In Praise of Abstinence

No, I’m not referring to abstaining from sex before marriage, but the public decision of abstaining from voting.
Across the political spectrum, public figures of all shapes and stripes encourage the public, especially its youth, to go out and vote on Election Day. My most immediate memory of the 2004 elections was P. Diddy’s T-shirt slogan, “Vote or Die.” While many thought this message crude, others nodded their heads and agreed that the voter turnout rate needed to increase. Suggestions have been made that the U.S. adopt Australia’s policy of compulsory voting. My AP Government teacher fondly recounted the Australian electoral system in lecture one day while exhorting the class to register to vote once they turned 18. I didn’t have the courage then to point out how irresponsible his rhetoric was.

Why do I believe it’s irresponsible? Because the average voter, like the average religious believer, is fairly ignorant of what he stands for; the voter with his vote, the believer with his faith.

The pious lost face in the United States as a media frenzy devoured the findings in a recent Pew Forum survey on the religious literacy of Americans — it found that the religious knew less about religions than atheists and agnostics. Non-believers everywhere pounced on it with glee; our own newspaper featured a scorching criticism of religious sanctimony, using the survey as its main vehicle. I felt it necessary to draw attention to a more harmful illiteracy: the political kind.

In his polemical book titled “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan details how consistently ignorant towards specific directions the average voter really is. The book found the average voter to have systematic negative biases against the free market. Where economists see “supply and demand” and “comparative advantage,” laymen see “business conspiracies” and job stealing. Voters tend to favor the conservation of jobs over the more efficient allocation of labor; if the voters in 1789 knew that farmers would drop from 95 percent to 3 percent of the labor force in the next 200 years, they would probably panic and call for protectionist tariffs, as auto workers are clamoring for now. The public believes on average that foreign aid makes up 24 percent of the budget; in fact it is around 1 percent.

40 percent of Americans cannot name their state senators, 50 percent their congressman, 70 percent Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in December after the ’94 election. Of course, the fact that a candidate’s name could be identified is no guarantee that the voter knows the candidate’s platform. Roe v. Wade and the FDA are household names, but two-thirds of Americans cannot detail what they are. The list goes on.

Most voters hold contradictory views on policy: in polls, the same majority of respondents who want more spending also want lower taxes — dichotomous policies can only be maintained temporarily by running massive deficits that cost taxpayers billions each year in interest alone. This popular, pernicious and paradoxical political philosophy is well reflected in recent elections: those who promise lower taxes but stay fiscally responsible and raise them when necessary lose electability (Bush Sr.), those who spend wildly and accumulate deficits are re-elected (Bush Jr., Reagan) and those who advocate a consistent low spending, low taxes policy and back it up with their voting records are shunned from the mainstream entirely (Ron Paul). Nowhere is this harmful philosophy put into practice more than here in the Golden State.

The California legislature has the pattern of expanding spending — raising pensions, hiring new bureaucrats, raising the wage of public servants — when times are good, withering away the surplus; when recessions hit, the state has no buffer against deficits, and fiscal hysteria transpires. It faces a $20 billion budget shortfall in 2011.
Most Americans know little about the basic structure of government, much less the specific candidates’ platforms, and even fewer have a coherent political view. Simply put, most of the people who don’t vote shouldn’t, and a sizable portion of those who do shouldn’t either; voting solicitors like the ones on campus artificially inflate the turnout rate and make our democracy more susceptible to demagoguery and frivolous campaign ads because the more ignorant the average voter, the better they work. Democracy, in these strange times, might work better if fewer people voted.

The American system was founded as a democratic republic, where enlightened voters check back tyranny, not determine policy. So will our campus solicitors generate more enlightened voters who will check back the profligacy our state legislature has subjected our wealth to in the past decade? Dream on.

I searched “youth vote California” on Google News and saw a Politico blog post that suggested that Proposition 19, which legalizes marijuana, could draw a higher youth voter turnout and carry the Democrats to victory. It’s great to know that when our state is facing a staggering budget crisis, our young voters know their priorities; the “Yes on Prop 19” Facebook page has 200,241 fans. To put this in perspective, that’s approximately 40,000 more than Meg Whitman’s page, and 120,000 more than Jerry Brown’s.

So if you know little about the election apart from 30-second sound bites on television, if your major impetus to vote is Prop 19, if you have little to no idea of the platforms of the major party gubernatorial candidates or who promised to inject one billion into the UC system (Whitman), and don’t realize that the California government has a fiscal disaster at hand, I implore you to do your patriotic duty this Nov. 2: don’t vote.

Yichao Hao is a second-year economics major. He can be reached at haoy1@uci.edu.