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Fighting for the Right to Vote?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, December 12, 2000 by

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Dropped for the Right to Vote?

It has been instructive these last few weeks to watch the usual suspects, commentators, and other partisans deal with the problems raised by the entertaining breakdown of what they refer to as "democracy." A particularly interesting rhetorical figure--trotted out by Al Gore’s lawyers and their allies in the judiciary and the press--holds that the "right to vote" is especially precious, as so many Americans have died to preserve that right. If true, this means that our forebears were more stupid than we could have ever imagined: dumb enough to fight and die for a right which no one, by any stretch of the imagination, had ever threatened.

For the most part, we can confine the discussion to America’s major wars, since this seems to be what the conventional commentators are talking about. I suppose that what they mean is that, by definition, all US wars are fought "for democracy," by which unspecified phrase they refer to free elections, trial by jury, several of the amendments, trade unions, public libraries, social welfare, and--way, way off to the side--freedom. I am reminded of all the high-minded commentary we heard when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe about the "pro-democracy" movement. Well, if Eastern Europeans really went to so much trouble just to achieve democracy, they can’t be any brighter than our ancestors who allegedly fought and died for the right to vote.

Such Western commentators assumed, I suppose, that their god-term "democracy" takes in all that is good and true, including some tiny bit of regulated, orderly freedom for individuals and non-state institutions. That sort of freedom, naturally, would be far less important than "positive freedom" implemented by voting to take away someone else’s property. Other important positive freedoms would include subsidized dissent by art phonies, subsidized alternative lifestyles, and just generally "being different" at someone else’s expense. Led by subsidized dissident intellectuals given to literary-philosophical musing, as Ralph Raico would say, Eastern Europe made the giant leap forward from the one-party Soviet-style command economy to the Western model of multiparty command economy with a free lunch. "Socialists of all parties" lined up to take part in the more pluralistic system of controls and handouts.

So it’s actually a good thing, I guess, that Western reporters didn’t report the fairly bloodless revolutions of 1989-1991 as struggles for freedom, since that might have been factually wrong. On the other hand, had a real interest in freedom been at issue, someone might have spotted a swindle once the dust had settled. Anyway, the point of this byway was just to remark the importance of elections and voting in the left-liberal, social democratic world-outlook. "Democracy" subsumes all, including freedom (whatever that might be). Obviously voting becomes the central ritual in this neo-Rousseauian civic religion and, not coincidentally, the key mechanism for legitimizing the office-holders and their policies. It’s all well and good to unmask and denounce families, churches, the bourgeoisie, etc., but isn’t it about time for some "dissent" directed at the state?

Getting back to America’s wars, when exactly have Americans ever fought or died for the right to vote, or even for democracy as such? Probably never. We did fight for freedom, twice--in the American Revolution and in the 1860s, when Southerners fought to get out of the Glorious Union. I won’t press the latter point here. The "civil war" does raise an interesting problem in democratic theory, however. Majorities are supposed to rule, but majorities of what or where? As for the Revolution, we fought for freedom and local self-government and while the latter might involve some voting, it does not seem to have been foremost in the minds of those who fought against George III. Two hundred years later, Jefferson’s indictment in the Declaration of Independence of the madcap Hanoverian applies in detail with far more force against the government which replaced the King-in-Parliament, but few seem to notice or care. Perhaps we have been numbed by all this voting.

As for the other wars, did Mexico threaten anyone’s right to vote in 1847? Did Kaiser Wilhelm II threaten Americans’ right to vote in America? Did Hitler? Did the Japanese Emperor? Did the Soviets? Apparently not. Cases have been made, of course, that we had to fight the wars we fought because of various threats to American interests--to our foreign markets, the Open Door, our humanitarian ideals, whatever. I am skeptical of these cases, but they are beside the point, which is simply that none of these opponents ever had the physical means to threaten our mere right to vote on our own soil. None of them had a snowball’s chance in Hell of actually occupying North America so as to abolish our elections.

It would therefore seem that Americans never had to fight for their right to vote. So why did Americans fight these people? Conscription would be my guess. The government, for its own good reasons, just ordered the people to fight the government’s enemies and people complied, whether from prudence or agreement with the government’s description of the situation.

The ill-starred Ludlow Amendment of the 1930s underscored yet another problem in democratic theory. If the people can be ordered to fight public enemies, perhaps rescuing their right to vote in the fighting, should the people be allowed to vote on the fighting? The Establishment buried the amendment six feet deep as quickly as possible. After all, the people might not be warlike enough, or--who knows?--they might be too warlike. Either way, the rejection of Ludlow seemed to imply that you can’t let the people vote on something as important as fighting, even if they are said to be fighting for their right to vote. Everything has its limits, old chap.

Americans have fought about the right to vote, the territorial scope of voting, and even the limitations on what can be decided by voting, but all these battles have been at home.

As for the "secret ballot," the natural-rights theorist Lysander Spooner wrote that this innovation amounted to legitimizing conspiracies to take other people’s property by stealth. Why a majority should have the right do what a burglar could not do singly was a good question. To the left-liberal complaint that public voting allowed employers to "intimidate" employees, Spooner would have answered that there should be a social penalty for openly coveting others’ property. Poor Spooner, he would never be allowed to address a convention of Political Scientists. Everyone knows that politics is about plunder and we now "know" that the more democratic the plunder, the better life is for everyone. Another dirty little secret of democracy revealed.

There is more to say about democracy, but Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s forthcoming eighteen-wheeler of a book (Democracy: The God that Failed [Transaction Publishers, 2001]) will deal with that, rather decisively, within a few months. Meanwhile, democratic theory and democratic praxis are showing signs of wear, from outlying districts such as Tallahassee to the heart of the Empire itself. All this, when the legitimacy of the state is so weakened that, as military historian Martin Van Creveld notes, people who once volunteered in their thousands to fight and die for states in dubious causes now cringe at the death of a handful of paid volunteer soldiers and sailors. I doubt we’ll see the masses lining up to fight for their right to vote or much of anything else.

Final thoughts: If you must vote, vote No. Better yet, don’t vote. Vote with your feet. That way, you at least know where you are.

Joseph Stromberg (stromberg@mises.org) is historian-in-residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. See his Daily Article Archive