Saturday, June 23, 2007

Third Parties in First-Past-the-Post Systems: Unsafe at Any Speed?

One of the themes over the years at Lawyers, Guns and Money is anger at those who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. It is claimed that said persons bear disproportionate guilt for the subsequent worst.presidency.ever. Rob Farley proposes to bring an end to this theme in a recent post, but the length of the comment thread suggests that passions have not cooled. With any luck, they never will and Generation X socialists will argue on the subject with the same obscure passion their grandparents reserved for Kronstadt and the fate of the POUM.

The Pithlord is able to view the battle with a certain Olympian detachment. At the time, I did not prefer Nader to Gore. Of all the motives for taking up anti-capitalist populism, "consumerism" struck me as the lamest. Capitalism is damn good for consumers, and I dobut lefty activists are going to improve on it. Nader was undoubtedly right about how bad Detroit's cars were, but it was Japanese and Korean imports that actually did something about it. Nader was as responsible as anyone for the risk-reduction state, and the Pithlord has an uneasy feeling that Guantanamo is its direct descendent.

But I could understand a Nader vote. The critical issue in 2000 turned out to be whether the US should ignore international law, traditional understandings of strategic interest and the just war tradition to forcibly establish a global regime of "human rights". That was what was at issue in Kosovo a year before, and in Iraq a few years later. On that issue, Gore was the most extreme representative of forcible democratization. Bush had few substantive disagreements, but was rhetorically better, talking about a "humble foreign policy" and opposing "nation building." For those unwilling to sign up with Pat Buchanan, Nader uniquely opposed perpetual war for perpetual peace. As we know, the defeated Gore opposed the war in Iraq and it is possible that an elected Gore would not have started it. But all that was unknowable in 2000. What was knowable was that the overthrow of a sovereignty-based international regime and its replacement with human rights imperialism was on the agenda and Gore was more enthusiastic about it than the man from Crawford. That would eventually have led to an Iraq, whether in Mesopotamia or not.

Anyway, Rob and Scott's anger is not based solely on a preference for their own candidate over Nader. Rather, it is the argument that Nader, as the most left-wing candidate, cost Gore, the most left-wing-feasible-candidate, the election, and therefore a strategic vote was morally obligatory.

The first part is clearly true. If half of Nader's voters in Florida had voted for Gore instead, Gore would have won comfortably (by 2000 standards at least).

But what are the assumptions that make a strategic vote morally mandatory? Take an individual whose preference order is (Nader, Gore, Bush). Even in 2000, her own vote will make no difference to who gets elected. On a purely consequentialist basis, she may as well vote for Nader.

Is there some non-consequentialist argument making strategic voting obligatory? The categorical imperative requires us to ask whether we can will what would happen if everyone acted as we do, whether or not we find the consequences of our own actions acceptable. If "everyone" means "all Nader voters", then it might seem problematic not to vote for Gore for someone unable to will a Bush victory. But this seems like an arbitrary value for "everyone". If all left-of-centre voters voted or the whole electorate for Nader, then he would win. The Nader voter is acting in a way consistent with universalizing the maxim of her own action -- it is the strategic voter who isn't.

So Nader voters have nothing to apologize for.

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