Wednesday, October 17, 2012

An important point for libertarians during the election season (with broader points as well)

The other day on facebook a libertarian friend posted something to the effect of complaining about Republicans who said he was handing the election to Obama by voting for Johnson. He is not a pseudo-Republican, he insisted. He is a libertarian. Romney didn't lose a vote. Romney never had his vote.

This is fine, but I do think it's a little cavalier about exactly what trade-offs libertarians (and really anyone who isn't completely happy with a candidate... which is everyone I think) face.

Assume candidates R, D, and L, and voters A, B, C, D, E, F, and G that have the following ranks for the candidates:

A: R (1) D (2) L (3)
B: R (1) D (2) L (3)
C: R (1) D (2) L (3)
D: R (2) D (1) L (3)
E: R (2) D (1) L (3)
F: R (2) D (1) L (3)
G: R (?) D (?) L (1)

G likes to think of himself as a supporter of L, and not as a pseudo-R (or for that matter, a pseudo-D). And that's an entirely coherent position to take. I've left question marks for the rankings of R and D by person G because supporters of L may very well be split on that sort of assessment. But just because G is decidedly an L, that doesn't mean his rankings of R and D are irrelevant to his vote.

L will not win. But I like the capacity for human hope, so let's say that that's one reason to vote for L.

Another reason for G to vote for L is that achieving G's goals is best served by making L and her ideas more prominent. Or perhaps voting for L this year makes L's victory four years from now more likely. Or perhaps voting for L will make both R and D act more like L in the future. All of these are good reasons to vote for L, and everyone is going to put their own weight on each of those reasons.

But the ranking of R and D is still not irrelevant, even if  you like both of them much worse than you like L.

If you think you'll never live in the America you'd like to live in you'd at least like it to be closer to the America you'd like to live in. The probability of that happening may be much higher with R in office than with D in office. It's not your first choice, but if you discount your first choice by its probability of success, voting for R may be a very good move. Maybe voting for R will make D act more like R, which is not as good as getting D to act like L, but is still better than having D win and act like D!


A broader point.

Part of me finds libertarian complaining about Ds and Rs extremely obnoxious. You guys at least have a guy that agrees with you on all kinds of points that you can vote for. Plus it's chic to be a libertarian right now - it's not hard at all. Try arguing that we oughta invest more in drones. THAT'S a tough position to maintain these days.

Same with Keynesianism outside select circles. You at least have Gary Johnson. None of the candidates conforms to my view of ideal economic policy the way Gary Johnson conforms to most of yours. Living with the second best is just part of every day life for me because I don't even have a first best option to choose from. Even the prominent politicians and former politicians I'm positively disposed to - Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Mark Warner - have major blindspots on all sorts of issues, including economic issues (which are important to me professionally but also critical for national life at this point in history).

So my participation in democratic life is entirely about second-best options and really always has been. What's more, I think this is where most Americans are at. I don't think there are a lot of people that are always highly satisfied with a candidate. Perhaps it's precisely because libertarians have a party which (while it may not be perfect) is actually structured deliberately around their well defined ideology that they sometimes bristle at the very idea of thinking about why they might vote for second best options.


  1. So when libertarians during the first debate (in your sample) complained mostly about Obama and not Romney, you were surprised that they seemed so pro-Republican.

    Now you are surprised that they are so anti-Republican.

    I think what's really going on here is that libertarians annoy you.

    1. I'm not sure I understand. I'm not surprised or annoyed by anti-Republican libertarians in this post or anywhere else. What I'm saying is that presenting decision rules that say "vote for the first best candidate no matter what" are not very sensible decision rules - particularly for a marginalized group like libertarians.

      What surprised me last time was precisely that I expected libertarians to be anti-Republican and anti-Democratic, and I mainly just saw the anti-Democratic. Part of this may be that they are more Republican than I thought, or it could be other things. Seems completely different from what I'm saying here.

      And of course, in all these posts I think I've been careful to (and would take the opportunity now to reinforce) that this is about "some" libertarians.

  2. It's their vote. They can vote strategically or vote their hearts as they choose.

    1. I agree.

      What I disagree with is the idea that thinking L would be the first best president and thinking that she will be the first best vote are two very different things.

      A lot of people recognize this. I'm just spelling it out for those that don't and because I think it's an interesting thing to think about during election season.

  3. Voting strategically is a short term strategy. Voting on principle is a long term strategy.

    If you recognize that L cannot win but you believe that L's policies are the right way to go then voting for L in the face of certain defeat may be the right thing to do: it signals to other politicians that they should consider adopting some of L's policies and it signals to other voters that they should perhaps take L and L's policies seriously in the future.

    If you live in a strongly red state then voting Libertarian may give your individual vote more ultimate weight than voting Republican.

  4. How about we admit instead that voting is just not that important?

    1. No. You exercise your freedom muscle or you lose it. Up to you how best to exercise it but you should exercise it.


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