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[liberationtech] Freedom in the face of power and a vanishing vote

Michael Schudson ms3035 at
Fri Sep 23 07:27:51 PDT 2011

I'm unpersuaded -- on multiple grounds:

1) The original 5 points Mike offers were almost certainly not  
conceived by an American -- the U.S. is rare if not unique among  
democracies in having an extensive primary election system where  
voters DO choose the general election candidate from among an often  
large group where getting one's name on the ballot is pretty cheap and  
pretty simple for most elective offices.

2) The 2nd and 3rd points are either redundant -- both saying "my vote  
does not affect the election outcome" or else the 2nd point is  
nonsense (obviously one's vote does not affect the "course" of the  
election because one's vote is cast at the END of the election after  
its "course" has run!) No one tries to influence the course of an  
election with their vote but with their donations of time and money  
and discussion and debate with friends, relatives, strangers. And, in  
the end, it is largely true but not 100% true that "my vote does not  
affect the election outcome." Every election year you read a story  
from one location or another about a race that ended in a tie or was  
decided by a single vote. Is it likely that any given individual will  
be a voter in such a race? No. Is it possible? Absolutely.
3) The premise of the 5 points is that political freedom is a direct  
and simple extension of being part of an electorate where one's vote  
is likely to be decisive. Political freedom must therefore be greater  
in small countries than in larger, or in Nevada with a small  
population than across the state line in California. But does that  
follow? There is, in fact, an argument that has been made (by James  
Madison) that your freedoms are more vulnerable in small countries  
than large because powerful individuals are in a better position there  
to exercise their influence and twist arms to secure votes -- and they  
are unable to do that so effectively as the size of the electorate  
grows (see Federalist No. 10). Besides, I can't think of any  
democratic theorist who would equate "voting" and "political freedom"  
-- pretty much all of them would say that what makes a democracy is  
not simply the existence of voting but the existence of voting coupled  
with a set of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms BEYOND THE POWER OF  
VOTERS TO DENY (freedoms of speech, press, assembly) and an electoral  
system with more than one competitive party.
4) State power and laws ARE generally speaking unaffected by your  
individual vote -- your individual vote IS an aspect of your freedom  
and, perhaps even more, is a symbolic REMINDER of your freedom, but in  
actually existing democracies you put yourself in a position to alter  
state power and change laws by JOINING WITH OTHERS (in a party, in a  
pressure group, in a demonstration, in a union, in a petition, etc).

Michael Schudson

Quoting Peter Lindener <lindener.peter at>:

> Dear Mike -
>      Some of your points seem near the truth....But then not completely spot
> on.
> Granted that our current methods for a Social Decision process from an
> Information theoretic point of view, fails all tests of legitimacy from the
> point of view of conduction the aggregate will of the electorate into the
> governance decision making process.... and as such, by conclusion must only
> be rituals designed to satiate the masses into thinking they had some input
> into the decision process.
>    And granted you do make the point of personal alarm that would seem
> fitting....but it is not entirely a lost cause....   These problems
> regarding the transmission of the desires of the electorate into the
> governance process can with the appropriate Social Network based  Decision
> systems<>can
> be effectively addressed....
>    In summery you are spot on regarding the limitation of choice space....
> and also the unresponsiveness of representation to those who are not
> donating $$$s to political campaigns....
>    But there are much bigger challenges Noam
> Chomsky<>point out involving
> the electorate apparently being effectively blind to
> media driven mass manipulation.   I personally think this will resolve it
> self by means of neurological maturation once our Social Decision systems
> mature to actually respond to the will of the electorate...
>     -Peter
> On Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 11:37 AM, Michael Allan <mike at> wrote:
>> Dear all,
>> I'm posting to ask if anyone has heard an argument like the following.
>> I know that the rationality of voting is sometimes questioned from an
>> economic standpoint of cost and benefit [1], but I never before heard
>> an argument that puts that benefit at exactly zero, or draws the moral
>> conclusions with regard to individual freedom and the legitimacy of
>> state power and laws. [2]
>>   I used to believe that I was free because I lived in a democracy
>>   and had a vote; but the truth is, I have no political freedom at
>>   all.  Whether I vote or not, and regardless of who I vote for:
>>     (a) the candidates are chosen ahead of time, and I have no
>>         influence over the choice;
>>     (b) the course of the election is unaffected by my vote;
>>     (c) the outcome is the same, regardless;
>>     (d) state power is unaffected; and
>>     (e) the laws are unaffected.
>>   If I disobey (d) state power or (e) the laws, then I am brought
>>   into submission by force.  The powers that affect me are unaffected
>>   by any comparable power of mine.  In regard to my political
>>   freedom, I might as well live in China or Saudi Arabia.
>>   Disobedience is my only freedom, and yet the cost of exercising it
>>   is physical confinement or worse.  In this regard, it follows that
>>   I am a slave.
>>   By a corollary, state power and laws have no moral authority or
>>   legitimacy.  In embodying a disregard for my liberty, which is the
>>   most fundamental of human rights, they forfeit any claim to
>>   reciprocal recognition.
>> The conclusions are difficult to swallow.  But the argument as a whole
>> seems solid, and I think this comes from its rigid focus on the
>> individual.  Has anyone heard this argument before?
>>  [1] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt.  2005.  Why Vote?  A
>>      Swiss Turnout-Boosting Experiment.  New York Times.  November 6.
>>  [2] The argument was developed in these discussion posts:
>>      It continues in these (which are temporarily inaccessible):
>>      (see Writing a charter)
>> --
>> Michael Allan
>> Toronto, +1 416-699-9528
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