On Voting

I’ve considered in the past running for some sort of government office, I wanted to make a difference.

My slogan would be “Don’t vote! But if you do, vote for me!”

I often imagined having the guy in this video say “I don’t always vote, but when I do, I vote for Jordan Smith.”

I’ve talked a lot about voting, to anyone who will let me. Most people are shocked when they find out that I don’t vote. Some people even say that it’s my responsibility as a US citizen to vote. Some say that if I don’t vote, I can’t complain about what happens. Some people take my lack of voting as apathy about my world. Some people argue that I should still vote for the “lesser of two weevils” because the consequences of not voting are, or potentially are worse. Some people tell me that I should still vote for this or that party even if I don’t like the candidates, because it’s important that the party be successful to avert disaster, doomsday, the apocalypse, Ragnarok, Gog and Magog what have you.

In response, I argue the following:

*Voting is a tacit agreement to whoever gets into power whether you voted for that person or not, since by participating in the system you must recognize that you might not get what you want.

*Voting is immoral, because it allows, supports and demands the use of force upon other people.

*Your vote doesn’t matter statistically.

*Your vote probably doesn’t matter at all.

*Voting is not actually a right, but a privilege granted to us by our government. When is voted written of as an “inalienable right”?

*Voting is dangerous.

I will go through examples of all the points made by both sides. You will find, that these issues are related and there may be some overlap.

It is your responsibility as a US Citizen to vote:

There are multiple quotations by founding fathers that imply that this is correct. To argue against something the founding fathers said is tantamount to being unpatriotic or some other social sin. In fact, however, the founding fathers didn’t all agree with each other. How can we venerate the ideas of two opposing founders? Some believed in slavery, others did not. Some believed in national banks, others did not. Some believed in federalism, some (the anti-federalists) did not. So just because a founding father said something, doesn’t make it true, despite their probable commitment to what was right.

Many people who believe that one has a duty to vote, have confused two concepts. They have confused “the right to vote” with “the rightness of voting”. In general, just because one has the right to do something, does not mean that that thing is the right thing to do.

The right to do something vs. the rightness of doing something is a concept that crops up all over. The argument could be made (and I would make it) that prostitution is wrong. However, does the fact that it’s wrong, mean that a consenting adult should not be able to “ply that trade” if that is his or her choice?

A family member of mine owns rental properties. We’ve discussed her right to raise rents on her properties. I don’t think anyone argues that she, being the owner of the property, has the right to charge whatever rent she wants (and pay the consequences of not finding renters if the rent is too high, or not making enough money and/or attracting bad renters if the rent is too low). Obviously, if she wants to have a renter then she should charge a rent that someone will pay. However, just because she has the right to charge any rent, including a rent at the very highest limit that someone might possibly be able to pay, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Rights and rightness are not necessarily correlated.

Another example is the consumption of drugs. As a human being, we have the right to put in our bodies what we want to, and pay the natural, mortal and possibly eternal consequences of doing so, but having the right to do so, doesn’t have anything to do with the morality of the issue. It doesn’t make it right.

In fact, the choice to exercise any of the inalienable rights that we have (much less the right to vote, which is NOT an inalienable right according to the Bill of Rights; voting wasn’t even mentioned in the constitution until much later, in the 14th Amendment) never implies morality. Let’s look at some of the big ones.

1) Freedom of speech. Because we supposedly have the right to free speech, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have a duty to exercise our free speech.

2) Right to bear arms. Again, just because we have the right to bear arms, doesn’t morally obligate us to bear, or even own, arms. I know that I have some readers who choose not to “bear arms”.  Are you violating some civic duty? Of course not.

3) The privacy rights in the Fourth Amendment. Just because you have a right to privacy, doesn’t mean you have an obligation to maintain your privacy. We all to varying extents give up our privacy all the time. Just using Google to search things as opposed to startpage.com, or using Chrome as opposed to TOR is a choice to give up privacy in exchange for convenience. Choosing to write email instead of a letter is a choice to give up privacy. Is that immoral?

I think you get the picture.

Finally, whether there is a civic duty to be an engaged, “good”citizen, is a separate question from the issue of voting. Someone can be both civically engaged and a good citizen without voting. As a matter of fact, you might be a better citizen if you DIDN’T vote, if you don’t know enough to justify your vote. The issue of voting being a civic duty I think is best described in the section “Political Fallacy” in this article by the founder of the Economic Freedom Foundation.

If you don’t vote, you can’t complain:

This, in my opinion, is one of the most insidious arguments to scare people into voting, not that most people are intentionally being “insidious” but because it’s so pervasive without people considering the implications.

In a swing state, if you vote for one of the two major candidates, you have a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie. If it’s for another candidate or not in a swing state, the chance are even more vanishingly small. That’s basically telling a poor person that he can’t complain that he’s poor because he didn’t play the lottery (similar odds).

In every-day life, the claim of if you don’t vote, you can’t complain makes a sort of crude intuitive logic. If I ask you what you want for dinner, and you don’t contribute an idea, you can’t really complain when I make something you don’t like. You should have spoken up! You can also go eat something else even if I make something that you don’t like. If someone invests their time or money in something, it stands to reason that that person has more of a right to than an outsider to direct or complain about the course of the thing, whatever it is. Voting feels like an investment, it takes time to research the candidates, drive to the voting place etc, and perhaps money if you have to drive far or take time off work.

But, when this idea is applied to the ballot box, it becomes a troubling perversion and conflation of the concepts of consent and free speech. English radical Herbert Spencer addressed this issue best in his book Social Statics written in 1851. Additionally, I can’t just go have a different candidate rule over me if I didn’t vote, unlike dinner.

Spencer discusses what Blackstone said: “no subject of England can be constrained to pay any aids or taxes even for the defense of the realm or the support of government, but such as are imposed by his own consent or that of his representative in parliament.”. Spencer was troubled by this concept and explains why. He says that in stating that a man my not be taxed unless he gives his direct or indirect (either through himself or through his representative), it affirms that he may also refuse to be taxed. The contemporary argument against that was that consent is not specific, but general, and that every man is understood to have assented to anything his representative does (including taxation) when he voted for him. Since the act of voting is a literal and philosophically robust (it is accepted by political philosophers) delegation of one’s own power to make decisions in certain things to another, that concept bears out. But what happens if he didn’t vote for the guy who got elected? What if he voted for his competitor? The argument at the time, as I have often heard it said now, is that he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority. And so he does. What law-abiding citizen does not agree to follow the law, even if his favorite candidate is not elected? However, what if he doesn’t vote at all? Then all of a sudden he can’t complain of any tax or any other result for that matter, because he made no effort in the form of voting to stop it?

The result is, whether he votes for the winner, or whether he votes for the loser, or whether he doesn’t vote at all, he gives his consent to the result. How does that possibly make sense? There has to be a time when you are withholding your consent. That time is by not voting.

Here is a final quotation about the topic from Spencer’s book: “Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent. And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A’s consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say! It is for those who quote Blackstone to choose between this absurdity and the doctrine above set forth. Either his maxim implies the right to ignore the state, or it is sheer nonsense.” 

Apathy about the World: 

This is a similar argument to the “civic duty” argument. Basically, it implies that you are somehow reprobate, derelict, or otherwise deficient in your duties as a good citizen.

I ask you, which is a better citizen: the person who votes but won’t talk about the issues with his friends/family because it’s too intense? Or the person who eschews voting, but talks about the concepts of liberty with lots of people? Who does more to spread the concepts of liberty?

I’m sorry. That was a false dichotomy. Obviously there are people who do vote and who talk about the issues. But if you compare those who vote but refuse to engage in discussion (no politics at the dining table), to those who don’t vote but who are engaged in discussing important topics with others, who does more to spread the concepts of liberty? Yet even the voter who does nothing more than vote is considered to be more engaged and politically “righteous”

Lesser of Two Weevils:

This is an interesting idea, and I’ve heard it a lot. Basically the idea goes that if faced with multiple options, none of which are perfect, at least you should choose the “least bad” one.

I liken this to the scene from the movie Master and Commander where, as a joke, one character asks another which weevil he should eat, if presented with two. The answer: the lesser of two weevils.

This is funny, while also illustrating the crux of the matter. Eating a weevil of any size, is repugnant to me. It is something I would only do if I absolutely were forced to to avoid starvation. Just because one weevil is smaller, doesn’t really make you feel better, does it?

Being forced to choose the lesser of two evils is a moral tragedy and a political fallacy.

The Moral Tragedy

It is morally tragic when a citizen’s choice is between two wrongdoers.

I have never come across a candidate in my life with whom I agree completely. Even Ron Paul, with whom I mostly agreed, had some opinions that I completely disagreed with on a moral level (I can’t remember them now, but they nagged at me at the time). I doubt that any free thinker could find a candidate with whom they completely agreed with. I doubt that any logical person would claim that there is any candidate capable of winning an election (at least in major state elections and national elections) that didn’t trim, on occasion (a trimmer is one who changes his opinions and policies to suit the occasion. See pandering and demagoguery.) Bush, Obama, and Romney have all been caught trimming, as have the current 2016 presidential candidates.

Leonard Read, is the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, the first pro-freedom think tank in the United States. He is critical of policies that limit freedom and increase the size of government.

He wrote an article called The Lesser of Two Evils, from which I’ve gotten some of my language/talking points from. Referring to trimming and his accusation that politicians do it, he said:

“The above are severe charges, and I do not wish to be misunderstood. One of countless personal experiences will help clarify what is meant: A candidate for Congress sat across the desk listening to my views about limited government. At the conclusion of an hour’s discussion he remarked, ‘I am in thorough accord with your views: you are absolutely right. But I couldn’t get elected on any such platform, so I shall represent myself as holding views other than these.’ He might as well have added ‘I propose, in my campaign, to bear false witness….The role of the legislator is to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property – that is, to protect us against fraud, violence, predation, and misrepresentation (false witness). Would our candidates have us believe that ‘it takes a crook to catch a crook’?”

Whether we are of Judeo-Christian belief or not, if we generally ascribe to the principles from the Ten Commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill”; “Thou shalt not steal”; “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, then how can we give our support to someone who in all likelihood, by his willingness to trim (and therefore willingness to ignore the dictates of higher conscience) is someone who does not live his life in accordance with those principles? Even a small act of trimming shows that he stands ready to abandon the dictates of conscience for political advancement.

This is not just a fact of life that we have to deal with. It is because voters have accepted morally reprehensible candidates for so long that we now only have choices in the level of how reprehensible they are. Bad candidates are reflections of bad citizenship and neglect of thought, study, education, vigilance and a commitment to virtue and integrity. The wish to have high quality candidates to choose from is not a fantasy. Edmund Burke said:

“But his (the candidate’s) unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure – no, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices to your opinion.”

Milton Friedman talks in this video about incentives for immoral behavior. It applies to the reason why we have immoral politicians.

The Political Fallacy

Is it wrong to believe that to be a responsible citizen you must vote for one or the other of the candidates (the lesser of the two evils, hopefully), no matter how immoral they are?

If you read the section of the article about Two Evils, then you’ll understand the arguments. I’ll summarize them.

If you had to vote between Hitler and Stalin, which would you choose? Obviously neither, because choosing either one would be allying yourself with an evil man.

In real life, it’s more insidious. It is established policy in the USA to conform with the Marxist tenet “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. There is a theory of “new economics” that rationalizes this theory, and it is used in government. One candidate stands for the coercive expropriation of earned income of citizens (taxes) and giving those funds to groups A, B, and C. The other does the same thing, but tries to appear to have the moral high ground by giving the funds to group X, Y, and Z instead.

Is it responsible citizenship to commit to either one? Committing to either one is not a moral choice, but rather an immoral one, one in which you make an unholy alliance with the one you hope might benefit the group you favor. It is not responsible citizenship, but irresponsible looting.

Read also mentions in the article that voting for a trimmer, even the lesser of two trimmers, only encourages more trimmers to run, and discourages moral men from running.

I’m quoting this next part because he says it as well as can be said:

“What would happen if we adopted as a criterion: Never vote for a trimmer! Conceding a gen­erous liberality on the part of the electorate, millions of us would not cast ballots. Would the end re­sult of this substantial, nonviolent protest, this large-scale demon­stration of ‘voting by turning our backs,’ worsen our situation? It is difficult to imagine how it could. For a while we would continue to get what we now have: a high percentage of trimmers and plun­derers in public office, men who promise privileges in exchange for ballots—and freedom. In time, however, with this silent but elo­quent refusal to participate, the situation might, conceivably, im­prove. Men of integrity and high moral quality—statesmen—might show forth and, if so, we could add their numbers to the few now in office.

Would a return to integrity by itself solve our problem? No, for many men of integrity do not un­derstand freedom; or, if they do, are not devoted to it. But it is only among men of integrity that any solution can begin to take shape. Such men, at least, will do the right as they see the right; they tend to be teachable. Trimmers and plunderers, on the other hand, are the enemies of morality and freedom by definition; their motivations are below the level of principles; they cannot see beyond the emoluments of office.

Here is a thought to weigh: If respect for a candidate’s integrity were widely adopted as a criterion for casting a ballot, millions of us, as matters now stand, would not cast ballots. Yet, in a very practical sense, would not those of us who protest in this manner be voting? Certainly, we would be counted among that growing number who, by our conscious and deliberate inaction, proclaim that we have no party. What other choice have we at the polling level? Would not this encourage men of statesmanlike qualities to offer themselves in candidacy?”

There is way too much in the article to cover, but I think I’ve covered the issue of the lesser of two evils.

Even if you don’t like the candidate, you should still vote for the party:

Why should I? Since when is anything one party of the other going to do that is so horrible (in the US at least) that I should vote for the other party just to keep it from winning? Historically speaking, there’s never been a time that one party was so evil in the US that when it got into power it was a disaster. All parties have done bad things, and there’s no way to categorically say that one party is preferable to another.

In addition, just because a candidate is registered as belonging to one party or another means practically nothing in and of itself. Trump has historically supported democrats, but is running as a republican. Ron Paul is a libertarian but he ran as a Republican. Even if the candidate has historically been in line with his/her current party’s platform, there’s no guarantee that promises will be kept. In fact, there’s every reason to believe they won’t be, since they hardly ever are.

*********

Now that I’ve addressed the fallacies about voting, I’ll go over what I believe to be the facts about voting that don’t recommend it.

Voting is a tacit consent to abide by whatever the winner decides to do, whether you voted for him or not:

What is voting if it is not giving consent? It’s meaningless without the concept of consent. If I vote for someone, it means I am consenting to him making decisions for me. That is a basic principle of voting for someone. When you vote, you voluntarily consent to take part in the system of government that is putting on the vote .

Locke supposed that we all give explicit consent to being governed when he wrote in his Second Treatise:

“Men being…by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living…they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only the will and determination of the majority… And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority.”

However, he was only partly right. This would work for the very first generation, but not subsequent generations, which undergo no such process. He seems to have realized this later in the treatise when he said that consent is not actually spoken, but may be understood to have been given:

“every man that hath any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tacit consent…whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever…or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway”. 

Voting is theoretically, if not factually (because do our votes matter?), having part in the dominion of a government.

The only way to withhold your consent is to not take part in the voting. By withholding your consent through abstention of voting, you remove the moral justification of government for doing the things it does. After all, even in it’s evil, it is supposedly a government for, by and of the people, and the people who run and are elected, are reflections of the citizenry. By withholding your vote, the government no longer has the morality of our consent on its side.

Since I don’t consent to government rule, I abstain from voting.

Voting is Immoral:

How could it possibly be immoral, you might ask.

This is not meant to be offensive. When faced with the prospect that what they’re doing might be wrong, people feel offended by this claim. But that is not my intention. Think about what happens when you vote. You essentially contribute to the empowerment of someone who is guaranteed to use that power to at very least take your money away from you, or take it from other people, and possibly force other people to do things through enforcement of current laws or ratification of new ones. That force is done through the eventual point of a gun. If you refuse to pay taxes, what is the end of the line of that process? If you refuse to obey laws that you don’t agree with, what is the end of the line of that process? By voting, you are empowering someone to coerce someone else. That is not OK. One of the important principles of freedom is the Non-Aggression Principle. Basically it is not OK to use force or to threaten to use force unless you are defending yourself or others, your rights and your property.

There is very little (if any) moral difference between stealing money from a rich person and giving it to a poor person, and delegating someone else to do it for you. In addition, echoing the concern of the moral tragedy, voting is similar to two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. You know what’s going to happen.

Here’s an article from the Mises Institute if you want to read more about the morality of voting.

In addition, when you vote, since you are giving tacit consent, you are signing your name to countless misdeeds. When we vote, if we boil it down, we’re saying that we think that what we want to have happen is important enough that we’re willing to have men with guns make our fellow citizens conform and obey, even if they think something else is important.

Check these articles from libertarianism.org for more: http://www.libertarianism.org/columns/voting-moral-wrong

http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/political-obligations-paying-taxes

http://www.libertarianism.org/blog/important-concepts-political-obligation

http://www.libertarianism.org/media/free-thoughts-podcast/do-we-have-duty-obey-government

Your vote doesn’t matter statistically:

“In all of American history, a single vote has never determined the outcome of a presidential election. And there are precious few examples of any other elections decided by a single vote. A 2001 National Bureau of Economic Research paper by economists Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter looked at 56,613 contested congressional and state legislative races dating back to 1898. Of the 40,000 state legislative elections they examined, encompassing about 1 billion votes cast, only seven were decided by a single vote (two were tied). A 1910 Buffalo contest was the lone single-vote victory in a century’s worth of congressional races. In four of the 10 ultra-close campaigns flagged in the paper, further research by the authors turned up evidence that subsequent recounts unearthed margins larger than the official record initially suggested.

The numbers just get more ridiculous from there. In a 2012 Economic Inquiry article, Columbia University political scientist Andrew Gelman, statistician Nate Silver, and University of California, Berkeley, economist Aaron Edlin use poll results from the 2008 election cycle to calculate that the chance of a randomly selected vote determining the outcome of a presidential election is about one in 60 million. In a couple of key states, the chance that a random vote will be decisive creeps closer to one in 10 million, which drags voters into the dubious company of people gunning for the Mega-Lotto jackpot. The authors optimistically suggest that even with those terrible odds, you may still choose to vote because “the payoff is the chance to change national policy and improve (one hopes) the lives of hundreds of millions, compared to the alternative if the other candidate were to win.” But how big does that payoff have to be to make voting worthwhile?”

The above quotation came from this article: https://reason.com/archives/2012/10/03/your-vote-doesnt-count/

Your vote doesn’t matter practically:

When has voting resulted in long-lasting (much less permanent) positive changes? People have been talking about “voting the bums out” for decades. It’s the go-to method to improve things. When has it? When have long-lasting positive changes have come about by being an active voter?

In addition, when have you felt that the person you voted for actually ended up representing your values, interests, needs, etc? “Voting the bums out” doesn’t work because the people who want to be in power, and have the ability to get that power, are the only ones who will be elected even when you “vote the bums out”. It’s a cycle that can only now be ended by refusing to vote.

In this short video, Milton Friedman explains that voting the bums out of office isn’t the way to effect change.

 

Voting is not a right, but a “privilege”: 

Voting is not listed in the Bill of Rights. It is not considered an inalienable right by the Founding Fathers. In general, the Founders considered voting a only privilege or a duty. Voting is an institution that is granted to us by our government, amd we do so at the largesse of our government.

Emma Goldman was an old-school anarchist. I don’t agree with most of what she said/did. Read about her here if you care to. However, one thing she said that I do agree with is “if voting changed anything it would be illegal”. If there’s one thing I’m sure of is that government is intent on keeping and increasing its power. If government thought that our system of voting had the ability to meaningfully curtail its ability to do so, then it would be illegal. Why would it provide us with the means of its own destruction?

Voting is Dangerous:

When you vote, as I’ve mentioned, you’re giving up your ability to make decisions about certain things, and delegating that power to someone else. Locke, the founding father of the Founding Fathers, bears this out. When you give up that power, you become vulnerable. Have you ever been concerned about not being able to do anything about the current situation of the world/country? That vulnerability is derived from the fact that powers that we would have for ourselves in a free and natural state are given up to others.

When we vote, we philosophically enslave ourselves to the majority. If we don’t vote, on an individual level, the majority might still be the same. However, they would then have no MORAL right to control us. When we do vote, they have a clear event to point to that says that you gave tacit consent to the outcome, even if it’s not the outcome you wanted.

Voting makes the minority slaves of the majority.

 

On Somalia

In a previous post, I used the presence of roads in Somalia to show how there doesn’t need to be government to have roads. However, there is some government in Somalia (they just aren’t building very many roads). The argument caters to the people who use Somalia as an example of what happens when there’s anarchy, but really, that is incorrect.

Anarchy, in its true, literal sense, refers to the absence of rulers. There are various philosophical interpretations depending on who (or as my grandmother says “whom”) you ask, but most will accept that anarchy requires that there be no rulers. That’s not what has been going on in Somalia, which is therefore not an example of anarchy. It is an example of a socialist failed state. Somalia can hardly be considered an example of the dangers of limited or no government when it’s actually its bad socialist policies that caused its failure. If anything, it shows how government can run a state into the ground and result in chaos (not the same as anarchy). Rather, saying that Somalia is a Libertarian Paradise is like saying that North Korea is a paradise for Democratic Republicans. Additionally, Somalia did not actually just get rid of its “state”. It got rid of its federal government and broke apart into many smaller states. Equating that to anarchism is like thinking that burning down a church will lead to atheism in the town (I stole that idea from Stefan Molyneux, a jerk, but a smart one).

Note: A failed state could potentially turn into a great libertarian or anarchist society; options for creating a libertarian society are discussed here.

During the instability in Somalia leading up to the mid-1990s, exacerbated by U.S. military troops in the UNISOM I, UNITAF and UNISOM II engagements, Somalia became the exact opposite of anarchy. Instead, it became a hotbed of different governments all vying for absolute power over Somalia. That’s not anarchy, that’s warlordism.

While Somalians do benefit from some market freedoms like minimal or nonexistent taxation (depending on where one lives and who rules there) and relatively free trade, these benefits are overshadowed by the constant warring of various warlords (small-time dictators) and the impending doom of One State to Rule them All.

Despite the constant warring, including Ethiopa’s 2006 US-pressured proxy invasion of Somalia, which resulted in the deaths of 16,210 civilians, 29,000 wounded civilians and 1.9 million displaced civilians from Mogadishu alone in 2007, some good things were still happening in the absence of a true state.

Because the various powers in Somalia were focused on each other, individuals had room to grow. It turns out that Somalia was probably better off in a (comparatively) stateless world, according to a 2007 paper written for the Journal of Comparative Economics. Life expectancy is higher now than when there was a unified government. Infant mortality has improved 24%. Maternity mortality has fallen over 30%. Infants with low birth weight has fallen over 15%. Access to health facilities has increased over 25%. Access to sanitation has risen 8%. Extreme poverty has decreased almost 20%. Access to radios, televisions and telephones has jumped between 3 and 25 times. Here is a table from the paper that shows the economic indicators that were considered. Leeson, the author of the paper, stated that many economic indicators improved during the era of statelessness, compared to its neighbors. See this article on Reason.com for a summary of the paper.

The BBC published a series of articles commemorating 20 years of statelessness in Somalia. One of these points out that while common sense might dictate that security and stability are necessary to economic development, Somalia has had “resilience” and has shown “remarkable growth” despite the fact that it has had neither security nor stability. For example, the first cell phone tower went up in 1994, and now people can make a cell phone call from anywhere in the country; that’s more than can be said for the United States, which still has frustrating outages even in heavily populated areas, depending on your carrier.

Things are not all sunshine and roses however. Somalia is a violent, dangerous place, and people still have difficulty accessing clean water in many areas. I wouldn’t move there. However, since the successes that Somalia has had can’t be attributed to the warlords and wars in Somalia, it must be that those things occurred despite the profluence of various governments overcrowding the country. With just a little extra freedom in some areas, Somalia was able to do surprisingly well, especially given their limited resources, education, technology and wealth. Imagine what true statelessness could accomplish in somewhere like the United States, with our education, technology, resources and wealth.

So, Somalia is not truly in a state of anarchy. They have rulers. It happens to be, however, that those rulers are primarily focused on destroying and dominating each other, which has allowed for some some of the interesting results mentioned above.

The previous information is a few years old, however. How are things doing more recently? In August 2011, the militant group al Shabaab left Mogadishu, often referred to as “the world’s most dangerous city”. Without rulers, however, the city saw an economic boom. Not only that, but the people are optimistic.

Imagine what could be done in a place where people understood the value of free trade and no regulation.

 

But who WILL build the roads?

This is a long post. I resisted the temptation to break it up for digestibility, it works better as a complete thought.

Given that the name of this blog is But Who Will Build the Roads, it seems fitting that one of the first (and longest) posts here addresses the issue. To clarify the question: when advocates of privatization of government services question the morality or practicality of services that government now “provides” to the public, they often hear the response “but who will build the roads?” It is such a ubiquitous question that it has become a sort of running joke among some economists and other privatization advocates.

However, it is an understandable question in a world where a large segment of the population is composed of people who were born after the establishment US Department of Transportation in 1966, and therefore during or after the construction of the Interstate Highway System. These people have lived all or much of their lives in a world where roads are predominately built by government.

I could answer the question “if there is no government, then who will build the roads?” with “if there is no slavery, who will pick the cotton?” Let the implications sink in.

I feel that responds to the question fairly, but I’ll do more than that. In this post I will address the morality of state-funded roads, the pragmatism of allowing the state to build roads, whether we need government to provide roads, and some possible (but by no means definitive) ways the private sector can build roads and perhaps do it better than government at a lower cost to drivers.


Morality:

It may seem odd to view public road building as a matter of morality. My family owns some land in the northwest part of Colorado. It is land-locked, and surrounded on all sides by private owners or national forest/parks. There are no roads that lead onto the property. If we wanted easy, convenient access to the property, would it be right to force the adjacent private owners to pay for it? Would it be right to attempt to have the US Forest Service pay for it? The answer to both questions is (probably obviously) no. Clearly the private owners in the area have no responsibility toward us in that regard, and trying to force them to pay for our road would be morally wrong. But what about the US Forest Service? That agency presumably has lots of money, and behind it is the federal power of taxation. Even in this case, it would be wrong. Even if the US Forest Service were willing to pay, it would be the same as asking all tax-payers to pay for our road. That is not fair.

Extend the moral here to the country at large. Right now taxpayers pay for some roads they never or may never use. I pay for the interstate highways on the east coast, where I probably will never visit, and people on the east coast pay for interstate highways on the west coast, where they may never visit. If it is not fair to force individuals to pay for my road on a small scale, how does the increased scale all of a sudden ascribe moral high ground to those who force individuals to pay for roads on the large scale? It doesn’t. And, if you dig deeper, one might see that the way individuals are forced to build roads is through involuntary taxation. (There are probably people out there who happily pay taxes and would pay them even if they didn’t have to, but my guess is that they are few in number.) That’s theft, another immorality.

One might argue that people pay for roads they do use as well. That’s true. But should they be forced to pay for them whether they use them or not? How is it not more fair to have people pay for roads based upon their level of use? They pay nothing if they don’t use that road at all, and they pay increasing amounts commensurate with their use.

The basic evil associated with government roads is that they are coercive. And coercion is evil. We don’t have a choice other than to pay for them because if we don’t we get put in jail. People may be seduced by the idea that it’s a necessary evil. First, I’ll show farther down that it’s not necessary, and even if it might seem to be so, since when do ends justify means?

There is no morality in government roads.


Pragmatism:

Consider the following:

  • Why does road construction take forever?
  • Why do we see road crews standing around?
  • Why is it so hard sometimes to get roads repaired?

The proximate cause is because the employees of the Department of Transportation (and other related agencies) who are directly responsible for the above have no incentive for speed or efficiency. If they don’t use up their budgets in equipment and wages, then they often lose it the following year. Whereas, if they exceed budget, then they have a reason to ask for more the following year.

The ultimate cause, is because there is no competition. Government experiences no significant competition in road building (people hate private toll roads right now, I’ll discuss why farther down). Government is sometimes said to a have a natural monopoly on road building because of the costs. This is ridiculous because the costs come from the people, which is where it would come from if roads were private. In addition, costs would be lower without government bloat.

However, the state does have an effective current monopoly on roads, which reduces or eliminates its incentive to do things any way than what it’s currently doing. Why go quickly when they’re not facing any real repercussions (like a competitor building a road faster and “stealing” customers) for going slow? Why supervise the road crews better so there’s not so much downtime when they don’t have to worry about managing costs well in order to be competitive? Why bother repairing the roads in a timely manner when there’s no competition to make you look bad by better service?

That is the real reason why those problems exist, and is the reason construction of roads by the state will never be the most satisfactory solution, and therefore will never be the most pragmatic solution.

Note: For more on the morals and practicality of privatization of roads, I highly recommend economist Walter Block‘s video titled “Privatizing Roads“. I have to say that he actually makes the argument better than I do.


Do we need government to build roads?

Sometimes, when I suggest that we don’t need government to build roads, people sort of act like this. When in fact, this is more accurate. (The second link is from the movie Office Space. The link depicts a scene where a consultant has been brought in and requires people to explain why they’re valuable to the company. In the image, the text is changed to fit the context of road-building. This is called a meme.)

Statists often counter the privatization argument with Somalia. The popular consensus about Somalia is that it is a real-world example of what true anarchy looks like. I question that, but lets take it at face value. No government. Everyone is just running amok with no order or anything. Well, here is a map of Somalia (Mogadishu in specific). I see roads, do you? Here’s a WikiProject of Somalian roads. For thoroughness’ sake, here’s a Bing Map of Somalia. I see roads again. How did these roads get there if there’s no government? Somalia is held up by statists as the manifestation of all of their worst fears of libertarianism. Yet there are roads there. They didn’t just disappear as soon as that part of the world went crazy.

Think too of all of the private roads you’ve probably been on. Many private communities have private roads. They tend to be nicer than the road you took to get to the community. In rural and suburban communities even today there are signs marked “Private Road”. Perhaps you’ve seen on Google maps the warning that says the route takes you through a private road. Maybe you’ve even seen the roads named after someone in the community where that person is. Likely as not, they built that road at some point in history.

Think of the toll roads. I hate paying tolls in today’s world. I don’t hate the toll in general; I hate it because if I want to use the road and pay the toll, there is no corresponding decrease in taxes owed for the public road that I didn’t use because I used the private toll road instead. In Colorado, where I live, there is a toll road called E-470. It receives no state or federal funding, but is instead controlled by eight local governments (more on why this works in a bit). It is not perfect, but it operates in a very similar way to a private toll road. It is annoying to pay the toll without getting a tax deduction. However, there are many benefits that perhaps would endear us more to the concept of private toll roads if we didn’t still have to pay taxes. (See the “Short History” section of this page to find out why E-470 was needed.)

  1. E-470 has free 24/7 roadside assistance. This includes changing flat tires, out-of-gas assistance, radiator refills, engine oil refills, battery jump-start, and cell phone service.
  2. E-470 has higher speed limits (75 mph vs 65 mph along the same stretch) with fewer accidents than I-25.
  3. E-470 has less traffic. I used to commute from Boulder to Greenwood village. I could take I-25 for approximately 30 miles and get there in an hour and 20 minutes. Or I could take E-470 for over 60 miles and get there in half the time or less.

That sounds good, right? Imagine how good it would get if there were no taxes to pay and E-470 actually had real competition!

The road isn’t perfect. The signs are confusing. Often, I hear about people accidentally getting on the road before they even knew what was happening and then owing a toll. These are all problems that would be resolved with competition. If E-470 was confusing and sneaky, and Jordan’s Road was clearly marked and easy, which would people like more?

Note too, that government doesn’t actually build roads. They just figure out as best they can (none too well, often) what work needs to be done, and then hire the cheapest possible crew to do the work. Anyone who has done government contracting is familiar with that process (unless they have a connection, then perhaps they can charge more and still get the contract).

This is a summary of conversations I’ve had:

Me: “We don’t need government for services.”

Well-meaning Statist: “But who will build the roads?”

Me: “Good question. Who actually pays for the roads now?”

Well-meaning Statist: “Well, the people do through taxation.”

Me: “So people are willing to be taxed for roads because they want to have good roads?”

Well-meaning Statist: “Most of them besides you, yeah.”

Me: “And after the taxes are paid, who actually builds the roads?”

Well-meaning Statist: “Probably the Department of Transportation [sic usually, it’s private contractors hired by the DOT].

Me: “So it’s just people who are building the roads in the end?”

Well-meaning Statist: “Sure, we’re a government for, of and by the people.”

Me: “So there are people out there willing to pay for roads, and people out there willing to build roads. The whole thing is organized and carried out by people. So how is ‘government’ essential to the process?”

It’s not; governments and business are both organizations composed of people, so there’s no reason to believe that a private company can’t do it if government, in all its non-competitive inefficiency can do it.

In fact, government in this case is simply acting as the middle-man for road builders and road consumers. They find consumers (tax-payers) and then give money to builders (who also happen to be tax-payers and to a certain extent are paying their own salaries). People sometimes hate middle-men, but there is actually an economical argument to be made for them, so I’m not criticizing government roads because government is a middle-man . I’m saying that because all it’s doing is act as a middle-man, it brings nothing to the table that private organizations can’t likely do better. Businesses have also been operating as middle-men for as long as governments. Take a read at this final example for this section:

Disney World: they build and maintain their own roads (aside from Interstate 4 which goes right through the property). Have a look at all their roads. The legend even mentions a monorail beam, though I can’t see it on the map. This is an example of a private company building its own roads. Why would they do such a thing? Because it makes things convenient for visitors. And if things are convenient for visitors, Disney will make more money. Incidentally, Disney takes care of its own security, has a fire department and maintains its own gas, sewage and power lines, all without government.

We don’t need government to build or maintain roads.


Private Solutions:

Caveat: I don’t claim to know that any of these solutions is best. It’s all academic for me because I’ve never faced this. Necessity being the mother of invention, the best solutions will be discovered once roads are the purview of private industry.

One private solution for roads is something that I’ve already touched on. There are times and places where individuals might pay for their own roads, which is the prospect we face with our land in northwestern Colorado. If someone goes out and lives in the boonies, what right expectation can they have that anyone be responsible for a road to get out there other than that person? An internet search reveals that there are plenty of cases of people building private roads in the US and abroad. Here is a resource created by the University of Georgia: The Layman’s Guide to Private Access Road Construction. Timber Home Living provides a guide to avoiding the pitfalls of private road ownership. Even the federal government provides a guide to building private access roads. This shows that people are already doing this, which is proof of concept.

I promised I would talk about why the E-470 works, when it is paid for by governments. It is proof of concept that (relatively) small communities can pay for their own roads without someone taking away their money by force. HOAs pay for roads. That’s another proof of concept. If a community exists and needs roads or road maintenance, whether they have those roads or not will be directly proportionate to how much people want them. If someone wants them sufficiently, then someone will be willing to pay for them.

One of the concerns that many have with community-paid roads is how to force free-riding members of the community to pay for roads or road maintenance. The problem is that people with that concern are still thinking in terms of coercion as opposed to market incentives. The would-be free-riders don’t have to pay for private roads to be built if they don’t want to. But if they want to use it you better believe one solution is that their road maintenance toll is going to be much higher than the toll paid by people who paid to build the road (or perhaps the contributors to the road don’t pay maintenance fees at all for X years). That’s only one solution. Others would probably present themselves as necessity arose. Here is an example when this has happened in real life, relatively recently.

In a new community, HOAs and construction companies could build the roads out to the community and within the community, as an incentive to buy the house. Costs of building and maintenance could be recuperated through an increased purchase price (which would likely be more than offset with tax savings, no license and permit costs etc. if there were no government), and possibly through HOA fees or tolls. (I hate HOAs, and I’m not married to them; again, this is just one idea to show that the concept could work. I’m not advocating HOAs.)

Property developers would have an incentive to provide plumbing, connections to water, electricity, and roads (that connect to towns, schools, jobs etc.). They often build all of that anyway, and would do the same if government didn’t “build” roads. What do real estate agents talk about? They talk about how close the community is to everything, how easy the drive is to stores, how great the schools are. All of those incentives would still exist even if government weren’t involved.

Interestingly, some people in third-world countries think nothing of a lack of government funding for private roads, and assume that it’s the responsibility of the village to build any roads that it wants. It’s almost a “first-world-problem” to think we can’t have roads without government.

Building roads from one community to another, or from one business hub to another would likely not, however, be something the individual or even the community would pay for in most cases. This would be something businesses would pay for, either alone, like Disney World, or as a group. It would be a business investment. “Trade” with other communities or business hubs is economically preferable to being limited to business within one’s own community.

Again, this is just one possible solution: companies could potentially cooperate to build roads and other infrastructure. Companies who invest in road construction would be partial owners, which would allow them free or reduced cost of access to the road. There is precedence to companies working together on projects. Companies in the automotive industry work with competitors all the time. This is a way to voluntarily share costs and risks, as well as benefits.

It is even conceivable that entrepreneurs could create road building companies that cater to businesses who want to expand their commerce, just like shipping companies do now.

Another concern that people bring up is being denied access to the roads. First of all, if you don’t own the road, then you really don’t have an actual right to use the road. No one has a right to have roads provided to him or her. However, for most private roads that aren’t just leading to people’s houses on their property, denying access to roads is extremely unlikely, because it’s unprofitable. It is in the best interest of the road builder (be it private individual, entrepreneur, a community, a corporation or a group of communities or companies working together) to allow as many people to use the road as possible in order to recuperate costs of building and maintenance and even possibly make a profit. Not making a profit on the road itself though is not necessarily a deal breaker, however. If the group of companies making the road are able to realize greater profits through increased trade, despite the cost of building and maintaining the road, then they will still build it.

Stefan Molyneux, a philosopher who started a website called Free Domain Radio, is a bit of a self-important jerk. However, he makes a good point about having for-pay private roads versus the “free”-use roads we have now. I don’t know how to come up with an actual figure, but try to imagine all the pollution caused by vehicles on the road. This is in part due to free-use roads. The cost to use the roads is so dissociated from the use that it seems free. That fact has engendered a culture of driving that would have been curtailed if we all had to pay every time we went out on the road. Every 2-minute drive to the store that could have easily been walked or cycled, had there been a financial incentive to do so, contributes to the levels of pollution we have today. (Imagine how much better shape we’d all be in, too.)

I know people hate tolls. Aside from the fact that I think people would hate them less if they got a deduction in their taxes for paying the tolls (due to an ostensible commensurate decreased use of public roads), tolls don’t even have to be used in every case. Think of websites. Most don’t charge you simply to access the site. The traffic itself generates profit due to advertising. The hopes of making a sale on the site also makes it worth it to host the site. This can work with highways as well. People who want to advertise on the roads in order to appeal to the traffic can pay the road owners to do so. If the road gets lots of traffic, advertisers will pay to advertise there.  If the road owners have a reputation for making roads that people want to use for whatever reason (perhaps because of the service, speed limits, destination, traffic levels, road quality, who knows), then advertisers might even contribute to the cost of building and/or maintaining the roads in exchange for advertising rights for a certain period of time after completion. Lots of people hate advertising as well. Advertisers would have to figure out a way to be unobtrusive or people might avoid the road. Additionally, road builders would need to be sensitive to their consumers. In Boulder, for example, most people would hate advertised roads and would probably prefer a toll or another solution we haven’t thought of. In New York, it might be different.

Insurance companies might potentially provide incentive funds to road-owners to get them to maintain the roads, as having sound roads could help prevent accidents and cost the insurance companies less in the long run.

There could be options to pay for special perks on the roads. Perhaps there could be priority lanes that one can pay to drive in and drive as fast as one wants (or at least faster than everyone else). Combining this with advertising would likely work out better for everyone. This is similar to how allowing access to a website to everyone, advertising and having people pay for premium content as opposed to having a paywall works better for everyone, including the website owner. Another example that proves this concept is software, especially phone apps. There are thousands of free apps out there that reserve premium functionality or content for those who pay for the app.

Private solutions can work.

Conclusion:

I know this was a long post. My goal is to be around 2000 words and I’ve written almost double that. Perhaps I’m not a concise enough writer to do this topic justice in only 2000 words.

To summarize, government roads are immoral because they rely on theft to function. Government roads are not pragmatic because they have no competition and therefore no incentive to do a good job. There are plenty of examples of private roads even today. There are plenty of potential ways that all roads could be private.

 

On the Minimum Wage

I’m not an economist. However, I love economics, which is perhaps why my sister, who asked me a question about minimum wage, suggested I start this blog.

She had read this very good article on fee.com, which presented the idea that minimum wage was a way for eugenics proponents of the last century to eradicate “undesirables” using public policy.

My sister asked me how minimum wage could possibly harm the poorest of a population. While I had never before heard the claim about eugenics (read the article and come to your own conclusions), I am familiar with minimum wage.

Here is the response I gave her, edited a bit for clarity, conciseness and continuity:

When people conclude that the minimum wage will help the poor, it is at first glance, a reasonable conclusion. If the poor make more money, then perhaps, hopefully, they will have enough to provide for their needs (perhaps I’ll discuss what needs are in another post). If, for example, the minimum gross income needed is 16 dollars an hour at 40 hours a week, and that is what the minimum wage rate is, then things are great, right?

Think about what would happen if there were no minimum wage at all, which before the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, there wasn’t.

Employers could hire people for less than what they do now.

An extremely unskilled person, or someone who seems in today’s world to be unemployable or “undesirable”, could potentially get hired for… a dollar an hour lets say. If the would-be employee voluntarily accepts the job and the business owner is fine with paying a dollar an hour, who’s to say it’s not a fair exchange for the value the worker contributes?

However, if the government makes the minimum wage four dollars an hour, despite the fact that the market said that some employees really only did work that was worth a dollar an hour, then employers have to make a decision. They’re now required to pay 400% the wage they used to pay those people. Is it worth it to them to pay that much when they really only bring in value that’s worth a dollar an hour in exchange?

Depending on the job, the profit margin the business has, and other factors, perhaps the business owner can say “ok, I was paying them a dollar an hour and they were making me 9 dollars an hour. Now, if I pay them four dollars an hour, I’ll still make 6 dollars an hour…still worth it.”

However, are they going to keep that specific employee? Are they going to hire similar employees going forward? If they have to pay a wage that’s 400% what it used to be, savvy business owners are going to be more picky about who they choose to hire. They will need the extra expense to be worth it. If the original cost was one dollar, and the profit was 9, imagine when the minimum wage gets up to 10 dollars an hour. If employers aren’t proportionately picky about who they hire as the minimum wage increases, they will reach a point where continuing operation will be financially impossible. Unless they have employees that are so much better that they’re able to bring in more than the “one-dollar-an-hour and four-dollar-an-hour” ones were, the employer won’t make any money (since in our example it was (1 dollar out in wages for 9 in in profit, or 4 dollars out in wages for 6 dollars in in profit). If they have to pay 10 dollars out in wages, the employee who was profitable when he made 9 dollars an hour for the employer is no longer profitable. He is no longer fiscally a possible person to hire, because he isn’t skilled or efficient enough to bring in more than 10 dollars in return, and the employer will lose money and/or go out of business.

Note: An employer could certainly choose, out of the goodness of his heart, or for some other reason, to continue operation while losing money. There are even some cases where that is preferable to going out of business (see here). However, it is unreasonable to expect most employers to do this long-term, and immoral to force them to do so. If it’s immoral to force people to work (slavery) then it’s immoral to force people to provide work (also slavery).

Therefore, when a minimum wage is put into place, or when it’s increased, it makes the people who are less marketable* the people who will lose jobs because not only will employers likely have additional costs (in training, special accommodations etc) in general, but as the minimum wage narrows the gap between cost and profit (or even total revenue) employers are only going to hire people who have more skills, and are therefore able to produce more or more efficiently.

There have been numerous articles, reports, and research papers written by economists on how raising the minimum wage (since we’re already past implementing one in the first place), hurts the poor (usually the ones with the fewest skills or for whatever other reason are difficult to employ) the most. See below if you’d like to read some.†

A modern-day example of this is McDonald’s considering, or perhaps they’re even past the consideration phase, automating some of the functions in their “restaurants” because minimum wage is becoming so expensive that in the long run the immediate increased cost of developing and buying all of the automation equipment will be offset in the short enough long run in savings from not having to pay such a high minimum wage, pay for health insurance, pay for workman’s comp when people get injured, etc.

*These are people with the fewest skills or who are for other reason not desirable, E.g. people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities, alcoholics/drug addicts, or people who are difficult to get a long with or work with for whatever other reasons.

In conclusion, minimum wage is bad for everyone. It is bad for the poor because they won’t get hired. It is bad for the middle class because inflation caused (something not discussed in this post) by the minimum wage will make things more expensive for them. It is bad for business owners because they will not be able to afford to hire people and still be profitable.

The Minimum Wage is Cruelest to those Who Can’t Find a Job – James A. Dorn, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.
The Negative Effect of Minimum Wage Laws – Mark Wilson, Economist at San Diego State University.
Repeal the Minimum wage – Art Carden, Economist at Rhodes College.
Minimum Wages: A Poor Way to Reduce Poverty, Joseph J. Sabia, Economist at San Diego State University.
The Effects of Minimum Wage on Employment Dynamics – Jonathan Meer, Economist Texas A&M, and Anthony West, Economist at MIT.
Let the Data Speak: The Truth Behind Minimum Wage Laws – Steve H. Hanke, at Johns Hopkins University.
Outlawing Jobs: The Minimum Wage – Murray Rothbard, Renowned Economist.
Rape and the Minimum Wage – Matt Zwolinski, Philosopher and co-Director at USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy.
Does the Minimum Wage Hurt Workers? – Antony Davies, Economist at Duquesne University and Research Fellow at The Mercatus Center.
Unintended Consequences of Price Controls – Antony Davies, Economist at Duquesne University and Research Fellow at The Mercatus Center.
The Minimum Wage Hurt the Young and Unskilled… – Preston Cooper, Policy Analyst at Economics21.
An Economist’s 10 Objections to the Minimum Wage – Mark J. Perry, Economist at University of Michigan.
Minimum Wage, Maximum Automation – Adam C. Smith, Economist at Johnston & Wales University and Stewart Dompe, Economist at Johnston & Wales University.
Low-skilled Workers Flee the Minimum Wage – Corey Iacono, Economics student at Rhode Island University.
Minimum Wage Myths – Milton Friedman,Renowned Economist.