To Cast an Informed Vote

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Political and Social Issues, Thoughts
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…The net result is that complex and high-powered economic analysis within the profession co-exists with utter ignorance and gross fallacies dominating the public, the media, and various branches of government. Even scholars with Ph.D.s in other fields are often ill-informed or misinformed about economics, though that seldom deters them from having and voicing opinons on economic issues.

The above passage is from the preface of Basic Economics: A Citizens’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell. It is interesting to me because it echoes and confirms that concern which prompted me to schlep down to my public library and check the book out in the first place. Economic issues are at the heart of political debates dividing our nation today, and yet the layman, myself included, is generally uneducated in this field of study. As a Ron Paul supporter in a liberal college town, I find myself constantly engaged with Obama-supporting friends on issues of economic theory. After so many discussions came to ‘yeah huh – nuh uh’ conclusions, it occurred to me that my knowledge of these issues was fairly superficial. It occurred to me that I supported the hands-off approach of Austrian Economics only because it seemed intuitive to me, though I have no real education in the subject, and I suspected, perhaps unfairly, that my friends arrived at their conclusions with similar dearths of understanding.

But economics isn’t the only field which must be understood when discussing politics. Political issues are broad and complex, requiring that one understand their own political philosophy and also be familiar with current and past events. To be an informed voter and citizen is a formidable task! Getting through a big paper such as the New York Times requires hours of reading and reflecting, with incredibly valuable and telling bits of information often being hidden away in back page columns, and even after that work is has been put in one is still required to accept a second or third hand account. With media power so concentrated as it is today, the major outlets all controlled by a handful of powerful magnates, who can accept with blind faith all that one reads and hears? In theory the journalist is impartial, but corruption is inevitable in any human enterprise. One can push an agenda without telling an outright lie. Simply by selecting what news to publish and what context to provide one can use the truth to mislead. And, of course, one can always lie outright.

Even assuming that one has access to secondhand eyes and ears throughout the world providing them with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it would still be an enormous task just to gather so staggering an amount of information as is necessary to arrive at a general standpoint on a certain policy even without having to sift through and evaluate it. Even in very local elections, I’ll often show up prepared to vote (passionately) on one or two issues only to find myself confronted with a GRE’s-worth of questions and choices to make. After voting (passionately) on those one or two issues which attracted me to the ballot-box, I’ll make the best decisions I can on those choices about which I’m at least a little informed before going to to sheepishly scribble in the rest of the sections. On a standardized test I guess ‘C’, on a ballot I vote against incumbents. The strategy doesn’t work too well on standardized tests, and I’m fortunate that ballots aren’t scored.

This is the case after I spend more time than I can afford already trying to research current issues and events. How many people actually spend any time on such activities at all? Even in my liberal college town, many of my friends have no interest in politics whatsoever, believing themselves powerless and at the mercy of a bi-partisan block of statesmen all pushing the same policy and agenda. I can certainly sympathize. After all, one’s vote is such a meager method of enforcing one’s will. Thoreau himself decried it as …only expressing to men feebly your desire that [the right] should prevail,’ and that when you have a real choice between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. As so many of my friends point out, the only options are a republican or a democrat, and that’s hardly a choice at all. In 2008, convinced that Ron Paul had no chance of winning, I voted for Obama because I appreciated his running a clean campaign and because I thought the democrats would be more progressive on social issues. In terms of real, fundamental policy differences, though, he and McCain were nearly identical. Both candidates would have kept us at war. Both candidates would have bailed out the bankers and private interests. Both candidates would have blanched at touching a bloated military budget or (god forbid) acknowledging that we can no longer afford our entitlement programs. The list goes on. Now, this frustration has led to my increased resolve to support a third party candidate such as Ron Paul, despite resistance from the machine such as the virtual media blackout he’s received. But can this be fought? Is there any point? I have no money, I have no power. I have a desire to learn and think and change a failing system, but I haven’t the means to do so. Can I blame my friends for their apathy?

When I studied in China, I asked many Chinese about their views on the fascism and social control exhibited by their government. Some Chinese, especially the well educated and/or scholars, were suffocated by it. I heard more than one Chinese say that Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution was incomplete, that real political liberalization would come with bloodshed. Many Chinese, though, pointed out that China had been led with such a system for thousands of years. A farmer told me that he was not a statesman, didn’t understand politics or economics, and so had no right to exert his influence on the leadership. Let the politicians handle the politics, he told me, and I’ll farm. It makes sense, but the lesson to be taken from it is not democracy’s inferiority. Democracy is dangerous, in a way, but only when the people living in that democracy allow it to become dangerous by becoming dangerous themselves. After all, it is mob rule, and elections popularity contests. The obvious appeal is that in a democracy one enjoys the freedom to hold power over their representatives, holding them accountable for their actions and theoretically ensuring that the authority to govern is derived directly from the consent of the governed. The drawback is that this freedom, as with all freedom, comes with responsibility. A Chinese citizen needn’t concern him/herself with such matters as politics and current events. They are free to live their lives blissfully unaware of those things. An American citizen, on the other hand, has by virtue of citizenship an influence on the policies of the United States. Should the population of the democratic state become apathetic and ignorant, their leaders will continue to do whatever they must to appease that apathetic and ignorant population. The goal of a leader in a democratic society is not to enact intelligent and effective public policy, but to be liked by enough people to ensure his/her political future.

Now we have reached a point where the nation is divided nearly down the middle, along strict party lines. The debate has become democrat vs republican rather than policy vs policy or ideology vs ideology. Presidential debates are little more than glib exchanges of tired talking points, 30 sec soundbites delivered in lieu of more expansive and less easily digested explanations of political philosophy or policy details. Whatever complaint one has against the United States government, our nation’s faults are ultimately the result of the United States populace. Just as a business will only do that which it believes will be profitable, so will our leaders only do what they believe is politically expedient. Where is the incentive to push alternative public policy rather than selling oneself to the two-party system when these third party candidates are largely marginalized and ignored, and what’s the point of defiance? My main man Dr Paul has stuck to his guns through three decades of service, and though he’s miraculously managed to retain the support of his constituents, he’s been and will continue to be pushed to the sidelines in the presidential elections, shunned by a mainstream media spouting self-fulfilling prophecies of his inevitable failure, when they choose to mention him at all. Can it really be that so many are aware of and believe in the mainstream policy pushed by both of the two parties? If so, how is such a rift drawn between them, that so many people are so passionate about how ‘crazy’ or ‘extremist’ their opponents are?

I propose that to educate oneself, to see past cheap scare tactics and chicanery and really understand the issues, proposed actions, and consequences of those proposed actions is quite an undertaking. I propose that too many Americans have, to this point, not been up to that undertaking. Too many of us are distracted by our daily struggles and entertainments, by fear of losing that ‘American Dream’ lifestyle which we have somehow come to believe is our right, and by a national debate framed by partisan finger-pointing rather than rational discussion of different policies. I have heard my friends berate others for failing to vote, saying that the right to vote is one which must be exercised to avoid betraying one’s own freedom. To cast a vote, however, should not be the be-all-end-all for the American citizen. It is easy to cast a vote. The more difficult task is to cast an informed one, and until the American citizen is willing to rise to that challenge we’d be better off choosing to abstain, or giving up that right entirely to a government whose role has switched from one of a protector of the rights of the citizens to determine their own futures to that of a parent guarding and minding its irresponsible children.


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