Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spoilers: A Defense

Last weekend, the Libertarians nominated former Congressman, and former Republican, Bob Barr for President. This is probably the most important single event in the history of their party since its first presidential campaign in 1972, as it means they will get much more attention, and probably far more votes, than ever before. It is also historically interesting in another way -- as one more bit of damage the Republicans have done to themselves since 9/11. People are continuing to grab life preservers and jump out of their neocon ship.

As Bruce Ramsey points out in the June issue of Liberty, this raises once again an interesting issue that Libertarians do sometimes find themselves facing. Do you really want to do in 2008 what Nader and his supporters quite possibly did in 2000? Some are saying that Barr could cause the Democrats to win this time.

Actually, in my case, the candidate I would vote for if I don't vote for Barr would almost certainly be Obama. There are no circumstances (except, possibly, torture) in which I would vote for an imperialist, authoritarian warmonger like McCain. This raises an interesting sub-issue for me. Suppose the Barr vote benefits Obama. Does this, by itself, mean there is no "spoiler problem" for me?

No, I don't think so. If you vote for a third party candidate who can't realistically win, then you are diverting a vote from your second-best candidate.* And if this second-best candidate is a possible winner, then you are undermining them and helping your less preferrable electable candidate -- regardless of who eventually wins. I think the concept of "spoiler" is relative to the individual voter. You are always spoiling your favorite electable candidate. (I suppose we should speak of voters as being spoilers, as well as candidates.) ... and I should never "spoil" my favorite electable candidate, right?

Again, I don't think so. There is actually one good reason to always go with the spoilers. After all, there are good reasons why I don't like the idea of voting for Obama. Granted he is somewhat less imperialistic than McCain. He is probably also more pro-liberty (at least slightly) on a number of domestic issues (eg., abortion, the war on drugs, the domestic war on terror). But it is also true that if elected he will serve up more of the same socialism-plus-tapwater (eg., more "free" health care) that the Democrats have been decanting since 1933. If voters are going to third party candidates, the major parties will know that they are doing something to chase these people away. If there are enough of these votes, the majors will want to bring them back. If Barr takes enough votes away from Obama, the Dems will have a reason to nominate less socialistic candidates in the future. If he takes enough votes way from McCain, the Republicans will have a reason to nominate candidates who are less imperialistic than he is, next time around. As a matter of fact, both these things can happen at the same time.

So, though spoilers have a negative effect on the current election, they have a positive effect on the next one. And the latter effect becomes more and more important as the "spoiler problem" also becomes more important: that is, the more people will vote for the Libertarian candidate and "spoil" the election, the stronger my reason to join them. In other words, the I have a reason to vote for the a third party candidate, and in addition a reason to not vote for one. This year, both reasons are particularly strong.

Of course, they are different sorts of reasons. The reason to not be a spoiler has to do with caring who wins the current election. The reason to be a spoiler has to do with caring about the future. Right now, I am leaning toward voting for the future.
* I am assuming throughout that it makes a difference who you vote for, and that the difference it makes is that it raises (or lowers) the probability that the candidates that you vote for (or refrain from voting for) will win. This is actually not true, just because the probabilities involved are too small to matter. As Wendy McElroy has pointed out, it is much more likely that I will be killed on the way to the polls than that my vote will affect who wins or loses. Voting is purely symbolic, insofar as it is a rational thing to do at all (which of course is doubtful). But the present discussion could be translated (with some extra verbiage) into a series of claims about what my vote symbolizes.
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