Has Voting Ever Been a Right Worth Dying For? (Wilton D. Alston)
Tuesday November 6th, 2012
"People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use." - Søren Kierkegaard
Ah, election season! If there is any one time that guarantees a radical libertarian a barrel of laughs, it is the periodic selection of slave masters, masquerading as a key component of freedom. For the record, selecting which arrogant, well-connected megalomaniac will: kill foreigners (supposedly) on your behalf; redistribute your money to whomever he pleases ostensibly on behalf of helping those who cannot help themselves; and, maintain the cash cow that fictitious property – otherwise known as intellectual property – has provided for firms like Microsoft and Apple, all via the barrel of a gun, is not a practice endemic to freedom. It is exactly the opposite.
We have been taught to think that it is. Furthermore, the language has been perverted to support these fallacious thoughts. Entitlements? (How can one be entitled to that of another?) Running the government "like a business"? (How can you run an enterprise wherein all feedback necessary for making business-enhancing decisions, and the commensurate negative feedback from poor decisions, has been removed, like a business?) Tax cuts for the rich? (As a matter of mathematical fact, the so-called rich pay the bulk of the taxes in the United States. Nobody should have money forcibly taken from him, but the terminology "tax cut" implies that the mafia boss is doing you a favor by taking less this time. He is simply raping you more gently.) The U.S. political process – and the popular culture that feeds it – is rife with bogus meanings for words and phrases that have been hijacked. It would be illustrative, and likely educational as well, to examine some of these phrases more closely, but another subject beckons. This time of year – election season – also holds special meaning for black people.
If you’re black, and you’re radical libertarian, A.K.A. anarcho-capitalist, or market anarchist, or whatever moniker we’re using this week, you very likely don’t put a lot of stock in voting generally, and voting in presidential elections specifically. And if that is the case, you will – almost guaranteed – hear the phrase, "…someone died to give us that right" bandied about. Powerful words indeed, and I’ll admit, persuasive as well. No one cognizant of debts paid by brave people before him wants to simply forget those debts. However, let me ask a more basic – and likely more controversial – question: Was voting ever a right worth dying for?
First, a little background is needed. My own proclivities with regard to voting – and my current disdain for the practice – are well catalogued, on LewRockwell.com, at Strike-the-Root.com, and elsewhere. But it wasn’t always that way. I voted for Ross Perot, not once, but twice. (I recently finished paying off the bill to my therapist in the aftermath of those 2 suspect decisions.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election – and paying homage to the prevalent anybody-but-Bush thought process of many liberals of those times – I voted for John Kerry. Honestly, I’ve yet to forgive myself for that. Kerry was not only an unapologetic dyed-in-the-wool statist, having then served multiple terms in Congress, but he was also a milquetoast of a candidate, failing to excite his ostensive base in any meaningful way. This against a man, in George W. Bush, who was even by that point, plumbing new depths of embarrassing sentence composition as the supposed Leader of the Free World. If you are debating Rain Man and don’t come out looking like William Shakespeare in the process, how can you claim to be qualified to lead a nation?
So yes, I have voted in the past, and it is those experiences that fuel my current disdain for the process. Surely, voting in national elections is the epitome of the aforementioned suggestion box for slaves, barely poking its head up into the category of "Waste of Time." The historical context is more interesting though. Returning to the question at hand, if previous generations of black leaders and black citizens actually died so that I might have a chance to participate in the ritual of voting, am I disrespecting that debt when I choose to stay home on November 6th?
First of all, and going back to a more basic point, voting is not a right. Voting is a privilege. That is, voting is a practice one may enjoy, but only given certain prerequisites, none of which are bestowed upon an individual as a function of being a person. For example, being safe and secure in your body – in your person – is a right. You obtain that by simple virtue of leaving the womb. Furthermore, it is universal, in that everyone enjoys it – or should enjoy it, in a moral society – the same as anyone else. Any abridgement of said right can only be justified on arbitrary grounds. It is also negative in its action. No other person is affected in any way by my being secure in my person. It gives me no positive claim on others; it only means that they cannot make a positive claim on me. Rights – legitimate rights – are all exactly like that. They are negative in their application and in their effect.
Privileges are often – although not always – positive. They are bestowed upon the recipient by virtue of distinctions often justified and implemented in positive terms, i.e., in direct contravention of the rights and property of others. In the early days of voting in the United States, voting was reserved for people of either wealth or property, and most likely both. It was "about" the maintenance of those two articles of ownership. It served as a prophylaxis against the unlawful – although that’s not quite the correct nuance – removal of that property or taking of that wealth. In short, voting was a way for the rich folks to keep the poor folks from taking their stuff, while allowing the rich folks to divvy up whatever was left. Some might say "divvy up" is too negative. Fair enough. Voting gave the propertied citizenry a means to peaceably maintain what they believed to be the trappings of society. I rather think that’s overly generous, but let’s move on.
In that context, one can see that those who did not own property or have substantial wealth – and, ergo, did not vote – might get a little cheeky about not having the opportunity. In fact, one could begin to view voting as a means to obtain some of the wealth that seemed to be protected by that selective privilege. Stated differently, if one believes that voting is the means by which those who do vote maintain their socio-economic distance from those who do not vote, it makes sense to seek to widen the availability of the privilege. This is particularly true if the privilege is functionally tied to the acquiring the wealth, i.e., if voting is the means by which one obtains his money. But it is not. It never was. Nor should it be. To be clear: One does not obtain lawful property or legitimate wealth via voting to take it from others.
As one example, consider the Iroquois. The Iroquois Confederation, from whom the so-called Founding Fathers took a portion of the practices of the new American Republic, also practiced voting. In that case, only the women voted. In fact, in the Iroquois society, only women owned property. The braves simply lived with the women, did the hunting, and all the other "man stuff" while the women selected the chief. (Apparently, they figured a male chief would be helpful in dealing with male-centric societies.) This is another case of tying the voting privilege to property ownership, but the ownership came first.
While it is ironic – if expected – that the rich white males who founded the United States republic neglected to incorporate that whole women-owing-all-the-stuff-and-voting thing into their plans, it seems pretty logical for the privilege of voting to follow the ownership of property. Voting, in its purest application, allowed for peaceful policy-making among those for whom the policies held direct effect. It was not a way to determine how existing income and property should be redistributed, but rather a way to best utilize that which was jointly owned, and simultaneously protect that which was individually owned, albeit via positive action. It has become almost exactly the opposite in today’s America. Voting is about who gets to infringe upon whom – via the guns of the State – which is the very antithesis of freedom and morality. As Bastiat said, "Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." Not simply protection, but infringement. This is infringement is not only domestic, but also international. This is infringement not to help the many, but to enrich the few.
A privilege might be nice to have, but it is still just a choice, an option. Whether or not it is worth dying to obtain is tied up in the concept of subjective value. That you might feel it was worth dying for places no legitimate claim upon me. If you want to die to get something you feel is important, I salute you. But your decision – and whatever logic you used to justify it – places no obligation upon me, nor does it provide any clues to an appropriate valuation of your action on my part. You like vanilla. I like chocolate. Whatever.
In the United States, black people – particularly African slave-descended black people – have long been treated as wards of the state. In this capacity, our actions, our beliefs, our options, and in fact our epistemology has been shaped by allegiance to, and support for, a system that was initially used – dare I say designed – to subjugate us in the most heinous of ways. Factually, the same U.S. Constitution that supposedly bestows upon us the right to vote was used to lawfully place us in the ownership of landowners in the rural South. I’ll just be damned if I’ll willfully support and legitimize, with my participation, a system so arbitrary and immoral. Sometimes people die for dumb reasons. This is just one of those times, as far as I’m concerned.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he’s not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.