“Is the government acting like an armed robber when you are taxed so that the government can operate illegitimate programs or policies?
The answer is no.”
Or, so my pal Cole says. We have, after all, the opportunity to vote. That’s the same thing as consent, right?
It sounds so nice. When we vote, we have a voice! Government by the people suggests a few things, thought. Among them: election outcomes represent voter preferences. But like most premises in Cole’s argument, there is little in the way of truth.
In real life, voters have ordinal preferences on several thousand possible issues, but to make this easier for Cole, I’ll lower the bar. Let’s do a quick test.
Can voters choose a pack of beer? There are three voters, and they will have to choose between two kinds of beer.
Voter One: Cole. He likes good beer, and his preferences are just an ordinal scale of quality; he would buy a pack of good beer before a medium-quality beer, and a medium-quality beer to Four Loko. His preferences are transitive.
Voter Two: Some hipster. He hates Coors because normal people drink it. He likes craft beer, the best stuff that few drink, but he really likes drinking Four Loko because it tastes like garbage. Sooooo IRONIC.
Voter Three: Hank Hill. He drinks Coors. He will not drink some sissy by under any circumstance. He’d even drink Four Loko before that.
Now imagine the three walked into a store, and they had to vote on which beer to buy. This is a simple store, much simpler than real life, so it should be easier for them to express their preferences. There are only two packs of beer: one twelver of Imperial (I don’t think it actually comes in packs), and a bunch of Four Loko. Cole votes for Imperial, the hipster and Hank vote to get Loked. Garbage carries the day. Democracy has spoken!
But what if they had to choose between Four Loko and Coors? Cole would vote for Coors, as would Hank. The hipster votes for the garbage drink, but has to drink Coors anyway. Democracy spoke again?
Or, what if it were Imperial v. Coors? Cole and the hipster would vote for Imperial, while Hank would go for Coors. Democracy chose all three, now?
Sure, there was a victor in each cycle, but these elections didn’t express anyone’s preferences. And as elections become more complex, and begin to resemble our actual elections, these problems get worse. Kenneth Arrow actually won a Nobel for doing the math to prove this.
But even if elections were able to express voters’ preferences, there is still the problem of the majority not ruling. There has never been a presidential election where the majority of Americans chose to elect a candidate. The closest we’ve ever come is 23%.
It’s hard to take Cole’s idea that voters can revoke the rights of others when elections fail to meet these basic criteria.
But this is the smallest problem with Cole’s proposal. The more serious false premises (natural rights, what consent means, exit) will be addressed later.
EDIT: And now for a proper conclusion.
Although I assumed the conclusion would be clear from the introduction and discussion of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, I’ll be more explicit.
Cole is a proponent of a modified “consent of the governed” theory. He believes that elections allow me to express my preferences and I am bound to the results by having the opportunity to do so. But why? Say the ballots were thrown into a swimming pool and one ballot chosen at random, and the results were based entirely on it. Would I still be bound to the results of the election under his theory? I had a vote, after all!
Of course not. His point isn’t simply that elections are binding because ballots were submitted. At least, I hope not. Cole believes that elections transmit the preferences of voters, and the majority agree on a particular policy or a politician to vote in proxy. But this premise is demonstrably wrong. Quite often, the preferences of citizens are not transmitted through elections whatsoever. Nor is there majority rule, nor even plurality rule. That is, even by Cole’s tortured standard, no consent has been given.
Most people realize this, which is why they have enough sense to stay home on election day. If you’re looking for actual consent, you might find it in this majority decision.