I recently heard a political commentator bemoan the results of surveys and elections. He said the sad truth, whether libertarians wanted to hear it or not, is that Americans want big government. They want handouts, high taxes, regulatory interference, and on and on. They vote for people who talk about it. They re-elect them when they deliver it. On opinion surveys they favor entitlement programs and broad intervention. I couldn’t help but laugh.
A person who studies only quarterbacks is likely to interpret an NFL game as the result of QB play. A person who immerses themselves in politics is likely to interpret society as the result of political opinion and activity. In the former case, there is at least plausible evidence that QB’s are a major factor. In the latter, it is almost entirely an illusion that politics and political sentiment reveal the broader health of liberty.
Voters are liars. They tell the truth about their opinion in the abstract, free from trade-offs and constraints, but this has little to no meaning when translated into the real world. If I asked you to vote between a person who offered a better world, and one who offered a less bad world, and promised that your vote was guaranteed to not change the outcome either way, what would you do? What could I conclude about your preferences from your vote?
If I polled you and asked whether or not you like the idea of someone giving you something for free, again promising that how you answered had no bearing on the real world, what would you say? What could I learn from that about your values?
Voting and surveys are free ways to express a sentiment or indulge in a real or desired preference. Not only that, the sentiments expressed are not about the real world. Politics is a zero sum game, completely unlike nearly every other arena of life. Imagine how different your preferences would be if everything were zero-sum like politics. What if you had to choose once for all between brands of coffee, cars or clothing? What if you could not go back, at least not for several years, and try another? What if whatever a majority in your area voted on would be applied to everyone else? Under this scenario we could poll people and ask which of three or four brands they prefer. We’d get some data, but it would reveal nothing whatsoever about what people actually value if they were choosing in the non-zero-sum marketplace and bearing the full costs and benefits of their choices.
Back to society today. Do people really favor less liberty and more government? Elections and polls are a very poor measure. Let’s not look at stated preferences about the artificial political world, but revealed preferences in the real world of win-wins, marginal decision making, internalized costs and benefits, and trade-offs. If you examine the market, what would you say people are “voting” for? Radically individualistic technology. More and more choice. Freedom from being lumped in with groups. The ability to choose everything. Private alternatives to government dominated services like transportation, information transmission, education, protection, rule-making social norms and values, health maintenance, and on and on.
Don’t listen so much to what people say, look at what they reveal by their actions. Nobody admits to loving Barry Manilow, but the guy sells a ton of records. No one says they want to abolish public education, but they keep putting their resources into alternatives to it.
Frankly, I don’t care what people say in polls or who they vote for in the fairyland of politics. What I see around me – the revealed preferences of billions of earth’s citizens – is a vote, indeed a mandate, for more freedom.