Reconciled to the King
October 18, 2012 § 29 Comments
There is a certain ritual in which many faithful Catholics engage regularly. In this ritual, we enter into a private booth and make a concrete act. That concrete act is an outward sign of an inner commitment: it expresses in a concrete act of the will what the person has committed to internally.
I am talking, of course, about voting.
Lets take a step back. Voting in its most abstract is just an act of making a personal endorsement of some particular candidate, resolution, law, or what have you. As with all concrete human acts the outer action necessarily reflects an inner commitment of the will.
Some human acts are pragmatic acts. Some human acts are principled or idealistic acts. Voting is sometimes a pragmatic act and sometimes a principled/idealistic act, depending on the context.
For example, if you are one member of a nine member Supreme Court or Board of Directors, chances are that your votes are pragmatic acts. That doesn’t mean that you are willing to violate your principles in how you vote; but it does mean that often your votes may involve material cooperation with evil and you will end up spending significant energy figuring out which votes or abstentions are justified by a proportionate reason. The reason these kinds of votes are pragmatic in nature is because as a practical matter, you have a substantial material say in the outcome.
Other human acts, though, are by their nature principled or idealistic. Praying for a miracle or buying a lottery ticket are both principled or idealistic acts in this sense, because the material chances of your own personal act “paying off” as a matter of material cause and effect are negligible. It doesn’t make any sense to buy a lottery ticket as a “pragmatic” strategy for generating a family income. And it certainly makes sense to pray for miracles, but to treat praying for miracles as material cause and effect would be indistinguishable from witchcraft: God acts in miracles, not you. The point is not that principled acts are irrational or impractical: the point is that treating inherently principled acts as if they were pragmatic is a mistake.
The same applies to voting in national elections, particularly the Presidential election. By its very nature such an act cannot be “pragmatic”. The material chances of affecting the outcome are literally negligible; so if you vote in national elections, it is quite literally irrational to do so as a pragmatic rather than principled act.
This isn’t something I am making up out of my hat. It is a manifest fact about the mathematics of elections, and that this sort of voting is a principled act has been understood by at least some reasonable people since the beginning of the American Republic:
“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” – John Quincy Adams
So there is a basic incongruence in the pervasive idea that we as individuals ought to vote for a less-bad national candidate in order to block the election of a more-bad national candidate. A vote for the less bad candidate is by its nature an endorsement of a bad candidate. Furthermore, it is being done in a context where it makes no sense – it is literally irrational – to treat one’s act of voting as a pragmatic rather than principled/idealistic decision.
As my regular readers know, I myself draw further conclusions. Because the function of these kinds of mass-market universal-suffrage elections is in my view not to decide how we are governed, but rather to build consensus around the liberal secularism under which we are in fact governed – to reconcile us to the king – I take the “extraordinary step,” as the American bishops call it, of not voting in these elections at all. I won’t light a pinch of incense to this Caesar, period, and voting third party still endorses the system which produced what we have now. I don’t back away from this and its implications: and yes, because I think I am right I think everyone else ought to do as I do, and I think the polity would in the long run be better for it. We haven’t gotten to where we are because too many Catholics have drawn a line in the sand and refused to vote for the lesser evil. Yes, because acting imprudently is wrong people ought to do as I do in the moral sense of “ought”. But that is the nature of honest disagreement.
Even if I am a fruitcake in taking it as far as I have, though, that doesn’t invalidate the basic truth here: voting in national elections is an inherently principled/idealistic act, and people who treat it as a pragmatic calculation are making a fundamental error in judgement. If we are praying for miracles, we must be able to come up with something better than “please Lord let the less bad candidate win”.