Libertarian Distractions revisited.

One of the very great ironies of posting about angry shitfights between libertarians on other websites was that they came to Club Troppo to carry on the brawling. Now by Catallaxy standards it was a very gentlemanly affair, reaching no more than 112 comments. For the rareified (some might say stultified) milieu of Club Troppo it was a positive riot. So much for improving things.

I felt it was time to revisit on of the themes of my previous entry: the ease with which ideology can derail practical outsomes. The LDP is looking at voting policy. Unlike debates about gun laws, this one hasn’t descended into name-calling, but it does illustrate the classical flaw in ideological (particularly deontological, rights-based) thinking: failing to realise not all outcomes are possible, because there are instrumental costs for backing any policy.

It’s funny that this has to be pointed out at all. As a group libertarians are stereotypically awash with economic understanding. They refer to it and derive from it to explain many of their policy positions, regardless of whether they are deontological or consequentialist libertarians. Probably the first principle any economics student learns is that wants are unlimited, means are limited. Choices have to be made.

Otherwise put: the question of whether or not to make voting voluntary is not worth pursuing with any great energy. It is an example of what I might, to extend the analogy I’ve used before, call a “high hanging fruit”. A fruit which is difficult to obtain and in any case fairly scanty. For the libertarian program to obtain traction, focus must rest on the low hanging fruit: the fat juicy policies which have a large positive effect, are straightforward to explain, and which can at least fall within spitting range of mainstream discourse. The 30/30 tax and welfare reform package is an excellent example of a low-hanging fruit.

It doesn’t hurt to investigate these sorts of policies. Let the party draw its conclusions. Broadly speaking voluntary voting is a better fit in principle for the deontological libertarians, though yours truly has some very strong consequentialist objections to it. Indeed it can be helpful to have addressed these issues in advance, so that the fleeting opportunities and sudden moments of change which sometimes come to politics can be used to the fullest advantage.

But to do any more than this is folly. It wastes scant resources on a scant return. I would urge the LDP not to pick this policy instead of the low hanging fruit.

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10 Responses to Libertarian Distractions revisited.

  1. Jason Soon says:

    I am a consequentualist who thinks that voluntary voting would lead to better outcomes – less rather than more vote buying aimed at spoilt apathetic marginal voters and would be interested in hearing your objections to it.

    It’s difficult to convince a party that still harps on about how the right to bear arms precedes the State to pick low hanging fruit.

  2. Jacques Chester says:


    The median voter theory which drives parties towards the middle of the political road relies on a large, representative component of the population voting. Compulsory voting doesn’t guarantee this but it makes it far more likely.

    In a voluntary voting system, there are two steps for parties to carry out. The first is to motivate people to vote at all. The second is to vote for them. You can see this in the US, where “Get Out the Vote” is the main strategy – not to appeal to voters generally, but instead to get those voters who already support you to turn out.

    It turns out that the easiest and most effective way to do this is to discourage everyone else from voting. People who are motivated by non-mainstream views will come to dominate politics to a degree belying their actual numerical presence. This incidentally violates one of the more important criteria for voting systems as given by Arrow.

    You can see all these mechanisms at work in the USA: the religious right, galvanising own-voters through issues like abortion or gay marriage, and incredibly nasty negative campaigning.

  3. Jason Soon says:

    The Arrow Impossibility theorem basically implies the whole concept of a ‘general will’ is meaningless, it’s about the limits of collective decision-making per se as it is about the limits of voluntary voting. Compulsory voting won’t do anything to make decision by committee that much more efficient – this is all consistent with the libertarian insight that we leave as little as possible to political decision making and furthermore if we have to leave something, as much of it should be as localised as possible so there is freedom of exit as well as voice so that in effect the decisions come as close as possible to resembling the decisions that self-selecting clubs would make. In other words, collectivism cannot really be saved and remains as always a necessary evil.

    I agree that some polarisation will be a by product of voluntary voting – that’s a price we pay for it and not necessarily a bad price. But that also means non-mainstream voices including libertarians can get more traction. There may well be stabilising benefits from ensuring median voter values are heard but I don’t know whether the benefits outweigh the costs from compulsory voting. What’s necessarily so great about ensuring that government is forced to bribe those who are least willing to invest in getting informed about their political choices?

    Democracy is ultimately of value because it is the most peaceful means of changing governments and governments need to be changed regularly for obvious reasons, I’m not convinced within that general framework that the arguments for decision-making being more efficient (in the sense of welfare enhancing) under compulsory vs voluntary voting are that clear.

  4. Jacques Chester says:

    The point is that parties in a compulsory system are far more likely to look to the median than they might otherwise. Governments are in fact far more likely to bribe in a voluntary system to try and get their own vote out. Again the USA is the leading example.

    I suppose you could say it’s a question of instrumentalities. I would prefer to reduce the scope of government before pushing for voluntary voting than the other way around.

  5. Jason Soon says:

    I would argue that pushing for a voluntary system aids in reducing the scope of government.

    Under our current system bondoogling of marginals is taken for granted anyway.

    Yes under voluntary voting, vocal industry lobbyists would also have influence but they do now anyway. They have influence if there is influence to win i.e. if there is a spending program they can hope to get something out it. But other self-motivated groups including libertarians would also be among the more vocal ones who would get more attention. Bribery in the US system doesn’t merely involve the distribution of largesse – it involves paying lip service to various ideological fetishes, not all of which are anti-liberty.

  6. Jc says:

    The point is that parties in a compulsory system are far more likely to look to the median than they might otherwise.

    True for a time and then they get used to a monopoly structure where the grass roots count for a big fat zero while the party adminstrators write the rules. Witess what happened to Prodos in Melboune at the last state election. The party machine took him down.


    Governments are in fact far more likely to bribe in a voluntary system to try and get their own vote out. Again the USA is the leading example.

    The USA is but one example, every European country would offer contray examples to your argument.


    I suppose you could say its a question of instrumentalities. I would prefer to reduce the scope of government before pushing for voluntary voting than the other way around.

    I can’t see why both can’t be achieved with voluntary voting.


    Look Jacques, not voting is also a conscious act too that ought to be respected. I haven’t voted at any elections for the past 5 years because I have disliked the poltical parties. By taking this action I am forced to pay a fine. Some freedom!

    Parties need to actively seek out their voters through policy. They should not expect a free ride to the ballot box through compulsary voting.

    Voluntary voting should also be considered one of the most important policy planks of the LDP seeing that its opposoite is an oppressive action against the citizens.

  7. Yobbo says:

    I also think that this policy is really a waste of attention at the moment.

    It would be pretty simple to change nothing except to get rid of the fine for not voting. The people who really care one way or the other about being forced to vote aren’t going to be too put off by a $100 fine once every 3 years anyway, it’s just an unnecessary administrative hassle.

  8. Yobbo says:

    As for the guns issue: I have only one thing to say.

    Prime Minister John Howard, who “Hates Guns”, nevertheless feels it necessary to have a coterie of security guards. Who have guns.

    So really what he means is “The ability to defend oneself or one’s property with a gun needs to be restricted to people who are important and rich enough to be able to afford to hire a professional to do it”.

    If he hated guns so much, then he’d ban everyone from using them, including police, his own security guards and those in banks.

    After all, if the gun ban was effective in disarming criminals, then there is no need for cops or security guards to be carrying either. They can duke it out like men with their fists.

  9. Mark Hill says:

    Guns should be “low hanging fruit”. Not that I agree with that approach anyway, but it is how things are.

    Since 1996, there have been numerous reforms and additions to gun regulations which are pointless and oppressive.

    If the 1996 gun laws cannot be shown to have a net benefit, they should be repealed, along with all subsequent restrictions.

    This just ties into a general policy of requiring Government action to have a net benefit, personal responsibility and minimising Government coercion.

    This should be a policy of the liberal left as well.

  10. Jim Fryar says:

    Voluntary voting is low hanging fruit, though not as low perhaps as 30/30 tax etc. Numerous people dont vote, and resent the harassment they get for not doing so.

    Many would gladly vote for the chance to not vote.

    All arguments aside, political parties/governments are in the business of getting votes. They have no right to demand them from those who do not wish to patronize them on a voluntary basis.

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