In presenting the Voluntaryist case against electoral voting, however, I commonly encounter the slavery analogy as a counterargument in support of defensive voting. A classic formulation of it comes from Walter Block who argues, “Suppose we were slaves, and the master offered us a vote for either Overseer Baddy, who beat the crap out of us all the time, or Overseer Goody, who only beat us once in a while, and then more gently.” Block concludes that voting for Goody would be an act of self-defense and not an endorsement; voting is morally justified.
One problem I have with the slavery analogy is that I disagree with how the issue is presented. But, before exploring that disagreement, I should state the bare-bone reason why I oppose electoral voting. I consider political office to be a position of unjust power over my life and the lives of innocent third parties. I cannot in good conscience assist anyone to assume that power, especially over others. Doing so would be akin to providing bullets to a person I knew would use his gun in a robbery. It is often argued that a libertarian politician would be an exception…but it is not the man, rather it is the position of power to which I object. Besides which, a libertarian politician would still take an oath to uphold the law of the land, which is massively unjust. Either he would be lying as he took the oath or he would be lying when he claimed to be a libertarian.
My disagreement: the slave analogy focuses incorrectly on two issues. First, electoral voting is wrong only because the position being facilitated is unjust; by contrast, electing a clubhouse President is a neutral act. The focus should be on the office of politician or slave-master because that is what gives moral meaning to the vote. In other words, the key question is whether a libertarian could hold either position. If the answer is ‘no’, as I believe it is, then neither can a libertarian properly assist the politician or slave-master into an unjust position by voting for him. The office for which the vote is cast is the key moral question, and it should be the very beginning of any discussion on voting.
Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the analogy for me is that it likens the libertarian politician to a slave-master. It implicitly concedes that political office is the moral equivalent of slave owning. This makes “voting for a libertarian” into an impossibility because no libertarian could run for political office any more than he could own slaves.
The second incorrect focus: I may have a moral right to vote for a lesser evil within my own life but I have no similar right to facilitate the presence of that evil within someone else’s life. I have no right to knowingly harm innocent others in the name of self-defense. And that’s what voting does. The elected politician holds authority over everyone within a given jurisdiction, not just over me or over those who voted for him.
Other problems quickly arise with the slavery analogy. Block and others postulate situations in which the ‘voter’ confronts real physical violence depending on how he votes or if he does not vote. (Block follows up the slavery analogy with “Now posit that a mugger held us at gun point, and demanded either our watch or our wallet, and we gave him our time piece.” Again, real physical violence is in play.) Electoral voters do not confront that situation. I have never voted and I have never been punished or even threatened with violence for abstaining. If I had been, if someone held a gun to my head, then I would prudently cast a ballot.
In other words, the fact that I voted as a slave who was under threat of imminent violence says nothing about whether or not I would or should cast a voluntary ballot for which I would bear no real consequences if I tore it up.
Frankly, I find the framework of violence within the slavery analogy to be peculiar. If voting is a morally neutral act, as the analogy wishes to argue, then why even introduce the atmosphere of violence to justify it? You don’t justify the commission of other morally neutral acts, such as cheering one football team as opposed to another, by creating a framework of fear as the reason for doing so. Justifying the act of voting in the presence of violence seems to concede that there would be something wrong with the act sans such a threat.
Equally, the argument of self-defense itself seems to indicate that the politician (or the aspiring one) is committing an act of aggression against you. That’s what self-defense means. Again, this concedes that there is something fundamentally wrong with a libertarian or anyone else running for political office or else the self-defense argument would not arise. And if there is something wrong with seeking political office, then there is something wrong with facilitating the rent-seeker.
In the end, the slavery analogy also fails because it provides an unrealistically limited set of alternatives. In the analogy, the slave has no other means to ease his oppression other than by casting a vote. The slavery analogy never envisions or permits the possibility of a slave revolt on the spot or an escape attempt. The choice is always restricted to voting for Baddy or Goody, and this is simply unrealistic even in conditions of slavery.
Marginally free human beings, as North Americans still are, have a myriad of other strategies available through which to fight for their rights and freedom. I prefer non-violent resistance and the construction of parallel institutions that provide free-market alternatives to government ‘services’.
The slavery analogy is an intellectual sleight-of-hand that focuses attention incorrectly and concedes the points that it is trying to defend. It is not merely weak. It is a distraction, a derailing of productive discussion.