by Tim Baldwin
The matter addressed here is that of voting for public officials whose office is obtained through suffrage. If one is to discover sound conclusions regarding how to vote, he must discover the ethics of voting and prudently apply the maxims. I will attempt to explain some of the key issues of ethical voting and show why conservatives must ally to defend the common cause of republican ideas.
Do I have a duty to vote?
Yes, and the answer may appear obvious (in an imperfect sense, meaning, law cannot force it), but it forms the premise for the other rules of ethics following. The ethical duty to vote exists because the right exists. “[T]he right of suffrage is very justly regarded as a fundamental article of republican government.” Federalist Paper 52. Like the duty of serving on a jury or serving in the military to protect one’s country, living in a free society based on republican principles requires citizens to vote for those principles.
As the maxim goes, where there is a duty, there is a right; and where there is a right, there is a duty. Since there is a duty to vote, it necessarily implies that voting is not merely expressing one’s personal choice. It is designed to bring change in society and project its future. In other words, voting is a personal choice but must consider the objective results. This truth raises the next ethical question.
Can my duty to vote increase with circumstances?
As in every other duty, the duty of voting increases given the circumstances. The rule of ethics goes, the greater the number of voters in a society exists, the greater the duty to vote. The reason is this: as society and suffrage grow, the more likely it is that unethical and irresponsible citizens will vote for candidates similar to themselves, which will have the increasing effect of destroying the State. Thus, ethical voting counter balances corrupting forces of a large, complex and potentially demoralizing society.
It is true that the more degraded or uncontrollable a government becomes, the more likely honest and hard-working citizens will become disenchanted with voting. They will feel disconnected and undermined by government’s digression and irresponsibility and feel their vote does not matter or count. But in reality, abandoning voting is the opposite response to what good citizens should do.
The great political scientist, Francis Lieber, described our increased duty to vote this way:
They whose voting is the least desirable are the surest to be at the poll; but the industrious mechanic, the laborious farmer, the man of study, the merchant and professional man, in short all those who form the sinew and substance of the state, feel it a sacrifice of time to go to the place of voting…They are, therefore, the more imperatively called upon…to vote, and not leave the election to be decided by those who have the smallest stake in society.
Francis Lieber, The Manual of Political Ethics, Ed. Theodore D. Woolsey, Vol. 2, 2nd Ed., (London, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1892), 231 (emphasis added). Indeed, experience shows how citizens in America have voted into public office people who promise more government, and these voters naturally tend to be more motivated to vote. Consequently, the “least desirable” politicians stay in power at the cost of limited government and people who create the wealth needed to fund those policies.
Ethical voting requires the liberty-minded citizen to think wisely and realistically about which candidate for which he should vote, for as Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist Paper 21, the “natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.” He must consider how his vote serves not only to represent him in public office but also to ensure the choice candidate of the “least desirable” does not get elected to destroy the foundations of republicanism and capitalism. Under this ethical rule, voting has both an offensive and defensive characteristic. This leads us to the next question of ethical voting.
Is Voting for the “Lesser of Two Evils” Evil?
First, observe that this phrase is really an over-exaggeration and non-descriptive term. It implies that a person is categorically “good” or “evil”, not considering the myriad beliefs and principles that face the office. It has the effect of turning every political issue into a matter of morality and not policy or practice. It reveals the attitude that where you do not agree with me I consider you evil—an arrogant and foolish attitude. It also does not judge individual beliefs and principles on individual merit. It further rejects the reality of politics that a candidate may believe certain things that the voter deems evil but may believe other things the voter deems good.
In truth, a voter’s agreement with a candidate’s positions is always a matter of degrees and relativity—e.g. I agree with “candidate A” 90%, 80%; I think “candidate A” will make a much better candidate than “candidate B”. To demonstrate further, one cannot categorically declare that “candidate A” is evil because that candidate is, say, 40% evil when “candidate B” is 80% evil. Both hold some “evil” but “candidate B” would create 40% more evil for society than “candidate A”. Additionally, even if the best and preferred “candidate C” was only 10% evil, he still holds some evil, proving that all voting chooses a “lesser evil”.
One cannot use a maxim to avoid voting for “candidate A” when that same maxim would prevent him from voting for “candidate C”. In essence, he would have no moral basis to vote at all, because all candidates hold some amount of “evil”. As soon as this is admitted, it should force the ethical voter to consider more than just his dislike for “candidate A.”
Refusing to vote for a “lesser evil” distorts good sense and logic.
A voter errs who chooses to categorize a candidate as wholly evil because he holds matters of disagreement in such magnitude that he can no longer appreciate the good or better qualities of the candidate. At that point, the voter cannot make a logical comparison of the issues and objectively state that one candidate is better than the other. He only operates on emotions or idealism.
For example, a fundamental Christian may deem “candidate A” evil because he supports abortion on demand. As such, that voter will refuse to vote for him, categorically call him evil and not consider that “candidate B” (the only other viable candidate) supports not only abortion on demand but also gay rights, undermining parental rights, merging the church and state, and criminalizing prayer in schools. For the sake of a pet issue the citizen deems evil, he does nothing to prevent the greater and more numerous evils from becoming implemented in his society. This raises the next ethical question.
Do we have a duty to prevent the greater evil?
Now, the question for those who want to “get back to the Constitution,” does the philosophy that formed America’s republican principles support the idea that we should not vote for the “lesser of two evils”? Perhaps shocking to some, it does not support the idea.
James Madison, the father of our Constitution, said this about the principle of choosing the “lesser evil”.
[C]ool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good.
Federalist Paper 41. Madison’s view was not unique or without philosophical foundation. One of our most influential enlightenment philosophers, Samuel Pufendorf, discussed this principle upon his observations of natural law. He said,
Whatever reduction can be made in a greater evil, otherwise inevitable, is to be reckoned as a gain; and so, in this case, a less evil is in very fact rendered desirable, and on to which the will…moves, seeing that for it the avoidance of the while evil, or merely a part, is the equivalent of a good. This is the source of that trite saying: “Of two evils…the less is to be chosen, if it be necessary to undergo one or the other.”
Samuel Pufendorf, Two Books of the Elements of Universal Jurisprudence, (Indianapolis, IN, Liberty Fund, reprint 2009), 307.
Voting for a candidate to mitigate losses—or put differently, voting defensively —is a sound principle. Thus, using the phrase, “I will not vote for evil,” invokes more emotional than logical response and adds nothing to the solution.
One who refuses to vote for a candidate that is reasonably known to be the only viable alternative to a candidate that holds more and greater “evils” must base his decision not to prevent the greater evil on different principles other than not “voting for the lesser of two evils”. Human nature reveals that all deliberate choices must have an aim. So, what is the aim of voting for a candidate that genuinely has no chance of winning, especially when that vote could be used to prevent a republican-rejecting candidate? Any answer imagined demonstrates that the aim is only theoretical or idealistic and has nothing to do with the objective or collective purpose of voting.
The reality is, not trying to prevent a greater evil is (indirectly) participating in the evil. “In laboring for our own Country on the right principle, we labor for Humanity…In abandoning that fulcrum, we run the risk of rendering ourselves useless not only to Humanity but to our Country itself.” Joseph Mazzini, On The Duties of Man, (Forgotten Books, original print 1860), 89. One cannot step outside the realm of voting reality and claim he is not aiding foreseeable or known results no more than a person who does not vote can claim he is contributing nothing to the demise of the country.
A citizen who votes for a candidate regardless of foreseeable results and claims it is the only “right” decision must proclaim that a greater evil exists that voting for the only viable candidates cannot remedy. This necessarily implies many things about that society’s political condition and existence—namely, it is on the brink of collapse or revolution. But even in such conditions, this does not excuse unethical voting.
Thus, the remedies that the decrying voter should advocate are those that have nothing to do with voting but have to do with alter or abolishing constitutional and political structures. Ironically, these are the remedies that most such conservatives claim have no part in the discussion of political redress. As such, they put themselves into a sort of black-hole of politics, having neither persuasion nor answers.
Where a citizen claims there is “no hope” in the only viable candidates running for public offices, he has (by his actions) abandoned the existing political and constitutional process provided in our Constitution and chosen a strategy outside political norms. He does this on the assumption that revolution is at hand even though this is at best speculative and ironically contributes to or hastens the destruction he claims he is trying to prevent by not voting for “lesser evil”.
Taken to its logical conclusion, if the state of affairs has reached a “point of no return,” then it behooves the citizen to make all normal attempts to sustain republican values by voting for viable candidates who more closely hold those principles and are reasonably hopeful to defeat candidates that advance socialist principles. James Madison put it this way: “according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.” Federalist Paper 10.
We do not vote in isolation.
One’s vote is not made in isolation to the rest of society just as a pacifist Christian’s rejection of the right of self-defense does not affect that person’s life alone, but the life of his family, neighbor and country. Philosopher Joseph Mazzini put our individual duty into perspective, saying, “you must interrogate not only your own conscience, but also the conscience and consent of Humanity.” Joseph Mazzini, On The Duties of Man, (Forgotten Books, original print 1860), 62-63. This is true because one’s personal conscience relative to political matters is not infallible and without countless other perspectives that shed light on the truth of the matter and aid society in moving in the right direction.
The real application of “conscience” requires man to consider the effects of his choice and not to place more on his subjective desires than on the objective consequences. Moreover, one cannot reasonably claim voting is completely personal (like choosing which food to eat for dinner) when by its very nature, it has political consequences for society. Voters who do not consider the effect of their vote err in their philosophy and hold their personal choice to be greater than the negative effect it has on their fellow man.
It is true that voting ethics requires the candidate to be qualified for the office sought, but “qualified” does not mean preferred. Lieber started his conversation on the topic this way:
a citizen should give his vote for that individual only who unites the general worth and fitness the peculiar capacity requisite for the specific office in question. Yet it is unfortunately but too frequently the case that the citizens of free countries…are swayed by totally different considerations, and quiet their conscience by the consideration, “he will do well enough.”
Lieber, The Manual of Political Ethics, 233. Lieber marks the degrading consequences of voting for candidates who “will do well enough” without any other consideration and his statement somewhat reflects the sentiment of those who refuse to vote for “the lesser of two evils”. Lieber continues,
The appointment of incapable officers…is equally detrimental to free and to absolute states. It lowers the whole standard of morality, capacity, and activity in the public service, and with it the public morality of the community at large; it deprives the state of the necessary promotion of the public good which can be effected only by having sound and capable officers devoted to public service, and makes them satisfied with barely coming up to the words of their patent in the fulfillment of their duties; it begets boldness in the incapable or dishonest.
Ibid. But to Lieber, voting for a qualified candidate does not mean rejecting all candidates that have flaws or disagreeable principles. He states that the candidate must be taken as a whole. Put differently, no one should be rejected as a whole because parts of him are unacceptable (or evil). Thus, Lieber remarked concerning our voting, “we must take the whole man, and above all the tenor of his actions, unless the very character of a single act or saying is in itself sufficient to show the mind of the man.” Ibid., 234.
Liebert concludes that the voter must consider the results of his actions more than “general principles” because results are what affect people. He said, “quacks or deceivers always deal mostly in general principles; honest and wise men know and feel their sacredness and prove them by facts.” Ibid., 235. Naturally, if it is true that one should consider the “whole man” of “candidate A”, he should also consider the “whole man” of “candidate B” and the whole circumstances and consequences of having candidate A or B in office.
Ratifying our Constitution required choosing the “lesser evil.”
In fact, the United States Constitution was advocated and ratified on the “lesser evil” principle. The proposed Constitution was admittedly imperfect and contained evils. For example, most deemed a standing army as an evil, but a lesser one considering the alternative: “they view [the military] with a spirit of jealous acquiescence in a necessary evil.” Federalist Paper 8. No one today suggests we should dismantle our standing military because it is an “evil”, do they? If not, then this proves that Americans accept certain evils for the sake of its advantages.
Regardless of admitted evils inherent in the Constitution, it was the best they could create given their circumstances and experience. This allowed America to place themselves into a better position for both present survival and future progress. They did not allow themselves to fall into anarchy before they made necessary changes to their political structure.
Upon this principle, we see the Federalists joining together in 1787 to support the proposed Constitution regardless of opposing views of, say, wanting a completely centralized national government with no states as opposed to wanting a federal government with states (a very major difference, indeed). Specifically put, the James Madison rallied all Federalists, saying, “the advice of prudence must be to embrace the lesser evil.” Federalist Paper 62.
Similarly, the various types of republicans today should realize that they must become allies for purposes of defending foundational ideas of republicanism—just as in any war concerning a great enemy, nations that do not necessarily agree on other important matters must, by necessity, ally to defeat the greater threat to their liberty and security. Does this mean that every republican candidate believes all of those principles and will implement all of them all of the time? Of course not, but if there is “no hope” regardless of which candidate gets elected, then no more harm can come from voting for that “lesser evil” than voting for a candidate who has no chance of winning. If the “lesser evil” wins, this at least enables society to make changes over time as experience teaches and public opinion changes.
Voting is about moving toward our political goals.
Regardless of one’s personal choice of voting for a candidate he may not like, the citizen should acknowledge that voting is about politics, which is involves a large, complex body of people, values, principles and ideas. In a stable society, one cannot change the tide of opinion or policy overnight. It took a long time to reach our current state; to change the direction peacefully may take decades, however frustrating that may be. Political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, put it this way,
[Some] have fallen into a habit of half-unconscious belief that  changes, when they take place without a violent revolution, do not much or permanently disturb in practice the course of things habitual in the country. This, however, is but a superficial view either of the past or of the future…Causes which go deep down into the roots of future events produce the most serious parts of their effect only slowly, and have, therefore, time to become a part of the familiar order of things before general attention is called to the changes they are produced.
John Stuart Mill, Socialism and Utilitarianism, (Chicago, Morrill, Higgins Co, 1892), 9-10. On this truth, it is unwise to insist that wanted changes take place very quickly and on their terms, for such changes that attempt to reach the core of society cannot, in that manner, be absorbed and injected into the mainstream of public thought and understanding. As such, the attempt to force the matter or remedy causes more harm to the liberty movement than patiently tilling the ground in a methodical and diligent manner, allowing the natural process of growth to take place and thus, create permanent, fruitful changes.
The purpose of voting is to improve our future.
In conclusion, our voting may rightfully be an offensive or defensive measure depending on the circumstances. Voting is not designed to “build Rome in a day”. It is designed to change the measures of government and policy to strive for a better future. As Hamilton observed in Federalist Paper 62, “from this change of men [upon elections] must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures.” Taking into full consideration the duty to vote and the increased duty to prevent the “least desirable” from destroying a country through their vote, it behooves conservatives to find common ground and allies to defeat enemies of liberty and to find ways to put better candidates in office.
Voting is, however, not the only consideration to restore liberty and should not necessarily be viewed as the primary source of remedy and redress. I will address these topics in the following articles.
(Introduction, Part 1)
Political Pressure (Part 3)
The States (Part 4)
Constitutional Amendment (Part 5)
Constitutional Convention (Part 6)
Revolution (Part 7)