Here I offer the first installment of my response in an ongoing exchange with Dr. Charles Steele regarding the merits (or lack thereof) of various candidates in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, as well as the question of whether or not it is justified for a libertarian to prefer Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.
Incidentally, this weekend, I had the opportunity to vote early in Nevada and to cast my vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for President. My hope is that, in this election, Gary Johnson will beat all records in terms of the total votes received by a Libertarian candidate. (See the historical record of votes received by Libertarian candidates here.) This would send a strong signal to the establishment that Americans who love freedom are displeased and outraged at the directions in which both major parties would like to take the country.
For the benefit of my readers, I provide below a list of links to prior installments of this exchange in chronological order.
* “Is Mitt Romney Truly a ‘Lesser Evil’?” – My article of September 6, 2012
* “Is It Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil? Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 1” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 2, 2012
* “Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee? – Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 2” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 17, 2012
I begin by addressing Dr. Steele’s response in Part 1 to the philosophical argument regarding the impropriety of voting for a lesser evil. In my next installment, I will discuss in greater detail the specific differences between Romney and Obama that Dr. Steele addressed in his Part 2. Dr. Steele stated that most of his questions are not rhetorical, so my purpose here will not be to disagree with any real or perceived implications of such questions – but rather simply to elaborate upon my answers to them and my related views and understandings of the present political situation.
Dr. Steele writes: “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.“
I respond: It is true that people vote under conditions of uncertainty. However, a candidate’s historical record of adherence to his or her promises is a decent indicator of whether this candidate will adhere to his or her promises in the future. Furthermore, a candidate’s record of intellectual consistency can serve as a decent indicator of whether that candidate will flip-flop on issues in the future.
Dr. Steele writes: “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?”
I respond: This is precisely why it is essential not to support candidates with a record of being untruthful, disingenuous, or prone to reversals of their positions. With a candidate like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, one knows what one is getting, because these men have not materially altered their views or policy recommendations over the course of decades. This is true, also, of certain politicians with whom I have many fewer ideas in common but whom I nonetheless respect for their integrity and consistency – such as Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, and Ralph Nader. Furthermore, these men have histories of actually trying to put their views into practice. The extent of their success may be outside of their full control (because it is subject to the responses and often the resistance of others), but at least they try honestly, and this is apparent to anyone who studies their records.
Sometimes it may also be acceptable to give an untried candidate (for instance, a young and seemingly intelligent and honest politician with little experience in office) a chance if he or she presents a well-supported impression of competence, knowledge, productivity, and integrity. However, in the long term, the records of those people will also speak for them more clearly than their initial presentations, and they are deserving of continued support only if they show through their deeds that they actually meant what they promised.
On the other hand, a person such as Mitt Romney has a record of repeatedly changing his rhetoric to directly contradict statements he made in the past. Romney is, in essence, a political “weather vane” – seeking to reflect what he and his political handlers consider to be the predominant attitudinal currents of the particular time and place. Furthermore, Romney has a decidedly un-libertarian policy record as Governor of Massachussetts, a candidate, and a private citizen (in his advocacy of bailouts, Medicare expansion, indefinite detention of Americans, and ever-expanding military interventions abroad). Romney’s problem, furthermore, is not so much that he pursues a non-libertarian set of principles (as some respectable politicians might), but that he does not appear to act on any set of universalizable principles whatsoever. Mitt Romney at time X is quite willing to pursue the opposite set of views and policies from Mitt Romney at time Y. Moreover, RomneyX will deny the existence of RomneyY’s views, and vice versa. Thus, reasonable observers should not expect him to keep his word, or for his word to be worth much in terms of an indicator of his actual views and planned behavior.
Observation and experience have taught me that honesty and dishonesty are fundamental character traits of individuals. Some people find it extremely difficult morally and even inconvenient practically to lie, as it requires the invention of an entire parallel reality that must continually be kept up in order to prevent others from detecting the lie. Others make lying (in either a blatant form or in the form of half-truths) a way of life. People who achieve a measure of material success by means of lying or presenting false impressions will tend to escalate such behavior until it becomes a pervasive, personality-swallowing, and ultimately self-defeating compulsion. Occasionally, good people may justifiably lie in order to protect themselves against hostile forces that would use the truth as a tool to unjustly and illegitimately harm the truth-teller. However, such situations are rare in the normal course of events, and good people would lie in such situations as an uncomfortable emergency measure of self-defense whose recurrence it is hoped to avoid.
The mark of a compulsive liar is that he lies even when he does not have to – when telling the truth would be fully consistent with his best interests and even his public image. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both have shamelessly distorted facts in their campaign speeches, advertisements, and debate performances. Due to the Internet, these distortions can be readily identified, and the facts can be brought forth to correct them – but Romney, Ryan, and their handlers do not appear to be cognizant of this reality. When their untruths are pointed out to them, they either continue to assert them with a straight face (as in the case of the Romney campaign knowingly using false statements in its advertisements regarding Obama’s non-existent elimination of the work requirement for unemployment-benefits eligibility) or they deny that they made such statements in the first place despite video evidence to the contrary (as in the case of Ryan denying ever expressing praise and admiration for Ayn Rand, or Romney repeatedly asserting that his tax plan either does or does not reduce the tax obligations of the highest income-earners and expressing bewilderment that anyone ever thought that Romney had said the opposite of the assertion du jour). What is astounding is that Romney/Ryan would not have lost an iota of public support by accurately and transparently representing both their own intentions and Obama’s record in office. There are numerous valid criticisms of the Obama administration – enough to occupy any challenger’s time. There is no need to invent facts or engage in distortion in order to address Obama’s genuine blunders in the realms of economic policy, foreign policy, and infringement of civil liberties. Likewise, a full representation of Romney/Ryan’s actual proposed policies would have been far more salutary than a vague set of incoherent and mutually contradictory generic assertions that try to mean everything for everyone.
In short, the problem with Romney and Ryan is not so much what they stand for, but the fact that they can stand for anything and nothing and that integrity and consistency cannot be expected of them based on their campaigning tactics and policy records. More generally, even a halfway-decent judge of character will be able to distinguish between a person of integrity and a habitual liar in politics. All that is needed is a look at the facts – precisely what the habitual liars in politics consider unimportant.
Dr. Steele writes: “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.”
I respond: This presupposes that A and B are the only genuine alternatives. In fact, since voting is ultimately the result of an aggregation of individual decisions, the conceivable alternatives are numerous, if only people would see them that way. One might consider two-party politics in the United States to be a sort of collective reverse prisoners’ dilemma – in the sense that the political situation would be much better if people simply did not care about how others plan to vote and would simply vote their conscience – based solely on their independent evaluation of the views and records of the candidates running. It is only because voters try to anticipate one another’s preferences and adjust their own accordingly that the two-party oppression of the status quo has come about.
Over the years, the difference between the “greater” and “lesser” evil has become ever harder to distinguish, either in magnitude or in the identity of the “greater” and “lesser”. This is because the strategists in the two parties know that they do not need to present candidates that differ materially in practice anymore. All they need to do is to put up a show and engage in polarizing but utterly vacuous rhetoric – in order to get the electorate to think that enough of a difference exists to justify voting for one wing of the establishment or for the other. The reality behind the scenes is that we are governed by an elite “bipartisan” consensus where there exist occasional minor policy changes because of the shifting dynamics among the myriad pressure groups comprising the elite. However, the fundamental assumptions of that consensus – including massive corporate welfare, systemic restrictions on upward economic mobility for most, the cartelization of much of the economy, various boondoggles for special interests (including military interventions, “homeland security,” and the War on Drugs), and the need to obtain elite permission to make major innovations that depart from the status quo – remain unchallenged within the two-party establishment. This continuity of policy despite rotations of the parties in power has been strengthening over the years. Thus, it has often and justifiably been remarked that Obama’s first term in office is essentially indistinguishable in practice from a third term for George W. Bush.
At the same time, the gulf between the elite consensus and the possibilities of emerging technologies is becoming ever wider – particularly as the elite is composed predominantly of people who do not understand those technologies and try to operate according to assumptions that only work in a pre-Internet world. The elite reaction to the hyper-empowerment of individuals through personal technology is to crack down ever harder. Hence, we have seen in the past decade and especially in the past several years both an accelerating pace of technological improvement and a flurry of bills (COICA, SOPA, Protect IP, CISPA) and treaties (ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) attempting to restrict Internet freedom. Ultimately, this interplay of trends can result only in the amazing liberation of individuals or a more totalitarian tyranny than any which came before.
With regard to Dr. Steele’s reference to major institutional transitions and economic crises, we are indeed in such a time period, but the essence of the transition is precisely the manner in which technology tends to yank influence away from the power elites (often without an explicit design to do so) – and the essence of the economic crisis is precisely the power elites’ reaction in attempting to entrench old, failed institutions (through techniques such as bailouts, inflation, subsidies, modern-day guilds, and barriers to competition) and bar the majority of people from prospering due to the unleashing of technology’s full potential. Neither Obama nor Romney stands on the right side of the institutional transition. Especially in this pivotal time, it is imperative to side with those who aspire for individual hyper-empowerment and to reject the two-party elite. A key part of individual hyper-empowerment is to vote independently of one’s expectations of how others might vote. Setting an example through one’s own decisions (and one’s vocal discussion thereof) can persuade increasing numbers of people to extricate themselves from the trap of pernicious assumptions created by the “bipartisan” consensus.
Dr. Steele writes: “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.”
I respond: While it is true that some degree of unpredictability exists with every candidate, there is a major difference between whether that unpredictability is a result of unforeseen contingencies beyond that candidate’s control (e.g., major external events that change the incentives, constraints, and pressures facing a politician) or whether it is a result of the politician simply never intending to form a strong connection between what he says and what he does. Thus, while a person who supports a particular candidate may not be morally responsible for every particular action by that person in office, that person is responsible for helping to elect either a fundamentally honest person or a fundamentally dishonest one. By knowingly electing a fundamentally dishonest person, one essentially writes a blank check for that person to do as he pleases in office, without much connection to any particular intellectually coherent platform or set of ideals.
With regard to weighing the importance of various policy issues, I agree that this assessment may differ based on a voter’s factual expectations as well as his subjective assessment of various areas’ relative significance. However, a fundamentally dishonest politician cannot be expected either to have the same priorities as any given voter, or to fulfill his promise to address particular issues he represents as priorities. In essence, the credibility of a dishonest politician like Romney in communicating particular priorities has already been shattered, and he is therefore an almost unknown quantity in how he would address issues. I say that he is almost an unknown quantity, because whatever Romney does is likely to be strongly biased toward preserving the perverse dynamics inherent in the status quo – i.e., the political trend toward totalitarianism and the further entrenchment of the pressure groups that predominate in today’s “bipartisan” consensus.
Dr. Steele writes: “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?”
I respond: While any given voter’s moral responsibility may be minor in this case with regard to any particular outcome, there is still some moral responsibility in the sense that the voter permitted himself to be one of the masses who supported the winning candidate despite strong initial indications that the candidate is dishonest, prone to engaging in deleterious policies, or both. The greater moral responsibility is not even so much for casting one’s vote a certain way, but for abrogating the independence of thought and fortitude of character needed to cast a vote based on an assessment that does not take into account what “everyone else” is doing. In other words, the moral responsibility is for allowing the pressures of social conformity to determine one’s decision even though the conformity does not entail an element of physical compulsion and the individual is fully free in theory and practice to make an entirely independent decision based on principles. In the United States, there is unfortunately a widespread entrenched mentality of supporting “the winning team” – irrespective of whether that “team’s” agenda is in one’s best interests. All too many Americans are so frightened of “losing” in any area where they have invested time and effort, that they align themselves with their very destroyers simply to avoid being in the minority.
Dr. Steele writes: “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 then why not? And how would the responsibility differ in either case had the voter instead stayed home and not cast a ballot?”
I respond: As a consequentialist, I do not believe that a person can have moral responsibility for hypothetical events; only actual harms count. Therefore, a person who voted for a losing candidate can have no responsibility for the decisions and actions of the winning candidate. However, voting for a losing candidate from one of the two major parties may per se be an imprudent action even if there is no moral fault arising from it – because this action shows that one continues to fall into the two-party trap and to expect a decent outcome from supporting one party or the other, despite a long train of disappointments and broken promises going back for decades.
As an analogy, consider two people who drive at extremely fast speeds on the highway. One person causes an accident, and the other does not. The second person may simply have been lucky in that his reckless behavior did not cause an accident, so I do not think that he should have any criminal or even moral culpability. The first person, on the other hand, is morally culpable because his behavior actually resulted in harm to others. However, it can be said that the second person was greatly imprudent and should improve his behavior and assumptions about the world in order to minimize the risk of causing harm in the future.
That being said, the behavior that a person exhibits while campaigning for or against a particular candidate can result in moral culpability irrespective of the outcome. For instance, the disgraceful, dishonest, and sometimes outright violent ways in which supporters of the Republican establishment have treated supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson render the establishment supporters culpable no matter whether or not Mitt Romney wins the election.
As a general rule, people only have moral responsibility for their active decisions which result in harm to others. Because one part of this two-part test is contingent on external circumstances and events, it is quite possible that the same motivations and even the same physical movements by two different individuals may result in different degrees of culpability (or even culpability in one case and lack thereof in another). Furthermore, inaction, while it may be sub-optimal or even callous at times, does not rise to the level of immorality. A person who does not vote therefore cannot be held morally responsible for the actions of the winning candidate. However, he may also justifiably consider it sub-optimal or imprudent not to vote if he could have had an incremental impact in averting some of the negative consequences of the winning candidate’s victory. For instance, some libertarians believe that they should not vote because they do not want to “legitimize the system” in any way. I do not agree with their view, but adherence to it is not immoral, and libertarians of this persuasion maintain their integrity by behaving in a manner consistent with their view. However, the outcome would have been superior if these libertarians had supported Gary Johnson or Ron Paul – signaling to the establishment that the discontentment with the status quo is more widespread than originally anticipated.
Dr. Steele writes: “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?”
I respond: Except in extremely unlikely circumstances, no person’s single vote can make the difference in the outcome of a national election. Thus, one’s vote practically matters only to the extent of contributing to the “pool” of votes for a particular candidate. What is more important is the signal that one’s vote sends with regard to whether one is willing to morally sanction an establishment candidate or whether one is willing to voice one’s independent preferences no matter what the social or media pressures might be. Whether one votes in a “swing state” or in a state whose electoral votes are unlikely to make a difference is not so material to this question. Ultimately, one can only control one’s own behavior, and this behavior should be based on adherence to objective principles, rather than the expectation of what others faced with a similar choice are likely to do.
Dr. Steele writes: “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.)”
I respond: I agree that it is difficult sometimes to evaluate the net effect on liberty of an honest candidate who espouses mixed principles. For instance, if someone like Dennis Kucinich had run for President, I would be greatly concerned about most of his stances on economic policy, but I could see tremendous benefits for civil liberties (in particular, with regard to “airport security” and the misguided “War on Terror”) and foreign policy if he were elected. Which are more important? Because I so greatly care about the physical integrity of my person and property while traveling (much more than I care about my monetary holdings), I am more likely to focus significantly on the civil-liberties aspect. However, an extremely wealthy businessman (who, in this example, earned all of his wealth legitimately) might be able to afford to travel in his personal airplanes and might therefore not care as much about airport security as he does about his economic opportunities. He might justifiably weigh the benefits and costs differently than I do.
However, all of these sophisticated and reasonable discussions about how to weigh relative benefits and harms disappear when the candidate running for office is fundamentally dishonest and has a record of continually shifting his positions and violating his promises. In that case, attempting to anticipate relative benefits and harms is akin to using a wooden ruler to measure the spatial position and diameter of a tornado.
Dr. Steele writes: “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?”
I respond: The problem with choosing A over B in a situation where both bring about incremental evils is that this concedes the premise that it is sometimes acceptable for a person to actively participate in an incremental evil, if the alternative is perceived to be even more evil. This is precisely the attitude that, when shared by sufficiently large numbers of people, allows politicians to commit evil in the first place, by creating a false dichotomy in the eyes of the people between a moderate amount of increased evil and a more significant amount of increased evil. My view is that one should compare not two hypothetical futures, but any proposed future and the status quo. If a given proposed future is a marginal improvement over the status quo, then one should support it, despite possible imperfections. However, if the status quo is superior to both of the two “mainstream” proposed futures, then one should refrain from supporting either and seek a third way. The people who vote for third parties are attempting to voice support for such a third way. The people who refuse to vote at all are, implicitly, preferring the status quo over either major candidate’s vision of the future. Either of these non-mainstream approaches is preferable to actively embracing a future that is worse than the status quo.
Dr. Steele writes: “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.”
I respond: I do have some sympathy with this argument, as – especially in a time of rapid technological advancement – enabling innovation to occur more freely for even a few years can make a tremendous difference to how free people are in practice. However, in practice, I do not see the two parties as taking us to totalitarianism at different rates. Rather, I see them as taking us toward marginally different flavors of totalitarianism at the same galloping pace. The Republican totalitarianism is more theocratic, militaristic for purposes of “national glory,” and focused on corporate cronyism toward “traditional” industries (including large financial firms). The Democratic totalitarianism is more politically correct, militaristic for purposes of “humanitarian” intervention, and focused on corporate cronyism toward “alternative” or “emerging” industries (as well as large financial firms). Both forms of totalitarianism entail extreme violations of civil liberties, though the Republican form is likely to be more targeted toward minority groups of whom many among the Republican base disapprove, while the Democratic form is likely to attempt to inconvenience and burden everybody in an egalitarian manner. Both forms of totalitarianism are fundamentally hostile to meritocracy, the enrichment of young people through economic opportunity, and small-scale technologically based institutions rising in a competitive market to replace the politically connected “legacy” institutions. Most significantly with regard to the opportunity for countervailing forces to emerge, the elites of both the Republican and Democratic parties are hostile to Internet freedom and willing to side with totalitarian guilds, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to support draconian infringements on indivduals’ use of the Internet. They only subside or backtrack in their support when confronted with massive public outrage.
In this unfortunate situation of competing totalitarianisms, a valid defense of a divided government might be made. If enough friction can be introduced between the two wings of the elite, then neither wing may be able to fulfill its totalitarian vision. In some respects, this is a reason why the march to totalitarianism was slowed somewhat after the election of a Republican House of Representatives in 2010, creating a disconnect with the Democratic Senate and the Obama administration. It has certainly been more difficult for federal legislation of any sort (including the destructive sort) to be enacted in 2011-2012 than in 2009-2010.
Dr. Steele writes [regarding my strategic argument of sending a credible signal of refusing to play along with the establishment]: “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.”
I respond: I see the two arguments as at least somewhat interrelated, in that a voter’s perception of his moral responsibility may constrain and shape his practical choices in terms of strategy. For instance, if a person is held captive by a totalitarian regime – does he choose to appease his captors or to escape? If he believes that he has a moral responsibility not to give into his captors, then he will be more likely to plan an escape and to succeed. In the same way, it is more likely for Americans to escape the two-party trap if they believe that they have a moral responsibility to do so and set up their strategies for doing so accordingly. While the moral and strategic arguments are technically separate, embracing one may aid in the efficacy of implementing the other.