In terms of public actions, there are few more selfish acts than voting. Voting is an individual act: a vote for or against a candidate or a ballot question is ultimately a reflection of that voters’ interests and value-judgments. And a reflection of that voters’ interests and value-judgments alone. The voting booth asks citizens to grade politicians. The metric for this evaluation? The individual’s interests and the degree to which they have been protected by public actions pursued by particular officials.
Democratic sentimentality gives to this kind of selfishness a ringing endorsement. The lexicon of democracy terms the people the wellspring of legitimate government power. And while America is, of course, not a democracy, the democratic ideology that informs its political institutional culture makes an emphasis on selfishness all the more important. Republican government tasks elected officials with representing the interests of their constituents. Whether this is a noble goal is questionable: the exporting of interests causes some friction with the idea of sovereignly held individual rights. As Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith sagely observed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it is impossible to divorce ego from perception. No man understands the pain of another but by imagining what he might suffer in another experience, a reaction affected by his own past experiences and character. Government officials cannot actually represent the interests of their constituents, but must, in many cases, imagine how particular communities are likely to be affected by particular policies.
Such a system requires empathy; it requires elected officials proactively exercise not only their own judgment but also engage their emotions as well. In other words, individuals are empowered to pursue their own value-judgments, ostensibly in the service of other’s value-judgments. But to expect elected officials to do so without pursuing their interests goes against nature, the first commandment of which is to survive. Built into the representative system is the danger that those in power choose to define the interests of their constituents in context of political ends that benefit officials. It would be better for individual sovereignty if elected officials were more preoccupied with preserving rights than interests, but as this is not the case, the case for selfishness being the cornerstone of voting is all the more exigent.
No one but the individual can be an advocate for his or her own interests. No one but the individual can be the prime mover in their own life. It is expedient that the individual jealous of their own welfare jealously pursue whatever avenues are available to do so. This means proactively voting one’s interests.
Alas, this individualistic bent is lost upon the voting system. Elections, and those organizing actions taken to promote constituent engagement in them, are too often swaddled in the language of the collective: of how “we” come together to express collective outrage at the way the government behaves. Michelle Obama is the latest public figure to cast the act of voting in such terms. Speaking before a crowd in Las Vegas, the former first lady told listeners “Our vote matters. It always does. But only if we use that vote.” She speaks as a representative of the newly minted When We All Vote initiative.
Of course, the construct of “we” on which her rhetoric relies is entirely fallacious. Modern politics loves to impute causality into demographic overlap: it looks to the similarities between individuals—in age, in skin color, in salary—and makes sense of the polity in terms of patterns that resonate between those whose traits are the same. This, though, suggests voting rationale are not the product of any individual decision-making process, but rather the product of communal resonance: educated females vote a certain way by dint of being educated females. They vote differently than uneducated, white men by reference to the differences in their sex and lifestyle. The interests of the individual are reflective of the community they come from. This community isn’t even chosen by the individual but is really a product of circumstance, but it becomes determinative of how the individuals that make it up think and behave.
But any community that exists does not have the kind of power as modern politics likes to ascribe to it. A majority is simply an expression of a group of people who happen to agree upon one point. This does not mean they do not have disparate ideas and values in other matters. The majority is also wholly defined by its constitutive parts: take one person out of a majority, and the constitution of the entire group changes. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts: the parts determine the whole and therefore must be emphasized as the determinative factor, not the other way around.
There is an element of authoritarianism to get-out-the-vote drives that resonates harshly with the tenor of American politics, but it is particularly egregious when put into terms that disenfranchise individual interests. The individualist credo on which the American philosophical tradition that forms the cornerstone of the government is founded rejects the idea that anyone has the requisite authority to tell another how to govern his or herself. Get-out-the-vote drives do precisely this. They attempt to frame civic participation through the voting booth and a particular set of values: namely, the collectivist idea that the nation is somehow weakened if all citizens don’t exercise their voices in the proscribed manner.
Voting is a civic act of selfishness. But it is not the only legitimate one. A government that respects freedom is ultimately one that endorses self-interest: it respects the right of individuals to determine and pursue their own ends and accepts the idea that public action should be oriented around building a system that facilitates this. A decision not to vote can be made for many reasons: disdain for a particular candidate, for the partisan system or for the government as a whole. Too much of modern sentiment towards voting looks to disenfranchise those who would boycott a system they find unconscionable.
But this is only one symptom of a larger problem. Individual political choices, particularly come election time, are everywhere subject to fear and intimidation. Too many public officials adopt the collectivist line that one must vote in order to do one’s patriotic duty or fulfill one’s civic responsibility. But this is sophistic pablum. The individual sets the terms on which he or she lives his life. He is not answerable to the edicts of a political system to determine whether he is a citizen in good standing. Only his conscience and his reason can help him determine that. And that is outside the purview of government, particularly a government that claims to respect personal sovereignty.
Anyone in the public arena who attempts to sway you into voting is not interested in you, but in bringing your judgment into alignment with their own. There is no such thing as altruistic disinterest from one’s self. Everything occurs through the lens of the self. The get-out-the-vote representative who accosts you on the street corner represent only their own judgment. They have decided voting is an important civic duty and, though they adopt the language of selfishness, are interested in supplanting your own judgment with theirs. They attempt to frame political choices for individuals rather than leaving individuals free to create their own frame.
The American system of government is designed in such a way that voting is the most direct channel a person has to voice their interests. And this, ultimately, is troubling, because it is also a system where the judgments of third-party intermediaries masquerade as the interests of others. If individuals can find other forms of expression that do not require exporting their voices to others in order that they be fulfilled, they should be free to do so. Love of one’s own liberty ultimately means respecting the same capacity in others, even if it results in the pursuit of disparate ends. The level of energy channeled by political organizers into organizing the behavior of others come election time is not in aid of personal expression or of liberty, but is authoritarian.
Also published on Medium.