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Rothbard on Voting

  • Murray Rothbard 1956 with George Koether

Murray Rothbard discusses the merits and morality of voting in a great interview from 1972:

[This interview was first published in the 25 February 1972 edition of The New Banner: A Fortnightly Libertarian Journal, Vol. I, No. 3.]

NEW BANNER:  Some libertarians have recommended anti-voting activities during the 1972 election.  Do you agree with this tactic?

ROTHBARD:  I’m interested to talk about that.  This is the classical anarchist position, there is no doubt about that.  The classical anarchist position is that nobody should vote, because if you vote you are participating in a state apparatus.  Or if you do vote you should write in your own name, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this tactic in the sense that if there really were a nationwide movement — if five million people, let’s say, pledged not to vote.  I think it would be very useful.  On the other hand, I don’t think voting is a real problem.  I don’t think it’s immoral to vote, in contrast to the anti-voting people.

Lysander Spooner, the patron saint of individualist anarchism, had a very effective attack on this idea.  The thing is, if you really believe that by voting you are giving your sanction to the state, then you see you are really adopting the democratic theorist’s position.  You would be adopting the position of the democratic enemy, so to speak, who says that the state is really voluntary because the masses are supporting it by participating in elections.  In other words, you’re really the other side of the coin of supporting the policy of democracy — that the public is really behind it and that it is all voluntary.  And so the anti-voting people are really saying the same thing.

I don’t think this is true, because as Spooner said, people are being placed in a coercive position.  They are surrounded by a coercive system; they are surrounded by the state.  The state, however, allows you a limited choice — there’s no question about the fact that the choice is limited.  Since you are in this coercive situation, there is no reason why you shouldn’t try to make use of it if you think it will make a difference to your liberty or possessions.  So by voting you can’t say that this is a moral choice, a fully voluntary choice, on the part of the public.  It’s not a fully voluntary situation.  It’s a situation where you are surrounded by the whole state which you can’t vote out of existence.  For example, we can’t vote the Presidency out of existence — unfortunately, it would be great if we could, but since we can’t why not make use of the vote if there is a difference at all between the two people.  And it is almost inevitable that there will be a difference, incidentally, because just praxeologically or in a natural law sense, every two persons or every two groups of people will be slightly different, at least.  So in that case why not make use of it.  I don’t see that it’s immoral to participate in the election provided that you go into it with your eyes open — provided that you don’t think that either Nixon or Muskie is the greatest libertarian since Richard Cobden! — which many people, of course, talk themselves into before they go out and vote.

The second part of my answer is that I don’t think that voting is really the question.  I really don’t care about whether people vote or not.  To me the important thing is, who do you support.  Who do you hope will win the election?  You can be a non-voter and say “I don’t want to sanction the state” and not vote, but on election night who do you hope the rest of the voters, the rest of the suckers out there who are voting, who do you hope they’ll elect.  And it’s important, because I think that there is a difference.  The Presidency, unfortunately, is of extreme importance.  It will be running or directing our lives greatly for four years.  So, I see no reason why we shouldn’t endorse, or support, or attack one candidate more than the other candidate.  I really don’t agree at all with the non-voting position in that sense, because the non-voter is not only saying we shouldn’t vote: he is also saying that we shouldn’t endorse anybody.  Will Robert LeFevre, one of the spokesmen of the non-voting approach, will he deep in his heart on election night have any kind of preference at all as the votes come in.  Will he cheer slightly or groan more as whoever wins?  I don’t see how anybody could fail to have a preference, because it will affect all of us.

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