Rand Paul on the joy of voting

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) was on David Letterman’s show last week. I thought he handled himself well and made some good points about why the government should do less and the private sector should do more. (He does make a mistake when he defines the top 50 percent as people who make over $70 K. The number is in fact $33 K.)

The only criticism I have of Paul is his use of “voting” rhetoric to support the private sector over the public sector.

Rand Paul: We think that when you go to Walmart, or Kmart, you get to vote on which businesses succeed. That’s what you want in the private sector. In the government sector, you don’t get to vote. You may get a special perk if you gave a contribution to a politician.

What Paul seems to be saying is that: 1) voting is good; 2) voting occurs in the private sector; 3) voting does not occur in the public sector; 4) Therefore, the private sector is better than the public sector.

The most obvious problem with this analogy is that it’s confusing to say voting does not occur in the public sector. The 535 members of the U.S. Congress are there because they received the most votes in their respective elections.

Secondly, I doubt very much that the people who shop at Walmart do so because they want Walmart to succeed over a competing business. They do not necessarily want Walmart to swallow up Kmart. In fact, they may enjoy shopping at both retail outlets.

Beyond those two admittedly petty complaints, there are two other major problems with the voting analogy, which we will examine in turn.

1) The success of the free market has to do with the autonomy it gives to people. It does not have to do with aggregating desires as in voting.

Shopping at Walmart instead of Kmart is not analogous to voting between two candidates. In politics, the winning candidate rules over people who voted for him as well as people who voted against him. That is not true in the private sector, where a business must gain your consent before taking your money.

The analogy only works if you imagine that everyone is riding in a car, and the car can only go to one store. Then you will have to resort to some method of picking one store over the other. However, this is clearly not the case in the real world, so we should drop the analogy to voting.

2) Voting is good to the extent it mimics the free market, not vice versa.

Even supporters of the free market advocate for it on the grounds that it allows us to “vote with our dollars.” This suggests that the free market is good because it vaguely resembles democracy, which is taken to be a good thing. This gets the analogy backwards. Choice is good. Freedom is good. To the extent that voting is good at all, it is good insofar as it gives people choice and freedom.

Possible counter-argument:

Perhaps Paul would respond that he is talking to people who have a favorable impression of democracy but not of the free market. Showing that the free market resembles democracy would raise its stature in the eyes of those who value democracy.

The problem with this line of argument is that 1) It concedes too much and 2) Free market advocates can appeal to much stronger and more widely held intuitions than a support for democracy.

If you start with the premise that voting is good, you’ll find that putting an issue up for a vote does not reliably increase freedom. This can be seen in the way California voters spurned marijuana legalization and the way Iowa voters ousted Supreme Court judges who overruled the state’s gay marriage ban.

Even if you are speaking to a staunch democratic advocate, it is highly likely that they enjoy such things as choice, freedom and autonomy. These are values to liberals and conservatives alike. To make your case for the free market, appeal directly to these values. “Oh, you’re the only one in your state who eats organic food? That’s wonderful! In a free market, you can eat as much organic food as you want and no one can stop you.”

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