October 30, 2018 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Peter Earle eloquently exploded the notion that voting in political elections is an exalted means of self-expression. Few myths are more lethal to liberty than that which equates freedom with majoritarian democracy – and no fallacy does more to fuel this myth than that which declares the essence of freedom to be the right to vote.

In reality, voting is an extraordinarily skimpy and muted means of giving voice to your individual values, hopes, concerns, and preferences. And the right to vote is certainly no great bulwark to protect your liberty.

Bondage by the Majority is Bondage Nevertheless

Nearly all people, regardless of their political and ideological stripes, vigorously reject this conclusion about voting. Even you, dear reader, likely resist it. Yet its truth cannot seriously be contested. In what meaningful way is your freedom protected if, as a result of an election in which you vote, 51 percent of your fellow citizens cast their ballots for a candidate who promises to raise your taxes against your will, to forcibly obstruct your ability to buy imports, and to prevent your teenaged daughter from competing for a summer job by offering to work at an hourly wage below the state-imposed minimum?

The fact that you were among the thousands or millions who cast a ballot in this election does nothing to make you more free than you would be had you not voted or had these impositions been foisted on you by a monarch.

The typical response to my observation goes something like this: “But at least each voter had a say!” To which I reply “Say what? What say?”

A Say that’s Virtually Silent

It’s true that you cast a ballot and that your vote was counted. But your vote – your “say” – was only the faintest of muffled whispers. If you voted for the losing candidate, your request for government not to intrude into your life in the ways promised by the victorious candidate is ignored. You must obey the commands that will now issue from the state. And these commands silence the very real say that you and your family would otherwise have had in the market.

With more of your income taxed away and with customs agents blocking your access to imports, you have less of a say in how your earnings are spent. With your daughter unable to offer to work for a wage below the state-imposed minimum, she has less of a say in choosing the kind of job she holds and in the specific terms of her employment.

Notice that the say that you have in the market is always real and effective. Unlike in political elections, if you prefer to dine this evening at a Japanese restaurant rather than at an Italian restaurant, you will dine at a Japanese restaurant. No one overrides or ignores your choice. And you don’t have to spend precious time and energy convincing a majority of your fellow citizens to expressly give you permission to dine at the restaurant of your choice.

Notice also that your say in the market is more articulate than is your say in political elections. By voluntarily spending your money on the spicy-roll combo, the signal that you send is precise and clear: this evening you want the spicy-roll combo and not any of the many other menu items. In contrast, by voting for candidate Smith rather than candidate Jones, the signal that you send is cloudy. Did you vote for Smith because of her opposition to tariffs or in spite of her opposition to tariffs? No one other than you – and certainly not Smith – knows.

Or perhaps you voted not so much for Smith as against Jones, whose promise to raise the minimum wage intensely frightens you. But if Smith wins, you and other voters get not only her opposition to raising the minimum wage – a policy position that you favor – you also get Smith’s policy positions on countless other issues, not all of which you support. Voting at best allows you to express your opinion about which candidate you prefer; it does not allow you to express your opinion on each of the many different individual issues that are at stake.

Preference-intensity Is Real and Important

Nor does voting allow you to express your preferences’ intensities. If you vote for Smith rather than Jones, you tell the world only that you prefer Smith to Jones. Your vote says nothing about how much you prefer Smith to Jones. Your preference for Smith over Jones might be intense or it might be tiny. Whatever it is, your vote doesn’t say.

The failure of voting to give voice to the intensity of each voter’s preferences is significant. Suppose that Smith wins 51 percent of the votes to Jones’s 49 percent. Suppose also that nearly everyone who voted for Smith has only a slight preference for Smith, but that nearly everyone who voted for Jones intensely prefers Jones to Smith. Is it then the case that Smith is the people’s preferred candidate? The correct answer isn’t obvious.

In your everyday life you of course experience the rank-ordering of your preferences – for example, you prefer to drive an SUV rather than a sedan. But you also experience the intensity with which you hold your preferences – your preference for an SUV over a sedan can range from enormous to negligible. And in everyday life you can express the intensity with which you hold your preferences – say, by willingly paying a much higher price for the SUV if your preference for that vehicle over the sedan is high.

In our one-person-one-vote system, you have no comparable ability to express the intensity of your preference for candidate Smith over candidate Jones. Your vote is mute about the intensity of your preferences.

Your Say in Markets Is Taken Much More Seriously than Is Your Say in Elections

My argument here is not that you should not vote. Rather, my argument is that you should not be duped into believing that voting is either the essential exercise of freedom or that the ‘voice’ you have at the polling place is remotely as clear, as loud, or as effective as is the ‘voice’ you have in the market and in other private spheres. If more people understood this reality, surely there would be less enthusiasm among those of us who live in democracies for giving to the state ever more power over our lives.


Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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