The Virtue Of Voter Apathy

by Bruce Walker

Participation in elections is considered by self-anointed moral leaders to be a valuable measurement of good government. The right to vote is an important protection against abusive government, but a general urge to vote no more suggests civic health than frequent trips to the lavatory suggests good digestion.

Apathy about government - just as apathy in many areas of life - may often be simply contentment. General indifference suggests the presence of one or more of these underlying conditions: (1) Real or imagined helplessness; (2) High levels of satisfaction; (3) Ignorance pervasive enough to make action silly.

Brutal and undemocratic regimes produce "citizens" who are apathetic - they're helpless and they feel helpless. True concern about politics is dangerous, and involvement in the ideological sloganeering of Communist, National Socialist, or Fascist party hacks is intellectual suicide. Like someone in a wheelchair may turn his attention away from the high jump, the unfortunate subjects of the Party State try to forget about politics entirely.

Gauleiters and Commissars often want just this quiet dismay. The political machines in big cities of America cultivated apparently superfluous corruption because this made the sense of helplessness among the honest citizens even more intense. Apathy flourished because it was fertilized with generous amounts of manure.

People unconcerned enough about government to stay home during elections may simply be happy citizens who appreciate good government, but consider it about as interesting as watering cattle. Most successful people relate through consent and mutual benefit rather than through majoritarian coercion. Politicians content to regulate within those boundaries of ordered liberty intended in the United States Constitution have little to entice the interest of bright, productive, creative people. Government, to these clever minds, is about as intriguing as baby-sitting.

This does not mean that these people do not care about honest politics, or concern themselves with wise policies, any more than they would be indifferent to pure and abundant water supplies, or proficient and accessible dental care. Apathy about government is the recognition that once one has safe water, good dentists, or ethical officials, there is very little more good to be derived from additional attention.

People may also stay away from ballot boxes because they correctly judge that they are intellectually and morally incompetent to cast wise ballots. Most adults understand when they wander beyond their powers of observation and discrimination. These people, wise in the knowledge of their limitations, have electricians wire their homes and cardiologists check their heart muscle.

The more complex and intrusive government becomes, the greater the universe of data needed to analyze policies, and the less competent most people become in casting useful ballots. Because the utility of democracy lies in creating uncertainty about the retention of power, this ignorance is not necessarily harmful. Random electoral results create a general interest in government that is not abusive, greedy, or dishonest. This is also the sense behind juries in legal cases. The intelligence and knowledge of jurors need be only modest, but the indifference of the jurors to anything except a comprehensive system of true justice is vital.

Attention on voter participation is not motivated by the desire to expand the pool of disinterested "jurors" of democratic government. There are more than enough voters in the least interesting elections to secure the essential unpredictability of power, if these voters are acting as "jurors" with an interest only in objective and impartial processes of government.

The focus on registering and herding masses of voters in modern elections is motivated by a lust for power gained through the dilution of nearsighted old ladies whose ability to see the right ballot is problematic (which is excellent for those who wish political power to be ephemeral), and by vast legions of programmed voters with no inkling of what policies they are actually supporting, or why they are supporting those policies, but with utter certainty about who they wish to have power.

Why should these voters be encouraged to walk into the ballot booth? If the importance of their votes rests upon some notion of "the consent of the governed" then we should examine in more detail what expanding electoral participation truly means to the governed.

Are not babies "governed" by laws and actions of the state? Indeed, what is the proper voting age if sheer numbers improve government? Under that reasoning, could we not double the beneficence of government by simply lowering the voting age to ten? Should the vote be extended to those hopelessly insane? To those serving life sentences in prison?

Consider also who are disenfranchised. The price of political rights is paid most heavily in blood, not coin. Those who died on Omaha Beach or Okinawa were permanently disenfranchised, even though they had a great claim upon a continuing voice in public affairs. Should not those men have been able to "deed" their vote to their fathers or uncles? Why should the dead not vote?

Why should not people in other nations vote in our elections? Are they not largely governed by our actions and policies? Should dolphins, whales, and chimpanzees vote? How about less aware creatures? Where do we draw the line, if interest and impact are the criteria we use to judge who can and who should vote?

The franchise, of course, has natural limits. If the dead voted and infants voted, who would "interpret" their votes? Will all votes be equal? Democracy as the vehicle for good public policy always falls flat somewhere. But just as herding cattle into a voting booth would be wrong, so herding tombstones and toddlers would be wrong.

Many voters today are not much more than toddlers. They know very little, even about the structure of government, and the essentials of geography and economics. They have no real independent thoughts, even though they believe otherwise. Why do we want these ignorant voters choosing our government officials?

Why, particularly, do we want ignorant voters instructed that public fiscal policy is a pie to which the strongest are entitled to the largest slice? The worst approach imaginable is to plead with the irresponsible and selfish that they have a moral duty to vote. Their moral duty is to not vote. Getting on MTV and pleading with silly and ignorant young people to vote is like exhorting alcoholics to "have one for the road". Pleading for someone to vote because they have an interest in the case is like seeking out the mother of the accused in a murder case and trying to get her on the jury.

High quality electorates work. Government in the early days of the Republic, with a very limited suffrage, was generally good and limited. On the other hand, the Presidents immediately elected after landmark constitutional changes which affected the right of franchise were Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Richard Nixon. Former slaves, women, poor people and eighteen year-olds should not have been given the right to vote - indeed, they should have never been denied the right to vote because of race or gender. But the results immediately following their enfranchisement demonstrate that simply enlarging the voter pool doesn't automatically lead to good government.

Those nations with the highest voter participation, like the former Soviet Union, have the poorest record in protecting human liberty. We have a common interest in limited, just and good government. We no more need more dolts voting to help us get good government, than we need Elmer Fudd performing more heart transplants to improve our health care system.

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