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Oct 31, 2006

Voting With My Feet

Objectivist bloggers are getting ready for the mid-term elections, and, once again, there's a great deal of debate and dispute. I am greatly saddened by Dr. Peikoff's comment that anyone choosing to vote Republican or--my choice--not vote is not an Objectivist and does not understand Objectivism.

Let me tell you what I understand. I understand that I have to use my own judgment, and an attempt to substitute anyone's thinking for my own is no more and no less than a total abdication of rationality. I have heard arguments for both sides and I have come to the conclusion that I simply don't have enough information to make a decision that shows any signs of being well-planned in this particular area.

I also have a very good reason for not devoting my entire life to this issue: it's not that important. We are not talking about a vital or even indicative clash between ideological opposites, here, we are talking about trying to make a short-term, concrete decision about the shortest-term-thinking, most concrete people in the world today: politicians. It is not these people, ultimately, that will be responsible for determining my fate and the course of the great drama that is my life, but the people that think long-term and in abstract principles. Those are the people with whom I share my ideas and utilize my small powers of persuasion, in a forum where my voice may actually, possibly, be heard.

It is not possible to realize a gain by strenuously supporting the least objectionable of an unpalatable alternative. At best, you will simply slow the descent into destruction while making it appear that you are still in favor of that eventual destruction. I'm rejecting this false alternative outright.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that statement of his was pretty kooky. I can just hear the conversation at next year's conference:

"Are you really an Objectivist, or did you vote Republican?"

"I didn't vote."

"You, wha... Oh, dear, I can't be seen with you. Excuse me, I had better be going..."

Seriously, I think this too will pass. This isn't the first time Peikoff has said something kooky or disturbing. I've heard at least two other gaffes in the last few years. It's sad, really. He's accomplished some great things. Maybe he needs to find some nice, quiet place to retire -- but come to think of it, where does a thinker like Peikoff find a place on earth that is nice and quiet?

I think it would be tough to be in his shoes right now.

Myrhaf said...

I agree with you about Dr. Peikoff's unfortunate statement. Those who vote Republican or abstain from voting don't understand Objectivism? Not his finest moment.

Jennifer Snow said...

My respect for Peikoff is such that, whenever I hear he's said something like this I tend to think "maybe I didn't really understand that after all", but that's just ridiculous. (Not the fact that I might be wrong, which is, of course, possible, but the fact that I assumed I wasn't fit to think about this issue for myself.)

I learned the principle-of-the-least-objectionable, weirdly enough, from reading about how TV ratings used to work when there were only the big network stations. They had a policy of appealing to the least-common-denominator because they observed that people watched whatever was on and least objectionable. Result: TV was crap.

Now, with cable, we get better shows with complex plots that handle interesting issues. Sure, there's still some crap out there, but over the past 30 years the complexity of mass-media entertainment has been improving.

It's the same with politicians. If you go with least-objectionable you will just encourage and continue to encourage crappy, folksy, populist politicians.

I think the real solution is to encourage more quality people to get involved in the political process, not at the voting stage, but at the ideological stages (like debates, talk radio, even running for office) when you can actually do things like compare reasoning.

I don't have a plan off the top of my head for how to accomplish this, though.

softwareNerd said...

Good post.

I think that one's vote appears important (to Objectivists) because it is a physical action that demonstrates a decision, and appears to be an intellectual commitment.

However, in terms of external influence, effect and activism, one's vote is pretty meaningless.

If the important thing is to get things right in one's head, then most of us have done that already: we know what's wrong with both sides, we understand that neither side is homogenous, we know that the evangelicals can be pretty bad and dangerous to our lives, we know the same of Nader and his intellectual brethren who still belong to the Dems. We know all that; so, what more personal gain can one get by deciding which one is the worse evil?

Apart from the personal sorting out, the other issue is activism, "sending messages" and so on. From this perspective, there are many avenues that are extremely simple and yet of more impact than one's vote.

Today, letters to the editor aren't read very much, but there are other ways one can make one's point. And one would be wrong to primarily focus on making a pro-GOP point or a pro-Dem point. Rather, one should support specific actions and policies for specific reasons.

Starting next year, I plan to email my reps regularly. I will thank them or criticize them, on each important vote they make. It does not matter what party they're from. I plan to start after this election, when I will send them emails saying why I voted for them and what reservations I have: simple, but issue-based.

While this type of thing has negligible impact, I think it would be odd for me to think it matters less than a vote, where I am 1 in a few million.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer: "I don't have a plan off the top of my head for how to accomplish this, though."

Me: ARI does!

When my partner and I give them money, I feel like we're hiring our own professional intellectuals to change the culture. It helps even more when I realize that they're about fifty times better at writing editorials and giving interviews than I would be. Plus, I agree with their plan to start from the ground up by reaching the younger generation. In a sense, they *are* creating those "quality people [who will] get involved in the political process" as you say, and they're doing it the only way you can: by exposing them to a better philosophy.

So pony up and enjoy thinking about what "your" professional intellectuals are doing for you! ;-)

(P.S. I get no kickback for this solicitation.)

James Newport said...

I'm glad you posted this. I just clicked on the debate thread today and was surprised by the big deal everyone was making, since I have largely written off the voting process with what I view as the current state of politics. And I like your reason being that you thought for yourself.

Then reading your comment here, what actually sticks out most to me is "maybe I didn't really understand that after all." I was honestly ready to vote Democrat instead of not vote as planned because "Peikoff said it." Apparently I have a problem with not using my own reasoning, and I think it is because I suspect there are people better-informed than I in most areas in life. May I ask how you reconcile this?

Jennifer Snow said...

Reconcile the fact that I don't know everything with the fact that I have to use my own judgment? I just don't apologize for the fact that I don't know everything.

It is legitimate to have an opinion about something when you don't know all the facts--you simply have to remain open to changing that opinion should you encounter new information. There's nothing wrong with forming an incorrect evaluation.

Anonymous said...

James Newport wrote: "I was honestly ready to vote Democrat instead of not vote as planned because "Peikoff said it." Apparently I have a problem with not using my own reasoning, and I think it is because I suspect there are people better-informed than I in most areas in life."

I don't know you, and I can't speak for your own personal motivation, but perhaps you are being a bit hard on yourself. In my view, it is not necessarily wrong to follow someone else's lead, at least not in all cases.

If you're going to rely on someone else, though, I think you need to keep at least three things in mind: the fact that you did it, why you did it, and that you don't know any more about the issue after having done it.

After all, I follow my doctor's advice, my arborist (tree trimmer), my traffic cop, and so on. While I try to stay alert and evaluate their decisions, I don't pretend to know what they know. This is a fact of life, and it's necessary if you want to gain and keep more than one or two values.

This is also how I feel about ARI. I don't have to know or agree with everything they do. As long as they stand to advance my values and not waste them or destroy them, then I'm content using their services. Why can't philosophers be used in the same way? If you have absolutely no idea how to vote, I don't think that following Peikoff's lead is necessarily a sign of second-handedness -- again, so long as you know that you did it, why you did it, and that you don't know much more about the election as a result of having done it.

The issue is honesty, which is at the root of secondhandedness.

Jennifer Snow said...

It's not necessarily second-handed to get advice from or rely upon the experts. It IS second-handed to accept whatever they say as the gospel truth because they are an "expert". If they say something that contradicts something else that you do know on your own recognizance, this should make you doubt the expert, not make you assume that you're too stupid to deal with the issue.

I don't mean that you shouldn't keep constantly checking your own knowledge against reality, either, of course, just that you shouldn't let fear of experts paralyze your judgment.

Nancy said...

Relating to your comparison of television viewing habits and government...

Perhaps we need to take the same approach with government -- do away with the 2-party system and open government up to a variety of parties and more complex views.

Jennifer Snow said...

I know what you mean, Mom. I've heard that in such a situation the government has a hard time agreeing to do anything, but a government that primarily gets in its own way sounds way preferable to the one we have now.