Friday, June 09, 2006

Libertarianism, Democracy, and the Nirvana Fallacy

Libertarians sometimes argue that democracy (meaning popular voting) is a bad thing, since voters can and do vote for terrible things. Similarly, it’s sometimes argued that an independent judiciary, division of powers within government, or some other institution often espoused in classical liberal thought, is unimportant. After all, courts often make terrible rulings, and the checks and balances among legislative, executive, and judicial branches haven’t prevented the growth of an enormous and dangerously powerful state. (For examples of such arguments see Tom Palmer’s blog – the arguments are not made by Palmer himself, of course, but his critics.)

The blanket dismissal by libertarians of existing suboptimal institutions is completely misguided. Here’s why.

Montana held a federal and state primary election this past 6 June. I spent the day working as a county election judge in a local precinct. Why should an anarcho-libertarian support democratic elections, even to the extent of working as an election official?

I became interested in this sort of work after reading first-hand accounts from friends, acquaintances, and FOAFs who participated as election observers or workers in the recent Belarusian presidential election and 2004 Ukrainian elections. In the future I hope to serve as an observer in such elections, and expect that participation in elections in a place where they go smoothly will provide useful experience. I am also increasingly convinced of the importance of making these sorts of admittedly flawed institutions function well. And it just sounded like an interesting thing to do.

The training consisted of two half-day sessions conducted by the county elections office. My default is to assume that any given government official is of questionable competence and diligence, but I was very favorably impressed with the county election officials who conducted our sessions. It was quite evident that they cared deeply about one thing only – ensuring a scrupulously honest, transparent election, strictly according to the rules. And they worked hard to prepare us towards this end.

I also noted that most of my fellow trainees were old hands at this, having regularly served as judges in the past. The larger part of the group was retired women, a number of them quite elderly. We went through procedures for ensuring that ballot boxes were secure and not tampered with, for securing ballots (Montana uses paper ballots, an excellent system), for conducting the voting, transporting ballot boxes after the election closed, etc.

On election day I was assigned to a precinct with four women who had worked together previously. We met at the polling place at 6 AM to set up the site for the 7 AM opening, and then our chief judge administered our oath of office – short and to the point – to protect and defend the U.S. and State Constitutions. The other judges were quite experienced, but since I was a beginner, once the voting began we rotated positions every couple of hours so that I had a chance to learn each job.

The work isn’t difficult, and is mostly pleasant, but once it begins there are no breaks. There is a certain amount of downtime (enough that a couple of my fellow judges made a little progress on some knitting projects), but we were on duty from the 7AM opening until the 8PM closing, and afterwards as well as we counted and secured the ballots for transport and dismantled and loaded voting booths and other equipment.

There are all sorts of checks and redundancies built into the procedures to make error and fraud difficult – I’ll skip the details, but during the quiet moments one of the things we discussed was the possibility of fraud. My fellow judges were unanimous that the current system seems almost foolproof – they said earlier systems (e.g. the voting booths used in the 1970’s with a sort of punch card system) seemed very dodgy. I in turn told them stories of how elections have been rigged in Ukraine and Belarus.

Voting at our precinct went smoothly, turnout wasn’t bad for a primary, and we wrapped up fairly quickly once the polls closed. I helped deliver the ballot box to the courthouse, and we were finished by 9 PM.

But these details are beside the point. Why should libertarians, or for that matter economists, care about elections? Aren’t elections just an irrelevant choice over which corrupt power-mad candidates get to deprive us of our liberty? (The libertarian’s critique) Or since the chances of any single vote actually mattering are essentially zero, isn’t voting and hence any participation in an election an irrational waste of time and resources? (The economist’s critique.)


The best answer to these objections came on election day from a lad of maybe nine years. In our polling place there was a young gal, a high school student, collecting signatures to place some sort of initiatives on the ballot for the fall general election – such collection is legal in Montana so long as the voters are approached after they have voted. A woman came in to vote – the high school gal later told me the woman was a substitute social studies teacher at her school – and they began talking, something like “Oh, hi, Mrs. Y, it’s great to see you are here to vote.” “Yes, and I brought my son X so he can learn how important voting is. Tell us why voting is important, X.”

“Because either we get the government under control, or the government is going to control us.”

Little X has gotten right to the heart of the matter.

And what do the libertarian and economist critiques propose as an alternative?


Both the libertarian’s critique and the economist’s critique are, of course, exaggerations, but they correctly refer to the fact that as a mechanism for controlling government voting is imperfect. But neither criticism proposes a better mechanism, and so to conclude from the criticisms that we might as well forswear elections, is to commit the Nirvana fallacy (articulated by Coase and named by Demsetz) of comparing an admittedly imperfect real world alternative against an imaginary and unattainable ideal. The flawed real-world alternative is always trumped by the imaginary ideal. But the imaginary ideal, which isn’t even specified in this case, is not a relevant standard for comparison.

It’s absolutely clear that voting is a weak check, that there are numerous flaws in our system, and that things can and should be radically improved (X’s mother pointed this out as well, and said something to the effect that government is already out of control) – but washing one’s hands of the whole business in an effort to remain “pure” or “rational” contributes nothing to this.

And our flawed but relatively honest and transparent system is far better than many real world alternatives. For the most part, the choices in our primary were among various run-of-the-mill jobseekers with a few real scoundrels (e.g. Sen. Conrad Burns) thrown in – not a soul I would be happy about. But more importantly, there was a fair process, a choice among unappetizing alternatives perhaps, but the selection process was transparent and unrigged. None of us was given a quota of votes that any candidate had to receive. No “extra” marked ballots miraculously appeared. The ballots actually cast by voters were counted. No one was threatened. Anyone who wished was free to observe any step of the process. Even though the candidates might stink, a fair and open process is in itself a thing of tremendous value; in fact, such institutions are more important than good candidates or libertarian outcomes.

It’s the system that ultimately constrains behavior, and even though our system is badly flawed, the relevant questions are “compared to what?” and “what can be done to make it better?”

Compared to what: as one Belarusian said of their rigged elections, “[We] are afraid to protest for fear of being shot.”

What can be done: that’s a lengthy topic, and deserves future posts. But a quick and incomplete answer is that simply committing the Nirvana fallacy – washing one’s hands of an imperfect system that is still far better than most real world alternatives – is utterly foolish. Far better to work to keep a relatively good system functioning, and to make it function as well as it can. Why?

Any move to a freer system, towards whatever we imagine to be our real-world attainable ideal, will be an evolution, a progression of steps. Institutional frameworks don’t change in a revolutionary fashion, they don’t change – at least not for the better – by saltations. Respect for rights, non-corruption and honesty, transparency, and vigilance in protection of these are not easily nor instantly acquired. The individual civic behavior needed for a free society is not fostered by disengagement while calling for “abolishing the state” or whatever nostrum one prefers. Any proposed libertarian system – including anarcho-capitalism – will have to be built by positive actions that help to construct the needed institutions. And they have to be built from the existing institutions, because there is no alternative.

I’ll return to this topic in future posts, because much libertarian thinking appears to be completely ignorant of the economics of institutional change – ignorant of work by Mises and Hayek, as well as Coase, North, and others in the New Institutional Economics, and Paul David and Brian Arthur on path dependency. As result, libertarianism is – too often – nothing more than a description of a highly desirable objective without any idea of how to attain it – and sounds very much like nothing more than a variant of the Nirvana fallacy.

In the meantime, I thank all the "little old ladies with their knitting" who swear an oath to keep the system as honest as they can, and faithfully execute it. I think they, much more than troops in Iraq, are manning the frontlines of the defense of what liberty remains to us.

“Because either we get the government under control, or the government is going to control us.”

Did anyone mention to the lad that in her whole life his mother's vote had never gotten the government under control and never would?
Thanks for your comment.

If you mean that her individual vote never influenced an election, then very likely you are correct.

If you mean that voting gives citizens no control over the state and what it does, then clearly you are wrong. For example, in Montana, citizens have placed various initiatives on the ballot that have very clearly curbed powers that government previously had -- e.g wrt to budgets and taxes. When people in office prove to be idiots, we can sometimes remove them with voting.

Voting is clearly not the panacea advocates od democracy make it out to be, nor is it a particularly strong check on government. But it is certainly not toothless either.

A question for you: what, if anything could get the government under control? You have some better alternative?

The question was why voting was important. The answer was nonsense, the individuals vote has negligible effect.

I'm not interested in getting the government under control, my aim is simply to diminish government interference in my affairs.

Aren't there are many things you could do to diminish the interference in your affairs by the mafia other than getting control of the mafia?
John -- I disagree with you on three points here.

First, the fact that an individual vote has neglible effect is not equivalent to saying voting has negligible effect. Again using a Montana example, citizens have placed initiatives on the ballot and successfully passed them, including initiatives that have blocked new taxes and limited government spending. Even though each signature and vote has a neglible effect, the total effect isn't neglible. But there isn't any question that voting and related processes can diminish the influence of the state.

Second, "diminishing government interference" and "getting government under control" are equivalent, at least for me. But how do you propose to diminish this interference? If you simply mean you want to insulate yourself from government and let the rest of the world go as it may, fine, that's a reasonable position -- but then why object to those who imagine that maybe diminishing government itself (hopefully to zero) is a reasonable activity?

Alternatively, if you mean that government itself should be diminished, then how?

Third, I reject the mafia analogy. This is worthy of a whole debate itself -- economist Mancur Olson argued, maybe correctly, that government began as bandits. But I don't think this correctly characterizes government in America at all -- the insititutions that govern American society -- formal and informal -- are far more complicated than that. One of the most important ones, something that Jefferson, Paine, and the like emphasized, is something we can call civic responsibility -- where individuals see themselves as having some responsibility for the "common good," which really means the protection of everyone else's rights and the system of cooperation that emerges from this. This is really the glue that determines how well a human society works, and no stateless system would last for a day without it being developed to a very high level.

This glue isn't strengthened by abandoning the system to the statists.

Finally -- thanks for your comments.
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