Ballot Box Folklore: Reflections on a Recent Political Election
by Alvin Lowi, Jr.
It is commonly believed that the ballot box contains a bona fide decision of the people regarding the future course of human events. That is the folklore. What is the truth? Is it really possible for "the people" (whoever they are) to make such a decision? If not, what is all the fuss about?
In truth, the ballot box is merely a receptacle for ritual responses to hypothetical propositions. I say hypothetical because the propositions or their objectives are either beyond the reach and authority of the individual humans casting the ballots or are outright deceptions. For many participants, the practice of voting politically is somewhat analogous to tossing coins down a wishing well or casting bottles containing fanciful messages to whomever into the ocean.
While the intent of the Machiavellian proposition writers may be only thinly disguised, the tokens placed in the ballot box are absolutely opaque as to the issuer and his intent. Nevertheless, people have somehow come to believe the ballot box contents represent a firm decision of the people in the neighborhood when not even a majority of those in the neighborhood have participated. How does it happen that a few can bind all regarding the government of the neighborhood? Who shall control a monopoly of political power over a human population in which only a small minority cast inert tokens of assent? The question exposes a hoax. The ballot box symbolizes an absurdity.
The ballot box is merely the physical instrument of an imaginary entity popularly known as the democratic majority the people. The so-called majority plays a tune on the instrument that is supposed be the voice of "the people." This story belongs in the library of fairy tales. It is to the politically ambitious what the crystal ball is to the circus fortune-teller.
Inasmuch as ballots fail to include all valid alternatives including "none of the above," the so-called decision is invalid. Such a decision is a false alternative, a logical fallacy of the "excluded middle."
The purported decision of the people in the ballot box is also invalid because it is a fraud. It is a fraud because it would delegate powers not possessed by the participants in the ritual. Who among the electors is endowed with the authority to commandeer the lives and properties of his neighbors?
Political elections take place to the mantra of "one man, one vote." This ode to equality overlooks the failure of political elections to achieve even a one-to-one correspondence between ballots cast and counted and people affected. The participants pro and con may not even represent a majority of those affected, let alone a unanimity, which, according to legend, has the legitimate authority to determine who shall rule and under what policies.
However, as it happens, sorting the ballots according to assent to a proposition determines not a majority but only a plurality of those who turned out and gestured in the affirmative. And that plurality might be just a minuscule fraction of the population to be affected. Such an outcome is a far cry from a perfect tally of the invisible intentions of the people presumed to be expressing their wishes unambiguously regarding governance. It is not even or necessarily an expression of the majority in the ordinary sense of the term, namely 50% of the population plus one. But it is definitely a clique bent on conquest. So speak the vaunted polls in a so-called political democracy.
Rare is the person who questions that a poll speaks for the majority. Rarer yet is the person who doubts a majority can speak, through a poll or anything else.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that a poll is evidence that majority had spoken. Can such a pronouncement qualify for rectitude?
Most people are conditioned to accept "majority rule" without a second thought. In doing so, they assume the majority is always right. Accordingly, they are resigned to see whatever polling results prevail even if they may have chosen otherwise. This habit of thought persists notwithstanding the observation made by Jonathan Swift over three-hundred years ago that "some people have no better idea of determining right and wrong than by counting noses."
Of course, those people are right in the perverse sense that "might makes right." There is no question that the "majority" can muster superior physical might in the population to suppress minority dissent. Thereby, the presumptive leaders of the "majority" obtain the superficial appearance of being in the right.
In actuality, the majority is usually wrong. It can be right only by accident because its predilections always represent the lowest common denominator of opinion. How else does a majority of diverse individuals come to a uniform consensus?
Who is the majority that he can have an opinion? Opinions like decisions are formed in a human brain or not at all. Since a majority is only a mindless collective mass of humanity, majority decisions are figments of the human imagination. They are only the illusions of the participants in a poll, who are like the participants in a masquerade.
Given prevailing sentiments and illusions, the people’s concern for the integrity of the ballot box is understandable inasmuch as its contents will determine who shall rule over them. The ballot box contents sanction the people (a fictitious entity) to rule the people (the actual population), who are not only the ones who cast votes but also the ones who didn't. This clever sophistry resigns most people to submit to whatever the outcome of the poll as long as such outcomes are believed faithful to the ritual. Never mind the "majority" is spurious and the decision illusory. Blind faith rules. The outcome is considered fair as long as the sacrifice is uniform, universal and high-minded.
What passes for a decision of the people is a proposition that must be formulated by some person with a brain, that is subsequently ratified by a ritual vote count. Curiously, the outcome of this process can be radically altered by one anonymous vote more or less. Whatever raises doubt that the tally is at odds with an actual nose-count casts doubt on the outcome. Such doubt disturbs the faith. It shakes the belief in the legitimacy of the outcome and any succession to rule so ordained. The slightest hint that the vote count was corrupted, miscounted, miscarried or forged can quickly turn the mood of the subjects from doubt to outrage and on to outright rebellion. The reaction to even an abstract notion that the "decision of the majority" was thwarted by some evil conspiracy can produce panic in the streets.
Thus a population of volitional human beings becomes a herd of political animals. Such a hysterical reaction might be expected from an invasion of alien plunderers. Alien invaders may be real or imagined, but plunder is a fait accompli when the rulers take over their peers. Plunder is the result of the election in any case however conducted, and the plunderers will not be aliens. They will be domestic opportunists. Ballot box contents settle the issue as to who shall be anointed to do the deed with legal immunity.
Curiously, at this stage of human history, such plunder is tolerated provided the illusion of majority sanction prevails. Still, it is surprising that a majority of humans in a population would sanction an establishment wherein a few of them receive services without rendering any. This immutable outcome is a far cry from the popular notion of fairness – uniform and universal sacrifice for a good cause.
As if ordinary theft or contamination of ballot box contents is not bad enough, the new electronic voting machines threaten to defeat ordinary prudence and protection of the count. This advancement in the technology of manipulation is a boon to the masterminds of election fraud. Add cyber crime to all the other usurpations with which a political idealist must contend.
But what's the worst that could happen? If you voted, perhaps you would have been in the majority. Now, due to fraud, you are not. So the democratically elected dictator is not of your choice. You chose a different dictator. On the other hand, perhaps you merely deceived yourself in the matter and have been denying reality ever since. If you did not vote, you were at least resigned to your political fate and the looting of your estate regardless of the outcome however affected by whatever ballot scam. Perhaps you did not bother to vote because you realize political democracy is a scam in and of itself, and by abstaining, you weakened the electoral deception foisted upon you and your fellows.
To the extent the people go along with this gag, they have lost enough of their individuality and autonomy to behave as a collective – a herd of political animals – rather than a population of responsible human beings acting on their own recognizance. Collective action versus human action – that is the contest of the ages between legerdemain and reality.
Ballot box fetishes are symptomatic of a collectivistic habit of thinking. Consider the phrase "the majority decides what everybody must abide." Notice the presence of "group-speak," a linguistic tool that relies on the nonsense that a population of individuals can behave like a decision-making entity. Actually, a collective has no brain in which to visualize alternative courses of action and make choices among them, nor a voice with which to articulate such a choice. Such functions are provided by leaders and spokesmen, who are usurpers and opportunists.
It follows from the fantasy of collective deciding that such so-called decisions are somehow owned by all the individuals as a whole without regard for responsibility for consequences in any coherent sense of the term. The vote creates the illusion of a collective entity (a fictitious organism) that is exempt from responsibility. Therein lies its popular appeal. However, appeal is only wishful. It can not create a collective brain, any more than Frank Baum’s "Wizard of Oz" could give "Scarecrow" a brain.
Whereas a group of people qua group has no brain with which to form a conclusion, the individuals comprising the collective do themselves have brains, and they could use them to make decisions, but only for themselves. To attribute collective decisions to the group presumes the individuals taken altogether as a whole are the property of themselves as a whole, and that somehow all of them together as a collective entity are able to conjure up a mental faculty attributable to the whole. This is a conundrum of the following type:
The United States (whoever that is) decided to send some of 'its' people to Iraq to remove its counterpart state from power. The United States ordained that the expenses of this campaign are to be paid by certain of 'its' people for the good of all of 'its' people, especially the elected spokesmen for 'the people' as a whole.
This type of language is pervasive, and the habit of thought that underlies it goes unexamined at great cost. An apt analogy is the proverbial "knee-jerk reaction" inasmuch as a knee jerk is an automatic biological response to a physical stimulus, not a conscious act of a volitional human being.
It is a consequence of the collectivity mystique that those so-called decisions rendered by government bureaus at the behest of interest groups are somehow "better" than decisions made by individuals. However, bureaus and groups are brainless, and brainless decision-making is a myth.
Collective decision-making is mere political ritual, but it may very well lead to a spasm of ugly and painful consequences. When confronted by such "decisions" and their consequences, the renowned aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman quipped: "a camel is a racehorse designed by a committee." Thus, decisions made by a committee (a collective) are an illusion best. The worst is always yet to come.
Only the decisions of individual human beings can qualify as decisions in reality because only they have the requisite brainpower. Real decisions applicable to bona fide human action (as opposed to mob phenomena) can be made only by someone with a functioning brain that is integral with a functioning human individual. Mob phenomena are something else.
Mythical decisions attributed to a mob inevitably lead to the imposition of force upon all alike. The majority becomes a mob when, in the absence of reason, it must rely on its only claim to rightness – physical might. Thereafter, each member in lock step neglects his own volitional faculties to its ultimate regret. Consequently, all rise and fall together as the case may be.
Is this herd behavior conceivably "better" than individual decision-making that, seemingly chaotic, takes place at will in a market economy where the consequences of myriad decisions are of limited province, localized consequence and definite liability?
The fate of collective decision-making is typified in the outcome of attempted political regulation of the economy. Economists object to government regulation on the grounds that the economy is too complex for anyone to know sufficiently for that purpose, and therefore it is too complex to direct or manipulate from a platform outside the arena of action in a beneficial manner. Economist Daniel Klein illustrates the predicament as follows:
Intellectuals cannot know the local undulations of opportunity, just as intellectuals cannot chart and predict the specific patterns of skating in a roller rink. The skaters carry on, nonetheless, profitably and without difficulty. The regulator who would direct and control their activities is like the perambulator who presumes to accompany the skater.
Like the patterns made spontaneously in the rink by the skater that are too complex for anyone to mimic on foot, economic movements due to purposeful human action are too complex for an external observer to control. The more complex is the system, the more the mischief in the outsiders’ attempts to control.
Imagine a multitude of skaters on an unbounded rink. Such complexity does not confound the individual skater. He need not interpret the whole before making his moves. He is pursuing opportunities particular to his own time and place with knowledge appropriate to his own circumstances and competence. He moves defensively and opportunistically with ease.
In contrast, the central planner and would-be regulator of a market is faced with the whole complexity at once. Although he may be tempted to try, he cannot stop the world in order to get a grip. He bargains to manipulate the whole mishmash at once. His job is hopeless. He has no access to appropriate knowledge.
Whereas the bizarre spectacle of a perambulator imitating a skater might be entertaining, the analogous consequences of government’s attempts at directing anonymous human lives in the economy are not amusing. History provides countless ugly, even tragic examples. Indeed, it provides no exceptions.
The fantasy of collective omniscience is perverse because its only claim to "better" is by virtue of collective omnipotence, i.e. superior brute force. But notice that brute force is irrelevant to human progress except insofar as dynamite is an appropriate tool for clearing boulders from a highway. Since politics is brute force, it has no more relevance to human society than dynamite. Apropos of this is attribute is Murphy’s analogy: "To a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
Since such government is irrelevant to life in its natural habitat, it should not be surprising that collectivistic attitudes cause misery in the real world.
That the ballot box contains a bona fide expression of the will of the people is a myth as fantastic as any attributed to the ancients in a more innocent age. It is a myth comparable to the genie in the bottle offering the liberator three fantastic wishes. But this myth is a key feature of an outrageous hoax perpetrated on a deluded people by clever opportunists ambitious for power over them.