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Why I Won’t Vote (Part III– Invita Minerva) February 4, 2008

Posted by Josef K Buenter in Political Philosophy.

Thank you Dwight for the fair summary of my heretofore disparate remarks. There is a great deal you wrote that I’d like to respond to (including Nina’s recent post), but I’ll save that for later and simply continue my critique and try to close the loop on my previous disparate remarks.

What I’ve left unsaid so far is just why our vote doesn’t matter, and why it actually has pernicious consequences. I find it curious that people think that ‘what’ a candidate is ‘for’ actually matters, that their policies are in some way sui generis. We are not voting for an emperor, or a führer, who’ll dictate actions and policies that others will have to endure or benefit from. Even with a Republican Congress George Bush was severely impaired from pursuing even modestly ‘conservative’ ideas, and could only get something done (prescription coverage for the elderly) when it also served Democratic ends. Ultimately we hire geldings. We wouldn’t even be in Iraq if the Democrats hadn’t shamelessly capitulated for personal political gain in November 2002.

What seems to be taken for ‘disingenuousness’ (seems to be a favorite retort here) is the failure to note what binds my critique together. I’m not into ‘name -calling,’ but I’d also like to defend myself from the charge of cynicism. I’m not offering cynicism, but I’m trying to offer a fresh perspective that you simply don’t ever hear, and that’s a philosopher’s role to question the comforts of the masses. I’m simply inviting people to take off the rose-tinted glasses that have become so comfortable because of the hidden interests they serve.

I’m not being disingenuous either when I’m trying to detail a subtle argument— subtle they are, but not disingenuous. If nothing could be different, then critiquing the American situation would be rather useless. My point though is that what is lamentable is the fact that it could have been different, but is likely now to be beyond redemption. It’s a diagnosis, not a prescription.

What my argument hinges on is noting the presence of a vicious symbiosis among our political parties that began roughly 47 years ago with Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (a convenient starting point):

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” (With apologies to Country Joe and the Fish) Next stop Vietnam

This notion of ‘using the future to pay for the present’ gained traction in the Johnson years, and finally came to concrete fruition in the Reagan years. The timing is unimportant, but the tangible result is crucial. What started in earnest in the 60’s was the belief that we can live a life of smug contentment on the backs of future unborn generations with a clear conscience. Madison expected ‘factions’ to compete yet he never suspected that they might end up colluding with each other at the expense of future generations. Kennedy’s “we” (as Tonto might note) quickly became an unspecific piece of rhetoric. So what happened here that led to the efficacy of colluding interests?

What had happened was that a general agreement, a consensus, was reached between the ‘factions’ here that recognized that their goals and interests were largely compatible. In the US there is a staggering homogeneity that is largely missing in even very small states (think of Kenya now). It is perfectly clear that most Americans largely want the same things and that these things were very predictable in nature (nice house, SUV or BMW, a chance to eat too much, win a lotto prize, etc.). This is also why politics that try to stoke ‘envy’ in some of our population (Edwards favorite ruse) never works in the USA. People don’t envy the rich here, they want to be rich themselves, they want to emulate the rich, not sneer at them— everyone wants to be in Paris Hilton’s position , they only disagree about her choice of cars, clothes, and mates to do it with. Our short-sighted pursuit of petty interests is a blatant trait in most Americans. Yet it isn’t anything particularly American though. People have always been like that. Most are palpably indifferent to the future. Job (21:21) said it concisely, “For what do they care for their houses after them, when the number of their months is cut off?”

You focus on my comments (in part) as if I’m offering an indictment of ‘the system,’ and that what I’m noting are signs of a ‘broken’ system. But the system isn’t broke, it is in fact quite intact, but it was simply overwhelmed, and usurped, by the powerful forces of colluding selfish interests that found a way to disable the checks set in place long ago. The system was originally designed to mitigate the ultimately malicious inclinations of people to be contentious and pursue incompatible ends. But what if the ends are largely agreed upon? What if people tastes and interests largely coalesce? Madison didn’t forsee that contingency. There is simply no safeguard against colluding interests. That’s why when Nina wrote: “So should we feel bad about voting selfishly? That argument seems to me strangely disingenuous. For one thing, what exactly is wrong with trying to create the best life possible for oneself and one’s group?” I considered that a symptom, not a response, to the issue I’m trying to point out.

For instance, I’m 100% behind drilling for all that oil off Santa Barbara and taking every ounce of it out, but we’re not the ones who should be doing it. We should leave that oil for future generations to exploit for their own interests, despite the fact that it may keep gas prices down for us. They should be free to pursue their own dreams, like going to Mars for instance, and they shouldn’t be saddled with impediments (in the form of taxes to pay the national debt) that reflect the pursuit of our own petty interests.

It seems odd that people don’t consider the future of their progeny and what effect we might have on them with the choices we make now. It’s odd too that people don’t seem to notice that this current collusion of petty interests was only possible because previous generations didn’t pursue their interests to the exclusion of their progeny. We are leaving a vast financial hole for future generations and we are seemingly expecting them to pay with their taxes what we enjoy today. But since it seems so natural to pursue our own interests even at the expense of others, I don’t see why we should respect a vote that will blatantly, and gloatingly express the pursuit of the petty self-interests of those who have no thought for the future. The very notion of sacrifice is missing, and any thought for tomorrow is expected to be paid back to our current citizens in the form of trade-offs that profit them.

In fact I’m placing a finger on something that isn’t broke at all, and that is the nature of people themselves. That humans succumb easily to flattery, credulity and gullibility, and aren’t even very noted for making sacrifices for their  own children, much less the children of the future, is our current malaise. In point of fact people will not vote against their own interests without considerable incentives. Adam Smith famously noted this human indifference to others. It isn’t cynical to lament the nature of people as they are, but it can be sobering and disillusioning.

George Monbiot, whom no one could doubt having “liberal” credentials (he was Oxford Professor of Environmental Policy, and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of East London– to name a very few), wrote about his experiences at the European Social Forum:

“In Paris, some of us tried to tackle this question [of the evils of capitalism] in a session called ‘life after capitalism.’ By the end of it, I was as unconvinced by my own answers as I was by everyone else’s. While I was speaking, the words died in my mouth, as it struck me with horrible clarity that as long as incentives to cheat exist (and they always will) none of our alternatives could be applied universally without totalitarianism.” And therein lies the rub. Can we govern ourselves without hurting the future? My suspicion is that we cannot.



1. Dwight Furrow - February 5, 2008


You are assuming that investments that benefit the present generation are a zero-sum game. We invest in ourselves and the future loses out. But that is not true of all investments. Investments in infrastructure, knowledge, public health, some technologies, etc. build capacity and capabilities for future generations. At least part of what future generations will accomplish will stand on our shoulders.

Thus, budget deficits (unlike the extraction of natural resources) in and of themselves do not necessarily rob the future. It depends on what we invest in.

2. Stephen Williamson - February 6, 2008

Mr. Buenter,

By advocating that your generation should not partake in the making of decisions for fear of harming future generations, while altruistic, is not practical. The idea that voting should be a selfless act is a delusion. I’m sure you are aware that existing generations naturally feed off one another until the eldest dies out, and that this relationship is a symbiotic one. As with all symbiotic relationships, if one entity fails in its job the other entity suffers. If you do not vote, you are opting for stagnancy, and to not act as an egoist you are condemning your own generation to a premature grave.

You seem to strongly care about interests of future generations, yet do you not think that the non-pursuance of your own “petty interests” for fear of harming them is a serious undermining of their intelligence?

Go to Mars and leave them the debt. They will cultivate it. Such is the nature of progress.

3. Moriae - February 6, 2008

Mr. Buenter, you must enjoy with a sly grin the stunning confirmations of the general and studied myopia of the people you call out. The callow indifference to the future is breathtaking and the defense of the unconscionable pursuit of petty self-interest apppears to confirm all your suspicions about man’s behaviors. It clearly looks like Hobbes wins out over Rousseau. It is a bit like what William James once wrote:

“If generations of mankind layed down their lives, if prophets confessed and martyrs sang in the fires, and all the sacred tears were shed for no other end than that a race of creatures of such unexampled insipidity should prolong and protract their contented and inoffensives lives, then better lose than win the battle; or in all events, it would be better to bring down the curtain on a play that began so gloriously to save it from so flat a winding up.”

4. Josef K Buenter - February 6, 2008

Dwight, I wish I was as optimistic as you seem to be about the direction we’re going. I’m simply not nearly as sanguine about it. To me all the evidence clearly points to a mind-numbing indifference to the future. Now that Tuesday’s orgy of political impotence is behind us, I don’t feel one bit better about it. That so many Americans join in with this pursuit of untempered ambition of these politicians is unnerving, and a sign to me also that the chance to really govern ourselves has been completely co-opted by the ‘vicious symbiosis’ I mentioned in my posting. I’m truly stunned that anyone really falls for the junk these ambitious cads spew out.

What ‘should be done’ has been and continues to be unaddressed. Perhaps I should point up some of the issues that would provided a relief in which to note the disparity between our petty pursuits, and what would benefit the future. No politician dares confront the following suggestions:

1. First and most obvious, we have to raise the taxes on ourselves to match and conform to our desires to have something for ourselves.

2. Retirement ages must be raised to reflect current actuarial risks. The age of 65 seemed pretty high in the 30’s (my own grandfathers died at 61 & 62) but is certainly unreflective of current conditions. I don’t think 72 is off the mark.

3. The Social Security Fund must be segregated from the General Fund in order to protect it from its current looting.

4. Mandatory 401K plans should be required by anyone reaching 18 years old. They could sign up at the same time they sign up for the draft. 🙂

5. Cars designed for non-specific uses should be limited to 4,000 lbs., and perhaps lowered still over time. In other words, bring an end to SUVs.

6. Gasoline must have a higher octane rating (98 or better) to permit smaller engines with higher compression ratios to achieve higher performance standards.

7. Any concept of universal health care must be denied to people who persist in detrimental behaviors, such as smoking, drinking, eating too much, not exercising regularly, and/or taking drugs.

Now these goals (and I can think of 12 million more) would lead to ‘change.’ But my whole point has been that the real issue left unmentioned by nearly all is that the ‘change’ the people want is merely incremental and ad hoc. For the most part, the vast majority of people don’t want their boats rocked. They are content–after all, they are living on the labor of people not yet born. It is a free lunch. And it suits everyone to keep it like that.

Our current geldings who run things wouldn’t touch these issues despite unnerving bribes because they understand something about the populous that we don’t understand ourselves: the presence of cognitive dissonance in citizen values.

What makes all of this so pernicious now is that for quite some time this distructive style of politics was largely restricted to the national level. But now you see states (and California is a big one here) doing the same deficit spending so as to not step on anyone’s toes too harshly. This is unsustainable. It must change, but it won’t be the boobs (hey Moriae) we vote for you’ll do this. It can only begin by undermining the ‘legitimacy’ of the process itself that got us in this predicament in the first place.

5. Moriae - February 8, 2008

Mr. Buenter, It is curious that real ideas like these aren’t debated or discussed. All we just get shovel fulls of drivel that defend one fatuous point after another with endless platitudes. That Americans really do eat this up and don’t think something is wrong with it all is likely what Mencken had in mind when he wrote: “The saddest life of all is that of a political aspirant, their failures are ignominious, and their successes are disgraceful.”

6. Forrest Noble - February 9, 2008

Common you guys,

BS is much more fun than a simple lie. Lies and false promises are actually little different from hopes and aspirations. Lighten up, life can be wonderful, beautiful, amazing, and everything good that you could imagine if you perceive the glass to be half full instead of half empty.

How full of wonder life can be if you perceive it that way. I know from experience. Dribble, no! Believe me, what you want and need from life is simply yours —

Few politicians ever tried to cheat anybody, most are simply incompetent and are trying their best within the confines of their intelligence, abilities, and political obligations to those that elected yo.l

Endless platitudes lighten the spirit.

Joseph above, all your perscriptions are exactly right on but who’s smart enough to vote for bitter remedies, very few I promise. You couldn’t be elected dog catcher. Me, on the other hand would BS with the very best of them and if I ever got elected dog catcher, like all the others, I would give my life to be as good as I could be.

Voting is only important for those that understand, about 3% I believe.

What’s up Moriae?

At least that’s my opinion, your friend forrest

7. Forrest Noble - February 9, 2008

Sorry Dwight, I forgot to say that I never wanted to be in Paris Hilton’s position but the reciprocal position for me would be very nice I’m certain.


8. Dwight Furrow - February 10, 2008


To the contrary, I am neither optimistic nor sanguine that we will address, in the short term, the many problems we confront. The source of the problem is not some “process”. It is the unholy alliance of bible thumpers, war mongers, and money that have dominated American culture since St. Ronny declared “greed is good”. I see little evidence that we are ready to give up on conservatism. When people are enamored with bad ideas it usually takes generational change to produce practical change–a long, slow affair.

Refusing to vote doesn’t de-legitimize anything. (I thought that “tune in and drop out” had already been tried. That is in part what got us into this problem) Most of the corporate leaders, and politicians who are in their pockets, would like nothing better than that we become a population of apathetic tools who have given up caring about what they do. At least now they have to keep one eye on the rabble to make sure prairie fires don’t get out of control.

Of course change that depends on rooting out bad ideas will be incremental. Muddling through, doing just enough to prevent problems from piling up, is about the best we can do. Rapid, catastrophic change seldom has the beneficial effects its perpetrators intend.

As to your policy proposals, I am puzzled by your claim that no politician confronts them. 1 and 3 are standard elements of Democratic policy, and most Democrats agree with 2 if it becomes clear that social security is underfunded (It is not clear yet but I think that sort of adjustment is inevitable).

Limiting the size of vehicles and increasing octane ratings are far too modest to deal with the problem of global warming. Only a carbon tax (proceeds used to promote alternative fuels) or perhaps a cap and trade system will provide adequate disincentives for continuing to burn fossil fuels. But these are already central elements in the campaigns of all Democrats. (The Republicans are silent on the issue)

410 K’s are probably not the right vehicle for increasing savings rates but I don’t know of any liberal economist who is not concerned about inadequate personal savings rates.

Denying health care to people with unhealthy personal habits just seems like bad public policy for all sorts of reasons. How would you monitor personal habits to determine eligibility? Since the rest of “us” can catch some of “their” diseases, denying health care to anyone is a fool’s game that makes us all less healthy. These issues of personal habits are better dealt with through informal norms. We have an entire health care industry imploring us to adopt healthier habits. Over the long run with smoking that seems to have worked.

I’m quite sure Minerva valued patience. The truly inspired enjoy the practice as well as the result.

9. cato on the greens - March 2, 2008

Josef, refer to my comments in part II, I support your opinon, but I go into detail there, however, before anyone starts accusing me of being biased or prejudiced against idiots, let me make myself clear, if I had it my way, we would re-implement tests for elections, not only for those who are voting, but for the candidates. We should not be voting for someone because Jesus told me so, with all due respect. Let me be quite frank, If I offend anyone here, I am very sorry, but If you do decide to vote people, vote with your minds as well as heart, not because you heard Sean Hannity, nor your Priest or minister, not even that inner voice, do it because you are absolutely sure. If you have to vote because its simply your duty, you have lost all meaning of this privledge. If people choose not to vote, that is there perogative, especially if they cannot find anything meaninful from the candidates on the field. I ll say it again, if you as an indiviudal, are not able to cohesively justify your vote when explaining your reasons to others, you perahps should rethink your stance.

Cato on The Greens

10. Moriae - March 2, 2008

Why should we reject people who cite Jesus? Who’s to say Jesus doesn’t have better dope on the issues than moveon.org? I would kind of think that if we started to discriminate for the public good, most of the public would be exempted from voting. Obviously to defend them from themselves.

Look at what we see coming: a U.S. Senator is going to get elected.
I think this will only be the third time in history that this has happened in the U.S. I’m thinking there’s been a good reason for this that most people are simply choosing to ignore. Anyway you look at it, someone is going to get elected with almost laughable inexperience. It’s likely we’ll have to pay for that too.

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