A common criticism of libertarian philosophy is that it can’t handle collective action problems — that a totally voluntary society lacks the tools to build lighthouses, prevent overfishing, or ensure we all get our vaccines.

In response, libertarian thinkers developed a branch of economics dedicated to showing how collective action problems can be solved with voluntary cooperative arrangements. Elinor Ostrom’s work was particularly important for arguing that, under the right conditions, norms and civil society can evolve to govern the commons from the bottom up.

There are obviously limits to informal norms, however. For one, they are easy to undermine through appeals to a narrow, self-interested conception of rationality. After all, norms exist to enforce cooperative arrangements that would otherwise be unstable. That suggests it is always possible for a sophist to jeopardize collective action by appealing to their peer’s individually rational, but myopic motivations: “Just catch one more fish, no one will notice.” With each person who defects it then becomes increasingly tempting for others to follow suit.

What about voting?

Voting represents an interesting test case for the robustness of voluntary solutions to collective action problems, since any single individual’s vote is mathematically insignificant. Indeed, according to one often-cited estimate, the likelihood of casting the decisive vote in a U.S. presidential election is 1 in 60 million. And yet when voters act collectively, thousands of individually meaningless votes can quickly add up and become a force to be reckoned with. 

Nonetheless, many of the same libertarians who insist that norms and civil society can solve large scale collective action problems also insist that voting is individually “irrational,” and therefore abstain. “Voting is overrated,” argues Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor in chief of Reason magazine, in a recent video posted ahead of the 2020 election. “The reasons people give for why they vote—and why everyone else should too—are flawed, unconvincing, and occasionally dangerous.”

“Your vote is wildly unlikely to determine the election. It’s pure math,” Mangu-Ward continues, citing the 1 in 60 million figure mentioned above. Worse still, boosting the turnout of people who are “young, uneducated or otherwise less likely to be engaged” can have the unintended consequence of diluting the vote of those who are better informed. “Get out the vote campaigns promote precisely the kind of morally condemnable, ignorant voting we should be discouraging.”

That libertarian bulwarks like Reason Magazine feel compelled to rehash their sophomoric arguments against voting every election cycle merely reaffirms the worry that libertarianism contains the seeds of its own unravelling. The emphasis on instrumental, means-end rationality, in particular, ignores what to most people are their primary, normative motivations for action. Voting is a civic duty because of its limited instrumental value.

The notion that only informed, “high information” voters should participate represents a similar instrumentalization of democracy, as if elections were merely about aggregating-up individual beliefs and preferences (as Condorcet showed, they’re not). In truth, the most “informed” voters also tend to be the most politically and ideologically polarized — the sort of people who watch Fox News or MSNBC all day — and thus hardly a sound foundation for epistocracy, to put it politely. 

Of course, that we vote in large numbers at all is in some sense a vindication of Ostrom and her school of economics. Rather than act as atomized utility functions, we cement the norm of voting with the help of overlapping institutions like political parties, religious congregations, unions, non-profits, membership clubs, and not to mention friends and family. We communicate voting intentions to other individuals within these groups, which are small enough to reinforce a mutual expectation of follow through. Groups in turn coordinate with other groups, like when a local union or social club coordinates with its other chapters. Pretty quickly a meagre individual vote becomes amplified into the hugely consequential endorsement of a union federation or influential political action committee.

More rational than thou

I therefore don’t believe libertarians are totally sincere when they make the “voting is irrational” argument. Or, more to the point, I suspect it is a case of motivated reasoning. As we’ve already seen, it is cognitively dissonant with their optimism about voluntary collective action in other spheres (“collective action for me but not for thee”). But moreover, it seems to spring from their mood-aversion to electoral politics more generally. In the words of Mangu-Ward, “Washing one’s hands of the whole system is a good way to ensure that they remain clean, even when the politicos are dirty.” As such, her tendentious arguments represent what criminologists refer to as “techniques of neutralization” — self-serving excuses that proactively rationalize defection from social norms that one finds inconvenient. Classic examples include shirking at work because “everyone else is doing it,” or telling yourself that shoplifting if OK because big retailers have already baked petty theft into the price.

Libertarians double down on their mood-aversion when they argue that voting is inherently immoral or distasteful because it involves participating in a coercive enterprise. And true to form, Mangu-Ward argues that we arguably have a moral duty not to vote, comparing voting to participation in a firing squad. Yet besides the obvious tension with the “voting is ineffectual” view, there is no pressing need for a norm against voting, just as there is no need for a norm for littering, overfishing or free-riding off of herd immunity. Those behaviors all naturally fall out of individually self-interested human action; they are what is left in the absence of social coordination through norms and other communicative modes of… Reason.

Unfortunately, motivated reasoning is just the generous interpretation. The less generous one is that the average libertarian is tragically bereft of the social capital (clubs, networks, and civil society) needed to leverage their idiosyncratic beliefs and motivations into collective action. Just tune into the Libertarian Party convention if you doubt this. If you thought herding cats was hard, try herding philosophical anarchists.

The even less generous view is that libertarianism represents a self-defeating memeplex — a mind virus that handicaps its host so badly that it ceases to reproduce. Ron Paul himself could be on the ballot, only to lose because a non-trivial percentage of his supporters rationally chose to stay home. Indeed, if you wanted to hobble the labor movement, say, one strategy would be to plant agent provocateurs within a union’s ranks to charismatically defend the instrumental rationality of being a scab. Or better yet, one could deploy dorm room thought experiments to convince their pseudo-comrades that being a scab is not just rational, but just and noble. Were that conviction to ever catch on within the labor movement it would cease to exist, a victim of ideological natural selection.

And as a matter of fact, that is more or less what happened in the 1960s. It was called the New Left, and its aversion to normative authority and social conformism hobbled progressives’ ability to influence institutional reform for a generation. Now that the right is having its own countercultural moment, with no shortage of libertarian fellow travelers, one suspects that the attempt to advance social change through culture-jamming and norm subversion will be equally in vain.

At the same time, it will always be easier to tear down norms than to build them back up. So be sure to not only vote, but heap shame and stigma on those who don’t. Not because it’s individually rational, but precisely because it’s not.

This post was adapted from Sweet Talk Conversation.