (including weather and success of favourite sports teams) with the candidate/party.  This is a view I had previously only heard as something to be ridiculed with regard to British electoral history.

11.  Notions of popular will and majority will are themselves highly misleading since all kinds of different reasons enter into voting, and votes for the unsuccessful disappear from the account.

My counter points (not replying directly to individual points above)

1. While it would be wrong to accuse Caplan/Brennan etc of being racist and of being nostalgic for the segregation era in America (though Caplan it has to be said can come up with some weird stuff which could be interpreted in unpleasant ways, e.g. it is good that there is racism in America in as much as it reduces support for welfarism), the arguments deployed have some resemblance to those used to disqualify blacks and ‘white trash’ from voting in the segregation era South, when literacy tests and ‘medical’ diagnoses of hereditary degeneracy were systematically used to keep citizens from voting.  One really should think a hundred,  a thousand, a hundred thousand times before getting anywhere at all close to such territory.

2.  There is no  general evidence that democracy with wide voting participation undermines good law making and government.  The general evidence is certainly that democracies work better than non-democacies and that the survival of democracies benefit from participation.

3.  There is evidence that civic trust, democracy and economic development go together.

4.  Exactly what is proved by showing with great precision how little chance there is of any one vote influencing a national outcome.  Everyone knows that, so why is it important to labour the point so much?

5.  With regard to 4, the point is to reinforce a reductive kind of individualistic understanding which makes democracy look irrelevant.  Of course if you give weight to a discussion of the chance of the individual deciding any outcome, then you steer the argument against participation.

6.  Road deaths resulting from driving to elections is an argument that could be used against anyone ever taking the car out of the garage, or allowing private motorised transport at all.  How many activities can justify the risk to life that undoubtedly increase every time someone drives?  Anyway, this is an argument against driving, not  voting.

7.  Of  course if we base the merits of voting on the chance of affecting outcome, we will find just find just about any morally justifiable activity to be preferable to voting.  This could however exclude the cognitive elite Caplan/Brennan thinks are more justified in voting.  Wouldn’t it be be terrible shame if they lost an hour of work on an important text in political theory because they voted?  Though on this basis, I question the morality of Caplan and Brennan having a sit down meal instead of snacking while working on their very important thoughts which ought to be shared with the world?

8.  With regard to various points above, arguments against voting, instead of doing something else, could be used against engaging in a very wide range of activities and would cripple the chance of what most people would consider a full and satisfying life.

9.  If you use an economic opportunity cost (that is a calculation of lost opportunities balanced against opportunities realised) model applied to individual actions then voting can easily be represented as wasteful.  This is the absurdity of taking a method too far, some account must be taken of the individual’s overall idea of a good life and a good society, how parts of those goods connect and unify, which can never be explained in opportunity cost terms.  No way of life, no political principle is  justified by opportunity costs, which is a a method of evaluation not the source of values,  and itself rests on endless background assumptions and contextual factors.

The questions of the value of democracy and its place in liberal tradition will have to wait for another post, as this one is already much much longer than anticipated.  This post has been the negative critical part of the argument, next the positive affirmative part.

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