Balance of Power: Political Power

by Sunni Maravillosa

Now that the 2004 election is mostly over, it's a good time to take up my examination of power again, and address the concept of political power. Just as is the case with "power", "politics" has some negative connotations. It's also a concept muddled with confusing, sometimes contradictory meanings -- see the varied meanings of the terms "politic", "politics", and "political" (and, for extra irony, check out "police" for its etymology) in your dictionary. To be clear, I am focusing on "a concern with government" -- the first definition in my Webster's dictionary for "political".

Many people seem to think that elections are a manifestation of individuals' aggregate political power. Voting gives individuals a say in the government they live under. Electoral political power, in this view, is the primary vehicle by which individuals wield political power over the politicians they elect, and the legislative process the politicians then undertake. The clamor for elections in countries ruled by tyrannical leaders is a compelling demonstration of the enduring strength of these beliefs. The disappointment when elections are found -- or simply suspected -- to be tampered with reflects individuals' desires to exercise greater control over their lives. Thus, the outcries of Venezuelans or protests by Belarussians -- or even Americans' suspicions -- aren't surprising. They wuz robbed! Except that Ken Livingstone's famous quotation -- If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it -- is spot on.

None of this explains -- or justifies, to my mind -- many libertarians' herculean (and Sisyphean) efforts to get more people to vote for Libertarian Party candidates. What it suggests to me is that many ostensibly pro-freedom individuals do accept the idea, deep down somewhere, that some people ought to have authority over others. Thus, they apparently reason, having Libertarians in office will automatically lighten the chains of the state around each of us. Assuming for the sake of discussion that they're right and Libertarian politicians could actually accomplish things once in office, the fact remains that the LP is simply the political party with the longest leash. The leash is still there, and if you tug too hard, you will feel it. Politicians with varying beliefs cycle in and out of offices, and the leash will be more slack or more taut -- but in this system, it will never disappear. Even if one dispenses with choosing from among the real candidates and instead sends a protest message via a write-in vote, it's still the case that you're asking for the leash. And, contrary to what such voters may think, the leash-holders don't always get the point.

Thus, many Libertarian voters remind me of my children -- they want magic to be real. Just as my children focus exclusively on the coolness of magic, and all the neat things it could enable, Libertarian candidates and voters seem to think only of the benefits of having a "good guy" in office. Forgotten is the possibility that the power of the office will corrupt that individual, as it has so many others. Conspicuously absent is any awareness that the leash is still there.

Elections are simply a tool -- one for transferring one's political power to others. The fact that politicians as a class are viewed with distrust attests to the value of that exchange. Voting is the use of a coercive, insidiously controlling tool that relies upon the pretext of offering individuals choices. Butler Shaffer spells it out very clearly:

I don't vote for the same reason I don't rob banks or molest children: it is not the way I choose to live my life. I am not "apathetic" about not victimizing others: to the contrary, I insist upon such a trait. My entire sense of being is incompatible with coercing others. I can no more hide my ambitions over your life or property within the secret confines of a voting booth than I could confront my neighbor with a gun and demand his money. Voting is nothing more than a periodic public affirmation in the faith of systematic violence as a social system. [Emphasis in original]

So, why do supposedly freedom-loving individuals grasp that tool so firmly? There are many reasons, and I'm sure I can't identify them all, but a key element of many seems to me to be an inability to see or acknowledge the coercion inherent in the electoral political process. Just as we'd have a difficult time imagining how it feels to be a butterfly floating on a summer breeze, many can't visualize a political system that doesn't require this tool.

But there are alternatives for the freedom-seeker. Self-government -- in which an individual takes responsibility for his choices and the consequences -- is highly individualistic and tolerant. Coercion under the rule of law is replaced by voluntary persuasion: an individual may invest personal power in crafting and disseminating an idea, which others may choose to listen to, consider, and accept or reject. Most individuals already rely on this kind of structure for most of their daily actions and interactions without giving it much thought. Parents who want their children to become thinking, self-reliant, mature adults attempt to instill this kernel of social interaction in them. Institutionalized aggression, in whatever form, is anathema to liberty; to the degree humans are to succeed and flourish, we must put it behind us and create -- and allow others to create -- voluntary systems that work for those who choose to be in them.

The nation-state is dying, largely under its own insupportable weight and flawed premises. Voting signals that it is worth keeping alive. I think that few genuine freedom-lovers would agree with that sentiment; yet some continue to hold one of the worst tools of the state in hand. The only way to change a tool is to put it down. Then it can be examined more objectively, its strengths and weaknesses assessed with an eye toward improvement. Setting down the electoral tool enables one to see the many other ways of exercising political power that are available -- and are more effective. These other tools also allow for a greater range of exercising one's personal power. Given those options, why pick up the coercive club again?

Author's note: Deep thanks go again to my beloved but shy friend, for invaluable contributions to this essay, and for the ongoing, stimulating conversation.

published at Endervidualism on  11/16/04

Sunni Maravillosa has a web site with a great blog and many other features, visit it at -