Is it Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil? Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 1 – Article by Charles N. Steele

Is it Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil? Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 1 – Article by Charles N. Steele

The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 2, 2012

Mr. Stolyarov gives a thoughtful reply to my contention that given a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Romney is the lesser of two evils.  I respond, but find I must do so in two parts.  Mr. Stolyarov makes two kinds of arguments in his reply to me; one is a philosophical one on the ethical nature of voting and the second an empirical one about Romney and Ryan.  In this note I address Mr. Stolyarov’s philosophical argument.   I ask many questions here – please note carefully that most of them are not rhetorical.

Mr. Stolyarov’s philosophical argument concerns the moral responsibility one bears in voting: “[E]ven a true incrementally lesser evil is still evil and does not warrant one’s support. One key consideration in casting one’s vote is one’s share of moral responsibility in what would transpire if one’s candidate of choice (even half-hearted choice) gets elected.”

At first glance this seems a reasonable argument – after all, wouldn’t we think that, for example, German citizens who supported Hitler’s regime bore a good share of responsibility for its crimes?  And in general, if people vote for candidate A over candidate B, it’s reasonable to think they bear some responsibility for empowering A’s platform over B’s.  But the more I contemplate it, the less I understand the nature of  this “moral responsibility” voting, for three reasons.

1. When we vote, we vote under conditions of uncertainty about what the candidates will do should they win.  Two reasonable people might differ in their expectations over what opposing candidates might do if elected, even if the candidates are truthful.  And candidates are often less-than-truthful about what they will do if elected; sorting out what is and isn’t true is not necessarily straightforward.  Consider a presidential election between A and B.  If candidate A wins the election and what subsequently transpires is counter to what the voter in good faith expected, what is the voter’s moral responsibility?  Further, we also don’t know and will never know what B would have done.  Does that matter?  Might not a vote for what proved to be A’s bad policies have prevented B’s worse ones?

In many cases these issues are small, but not always.  And certainly in times of major institutional transitions, or economic crises, or other important changes, they are likely to loom large.

2. If one votes for a candidate who wins, does one then share responsibility for everything the candidate does?  When we vote for candidate A, we get the “entire package.”  We can’t limit ourselves to voting for her/his positions on some issues but not others.  Suppose one agrees with candidate A on fiscal policy, but disagrees on foreign policy, and conversely supports B on foreign policy and opposes his fiscal policy.  In order to decide between candidates, our voter must judge which issue is more likely to be of central importance in the next term, as well as which one is more important for the voter’s overall vision of what should be done.  For that matter, the voter might think that B’s fiscal policy is a more serious flaw than A’s foreign policy, but also believes institutional barriers (e.g. Congress) will largely block B’s fiscal policy while nothing would block A from pursuing the bad foreign policy, and hence reasonably vote B.

3. How much difference does one’s vote make, anyway?  The quote from Mr. Stolyarov suggests that if candidate A wins, a person who voted for him shares some responsibility for what transpires.  But suppose A wins with a very large margin of the vote.  In that case, there’s nothing the voter could have done to stop what transpires.  What is her/his responsibility then?  Conversely, suppose instead A loses, so nothing transpires from the vote and presumably no moral responsibility attaches to the voter.  How does anything differ in these two cases, with respect to the voter’s culpability?  I can’t see that the voter has behaved differently in the two cases; shouldn’t moral responsibility be the same?  Perhaps not, but the why not?  And how would the responsibility differ in either case had the voter instead stayed home and not cast a ballot?

Similarly, in every presidential election in which I’ve voted, I voted in Montana.  In none of these was the vote close enough for mine to have mattered, but that’s irrelevant.  Montana’s three electoral votes simply do not matter for the national outcome, so no matter what happened, my vote had no connection at all to what subsequently transpired.  Does this mean that I’m exempt of all moral responsibility when I vote in a presidential election?  Why or why not?

These three points involve “disconnects” betweens one’s vote, the outcome of an election, and what subsequently transpires.  It strikes me that these disconnects weaken the moral responsibility a voter holds.

Mr. Stolyarov does address some of my concerns (particularly those of point 2) when he observes “It may therefore be justified to vote for an imperfect candidate who could do some incremental good, but not for a candidate who would commit incremental evil – in the sense of reducing liberty compared to the situation that existed prior to his election.”

It’s clear, then, that Mr. Stolyarov is not committing the Nirvana fallacy.  But I still find his point quite problematic.  It is not always obvious what constitutes “incremental good/evil” on net, or how we identify an overall reduction in liberty.  Let’s simplify this case by assuming there’s only one voter and no uncertainty about what candidates will do if elected, so that there are no disconnects between the vote cast and the political consequences.  Again, the voter faces a choice among presidential candidates, but now her/his vote determines the election and s/he knows exactly what political consequences will transpire.

If A’s positions on issues X and Y reduce liberty, and his position on issue Z increases it, how is the voter to weight A’s net effect on liberty?  (Assume for sake of argument there are no other issues.)  Is A automatically disqualified because of his position on X and Y?  Or could his position on Z conceivably be sufficiently beneficial for liberty to outweigh the harm done on the first two?  I would think so, and I suspect Mr. Stolyarov agrees.  (Again, I should note that in some cases any reasonable person should be able to weigh these relative harms and benefits and get the same answer.  But in some real world cases reasonable persons might strongly differ.)

But also, doesn’t it matter against whom A is running?  If candidate B is worse, much worse, on all three issues, should not the voter choose A over B, regardless of whether the net outcome from A is positive?  (I would think so.) Alternatively suppose instead candidate B drops out of the race to be replaced by C, and C is superior on all three issues.  Shouldn’t that lead our voter to reverse himself and support C?

This seems quite sensible to me, but Mr. Stolyarov seemed to rule it out:  “There is no doubt in my mind that Mitt Romney would commit numerous incremental evils – and there is no justification for supporting him in any way, even if his transgressions could be predicted with certainty to be less severe than Obama’s.”  It should by now be clear why I find this position problematic.

On this point, Mr. Stolyarov agrees with my earlier assertion “real progress in expanding liberty will come from economic, technological and social processes, NOT from electoral processes. If elections and political processes do anything in this regard, it will be simply to respond to and formalize advances made by civil society.”  But he then concludes: “But if this is the case, then there is no point supporting anything other than the very best available option in any election.”

I can’t see how that follows.  In our one voter example, suppose candidate A will take the nation slowly towards a totalitarian state, and B will take it very rapidly.  Would it not be preferable to choose A over B, to buy time for countervailing processes to act?

All of these examples suggest – at least to me – that a voter might reasonably and morally vote for a candidate who will minimize damage to liberty, even if the voter has only reasonable expectation of this.

Mr. Stolyarov does have another point worth noting in this matter.  He suggests we vote for the best candidate, even a third party candidate who has no chance of winning: “[A] single person can send a message by refusing to play along with the two-party system. If enough of us begin to think this way, then the libertarian voters will become a force to reckon with, a credible threat to the two main parties that unsatisfactory candidates will be disfavored no matter what. As an added bonus, if enough people in general begin to vote based purely on their conscience, then the whole ‘lesser of two evils’ trap would disappear, the two major parties would need to rapidly evolve or would disintegrate, and government could become truly representative.”

Maybe so.  I certainly hope so.  But note that this is a strategic argument and quite different from the argument about a voter’s moral responsibility.  I find the moral argument to be unhelpful in this discussion.

In part 2 of my response I will try to make the case that Mitt Romney is indeed the lesser of two evils when compared to Barack Obama.

Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics.  He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States.  He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.

Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.

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