“I voted against anybody whose name I recognized.”

Per Tom Brokaw, the voter quote above wins my soundbite award for this election. As for the returns, several individual results were somewhat surprising, but as most pundits and polls predicted the Republicans recaptured control of the House but failed to win enough seats for a majority in the Senate. Ho hum.

Herewith, some random thoughts on voting and democracy.

If you voted, good for you. It made no difference in terms of outcome to any congressional or statewide race, but if it makes you feel virtuous for doing your so-called civic duty, then you got value for the inconvenience. In that regard, voting is not unlike purchasing a lottery ticket: the odds are overwhelmingly against your receiving any material benefit, but at least you can enjoy a bit of hope, however fleetingly.

It never ceases to surprise me how many people consider voting to be not only a politically and morally virtuous act, which in the first case is probably false and in the second case is almost certainly false, but an intrinsically good thing. Which is absurd.

If you believe in popular sovereignty or favor representative democracy, even if only because you think it the least evil form of government, then voting constitutes some tacit buy-in of the social contract its advocates keep hoping to legitimize. If you believe in the primacy of individual sovereignty, however, and think agreeing to the social contract requires considerably more, or if you are inclined to agree with H.L. Mencken that democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses, then declining the opportunity to exercise your franchise can be reasonably construed as a positive act; namely, the act of positively abstaining and refusing to lend your support to whatever the results may be.

This argument falls on deaf ears, however, among much of the hoi polloi whose imprinted belief in “our sacred right to vote” back in grade school is as “reality based” as Lorenz’s ducklings imprinting on a beach ball they mistake for their mother. “But what if everyone refused to vote?” one invariably hears. To which the answers in no particular order of importance are (1) they won’t, (2) most already do anyway, and (3) maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe that’s what is needed to shake up the status quo, because nothing more than just another election ain’t going to do it.

Of course, you may approve of the status quo or wish only that it be tweaked this way or that.

The chattering classes are all abuzz now over what the impact of the so-called Tea Party Republicans will be. That’s easy. Zero. Or, like a function approaching its limit, so close to zero that the difference is insignificant. Tea Party Republicans may have made the difference in giving control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans at large, but Republicans at large are not Tea Party Republicans. More to the point, if history is any guide at all, at least some of these reform seeking firebrands will come to Washington intending to do good but will end up staying in Washington to do well. (Does anyone know how many elected officials signed the 1994 Contract With America and actually kept its term limits pledge?)

The 2010 elections do not signal a change in human nature, nor do the Tea Party rallies give any indication of constituting a sufficient groundswell of political clout to alter the average politician’s correct appraisal of what the average voter wants. Namely, unlimited government benefits and services paid for by someone else. So, yes, the election pretty much ensures that the “Bush tax cuts,” due to expire on January 1st, will be extended, at least for all but what Obama calls the wealthiest two percent of the population. But, Obama aside, the odds were very good that this would have happened even in a Democrat controlled Congress. A population enthralled by economic fears bordering on panic (so strong, in fact, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t even a campaign issue) would not react kindly to what they would correctly perceive as an increase in their tax burden.

Mind you, I agree entirely with the resurgent cries that the federal deficit isn’t a revenue problem but a spending problem. That said, what’s going to get cut? My prediction, though I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, is that Congress will be unwilling or unable to cut even the most superfluous federal programs and agencies. For example, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities immediately spring to mind here, as does federal funding for public television and radio. All combined these constitute chump change in the federal budget, and yet each of them is both obviously expendable and just as obviously not going to be eliminated. If you’re struggling to pay your other bills, maybe it’s time to cancel the cable TV service, you know?

It also needs to be said that to the extent that the Tea Partiers have described themselves or their opposition or the media has described them as libertarians, libertarianism has suffered even more misunderstanding. Yes, on an issue by issue basis it may well be that, at least for now, the victorious Tea Party cum Republican candidates are espousing some economic issues with which most libertarians would agree. But it was never difficult to find mainstream Republicans who gave at least lip service to limited government and economic libertarianism, just as it was never difficult to find mainstream Democrats who gave at least lip service to social and civil libertarianism.

With the arguable exception of Rand Paul, however, you’d be hard pressed to find many newly elected members of the incoming Congress who genuinely embrace both social and economic libertarianism. (Moreover, Paul looks to be a man who won’t manage to keep his mouth shut on politically pointless but emotionally charged ideological axe grinding. He may therefore end up single-handedly doing more harm to public acceptance of libertarianism than — gasp! — even the Libertarian Party has managed to do.)

Color me unimpressed. As usual. Still, there’s at least some good news to report. This election being over, we can all, even if only for a little while, safely turn on the television and answer the phone again.

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16 Responses to “I voted against anybody whose name I recognized.”

  1. James Hanley says:

    I agree entirely with the resurgent cries that the federal deficit isn’t a revenue problem but a spending problem.

    I remain unconvinced that it’s not both.

    With the arguable exception of Rand Paul, however, you’d be hard pressed to find many newly elected members of the incoming Congress who genuinely embrace both social and economic libertarianism

    Which is odd, given that he has denied being a libertarian.

  2. D.A. Ridgely says:

    (1) Fair enough. But as long as the government is willing to spend beyond whatever its means may be on a regular basis, so-called “starving the beast” will have little if any effect. Until eventually it has a disastrous effect.

    (2) True enough. On an issue by issue basis, though, it still seems to me that Paul (and his father) come closest. But, yeah, that’s not nearly as close as I would prefer. ETA: Also, I’m willing to bet that the media label Paul a libertarian whether he denies it or not.

  3. James Hanley says:

    I’m willing to bet that the media label Paul a libertarian whether he denies it or not.

    That’s a sucker’s bet!

    I’ll add this: I bet the frequency with which the media label him a libertarian is positively correlated with the frequency with which me makes an ass of himself.

  4. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Hey, and you called my claim a sucker’s bet? *grin*

  5. It never ceases to surprise me how many people consider voting to be not only a politically and morally virtuous act, which in the first case is probably false and in the second case is almost certainly false, but an intrinsically good thing. Which is absurd.

    What irks me are the people who claim that “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean. Does it mean that if someone doesn’t vote, and then complains about something the politician does, the politician is innocent of whatever he or she is accused of?

    I also dislike the hypothetical and (in my estimation) nearly impossible situation people advance in which one vote makes the difference in any election in which tens of thousands or more of votes are counted.

    I also have a beef with people who claim that the one-electoral vote victory of Hayes over Tilden means that one vote can make a difference, without even explaining how electoral votes are different from the votes you and I cast. (Such accounts also tend to neglect the dispute in Congress on how to count the votes that was the real determinant of who won.)

    (Full disclosure: I vote regularly and did so yesterday. But I usually vote for a third party who has no chance at winning. (Fuller disclosure: I actually voted for viable candidates this time, even though I know and firmly believe that my vote makes almost no difference.))

  6. Chris says:

    What irks me are the people who claim that “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

    My not voting is complaining. It’s not a very loud complaint, given (the effect of not voting asymptotes too), but it’s the best I’ve got, politically.

  7. Michael Enquist says:

    Just as a matter of curiosity, is there a wiki that explains the attitude of Roman or Athenian citizens towards their elected officials? We were talking about the timelessness of electoral politics, and I just wondered if it was possible to see how far back the ebb and flow goes.

  8. Kolohe says:

    Once you’ve foresworn anarchism and accepted the existence of the state, no matter how minarchist, you need a mechanism to figure out who ultimately calls the shots for that state. Since I am not an anarchist and accept the existence of the state, and I like markets, my preferred mechanism is something that is as close as we can get to a market mechanism which is voting. Your mileage, obviously, does vary.

  9. Michael Heath says:

    D.A. Ridgely states,

    I agree entirely with the resurgent cries that the federal deficit isn’t a revenue problem but a spending problem.

    Given that we’ve had many years of strong growth with effective taxes at 18% of GDP whereas the 2000s got us down to 15% of GDP without any benefit due to these cuts and a huge increase in debt coupled to an enormous structural deficit; why do you think the problem isn’t either insufficient revenue or a combination of both insufficient revenue and extraneous spending in all the wrong places?

    It seems to me the first target should be raising effective rates in a manner that doesn’t stifle economic growth while recognizing a new paradigm where a global economy doesn’t look kindly on taxing businesses, trade, or capital. Personally I think consumption and individual taxes across the board both look ripe for increases while we need to minimize taxes on corporations and capital.

    Secondly Paul Ryan’s plan proved that you can’t solve the debt problem without increased taxes. It took him to 2080 while making draconian cuts to Medicare and Social Security that would never be acceptable to voters using projected growth rates I’d bet big bucks could not occur with his scenario. In addition his plan failed to mitigate the pending costs from global warming which only increases future spending burdens on a smaller GDP, had him continuing to subsidize the American industries creating our share of warming, and continuing to transfer their negative externalities onto future American taxpayers.

    I perceive no way out of our debt problem but to raise taxes and to significantly cut our defense spending, especially given future spending imperatives in other areas if we’re going to enjoy better economic growth rates and a more robust job market in a global economy.

  10. Heidegger says:

    Mr. Heath, you can’t really be that gullible, can you? Don’t you know by now that liberals lie, lie, lie?

    http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2009/07/paygo-is-an-unworkable-gimmick

  11. James K says:

    Michael Heath:

    Secondly Paul Ryan’s plan proved that you can’t solve the debt problem without increased taxes. It took him to 2080 while making draconian cuts to Medicare and Social Security that would never be acceptable to voters using projected growth rates I’d bet big bucks could not occur with his scenario.

    What makes you think the necessary tax increases would be politically viable? At this point I’m inclined to believe there are no politically viable solutions to your country’s fiscal problems.

  12. Michael Heath says:

    James K states, “What makes you think the necessary tax increases would be politically viable?”

    Because polling supports it, and that’s prior to presenting a coherent plan that is fiscally sound, i.e., tax increases in some areas, cuts in other areas, and a mix of spending increases and cuts that promote growth while maintaining a feasible and sane safety net. Here’s one of many examples: http://www.gallup.com/poll/142940/americans-allowing-tax-cuts-wealthy-expire.aspx

    In addition people have regularly been polled supporting stable entitlement benefits rather than cutting benefits to avoid tax hikes. The challenge is not voters on this matter but very effective lobbying by groups opposed to any tax hikes. Even conservative voters are supportive of some tax increases, it’s just their elected officials who are wedded to campaign financiers who are.

    Our biggest issue is not debt, it’s that voters are getting what they deserve, and good and hard at that as H.L. Mencken noted. Whether conservatives become a serious people who only support serious politicians is the real challenge. Our liberals are not necesarily any better on the seriousness scale, however they’re a significantly smaller group and they’ve been marginalized and disempowered in the Democratic party which has largely put forward candidates who will make painful impolitic decisions. Except those Democrats who are conservatives – many of whom were booted out of office Tuesday, e.g., Sen. Blanche Lincoln or the retirement of Sen. Evan Bayh.

  13. D.A. Ridgely says:

    As dictator-for-life, I’d have little problem balancing the federal budget and significantly reducing the federal debt. (And it would, as Mr. Heath would prefer, certainly include significant defense spending cuts as well as entitlement cuts, etc.) However, I suspect the “for-life” part would, as a result, be quite brief.

    I disagree with Mr. Heath especially in this regard. Conservative and liberal politicians alike are serious people. They are serious about giving their constituents what they want in order to be (re)elected. (And really, Mr. Heath, that’s a claim likely, if not actually intended, to disqualify those thus targeted from being taken seriously. “Serious” elides dangerously into “agrees with me.”)

    I’m not wedded to my prior claim insofar as it can reasonably be construed to mean I believe spending and only spending is the problem here. However, as long as the rest of the world is willing (and it still is) to lend vast sums to us even at negative interest rates, as long as cuts in spending growth are seen as draconian cuts in actual spending, as long as the federal government manipulates the tax code to (pretend to) favor middle class voters, corporations, etc., and as long as voters demand much from government but remain unwilling to pay for it, no increase in revenue will make any difference. Moreover, there is certainly no reason to increase our spendthrift government’s credit limit when, as I wrote above, political pressures preclude (sorry for the alliteration) eliminating even the least essential agencies and services.

    I agree with Kolohe’s first sentence. However, accepting the existence of a state and accepting the existence of this state are two very different matters.

  14. James K says:

    Michael Heath:
    There’s a difference between supporting one tax increase, or tax increases in the abstract, and supporting the necessary tax increases to keep entitlements running. I suspect if you worked out just how much money is needed to keep Social Security and Medicare running (and what this would translate into for them as an annual tax bill) that people would lose some of their fondness for these programmes.

  15. James Hanley says:

    Michael Heath wrote:

    Our biggest issue is not debt, it’s that voters are getting what they deserve, and good and hard at that as H.L. Mencken noted.

    Actually, in this case, I think those two things are synonymous.

    James K wrote:

    I suspect if you worked out just how much money is needed to keep Social Security and Medicare running (and what this would translate into for them as an annual tax bill) that people would lose some of their fondness for these programmes.

    The Medicare prescription drug benefit, yes. That’s going to be an absolute budget destroyer for years on end. Social Security, not so much. The funding shortfalls on that are entirely related to the size of the baby boom generation. There’s no real problem there that a quick death to Mr. Ridgely and his cohorts wouldn’t solve. In fact no problem that just a more selective weeding out of that generation wouldn’t solve (so we would be able to spare, Mr. Ridgely, which I’d quite prefer, and just hasten on, say, a bunch of retired Hollywood and television celebrities, along with the cranky old lady who lives across the street from me). More seriously, relatively minor adjustments in retirement age, SSI taxes, and benefits, will help us get past the huge population lump that is the baby boomers, especially with help from continued immigration to swell the pool of SSI taxpayers. (Of course that creates the next large population of retirees, but if we have a better continuing balance between employed and retired, we’ll be able to muddle through.)

  16. D.A. Ridgely says:

    When you’re young they won’t let you take the drugs you want and when you’re old they won’t pay for the drugs you need. Such is life.

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