I’m a Libertarian and I Vote

Yesterday morning, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) tweeted a picture of himself being arrested as a young man. He captioned it: “I’ve marched, protested, been beaten and arrested–all for the right to vote. Friends of mine gave their lives. Honor their sacrifice. Vote.”

That tweet has gotten 35,000 retweets at this writing, and it will get many more. It’s one of many efforts mainstream politicians and parties are mounting in the final days before the 2016 elections to drive more voters to the polls.

I do honor the sacrifices of Mr. Lewis and so many others in the civil rights movement. If only the vote had made the civil rights struggle an episode in history and not the ongoing struggle that it is.

But it can be stated with certainty that Mr. Lewis’s tweet won’t make the difference in any election. It’s impossible to identify any one voter that may be convinced to go to the polls by that tweet. And if you could find that person, the chance that he or she might change the outcome in any election would be infinitesimal.

Is near-thirty-year office holder Mr. Lewis some kind of time-wasting fool for sending this tweet? Of course not.

John Lewis and the Democrats, just like his counterparts in the Republican party, are working to solve a collective action problem. Each individual acting solely on his or her own behalf would waste time and energy by voting, but acting in concert they move elections and public policy in the directions they prefer.

I’m more convinced than I was before we debated the topic this week that libertarians should adopt the same tactics to work toward their ends. A single vote does have an infinitesimally small chance of swaying any particular election, but the chances get better as you go down the ballot and with years of being a voter. Votes also signal a wide variety of political actors about the desires of the populus. Elected officials, their staffs, political parties, journalists, opinion leaders, future candidates, and donors all incorporate vote information—not just wins and losses, but margins of victory—into their many judgments and actions beyond election day.

Being a voter also positions you to talk to non-libertarians as a brother or sister in a joint enterprise—making our country a better place—which opens them to your ideas. Being a non-voter communicates indifference to people who are voters. If you explain your philosophical reasons for not voting, you’d better have a lot of their time and be really, really good at it, because you’re most likely to just come off a prig.

Professional politics includes efforts to suppress the vote of the other side. I’m not talking about anything illegal, but the artful and subtle ways that the major parties work to dispirit their opposition’s voters. We libertarians are so smart that we have people within our own ranks who drive down the libertarian vote by arguing that it’s irrational. I like those folks—can’t think of single anti-vote libertarian whom I don’t—but they would serve our cause well by holding their tongues on the voting question and being smarter than us voters in the privacy of their basements.

As for me, I’m a libertarian and I vote.