Posted by: erichosemann | August 14, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

One of the most frequent comebacks I’ve gotten when I assert my opinions in favor of freedom—right along with “How do you know what you’re saying is true?”—is “Who do you think you are to hold such opinions, much less utter them?”

For years this comeback left me flummoxed. I thought I was arguing in good faith and I presumed those I was speaking to were as well. Perhaps speaking isn’t the most precise word to use; there may have been some shouting, I freely admit. In any case, I didn’t understand that such questions are really last ditch efforts—nuclear options, if you will—to end the argument once and for all. If you can’t get around your opponent’s appeals to fact and principle, categorically denounce them and question your opponent’s very right to think or speak contrary to you.

In the realm of private debate, this is inconsequential. We can all hold or not hold opinions. We can all abstain from voicing them or we can shout them from the hill tops. In all cases we alone bear the costs or benefits of voicing our opinions. Family members and friends will rally around us or fall out of touch once they hear that we’re raging progressives or libertarians or passive milquetoasts.

Most if not all votes are cast based on opinion, yet the approach most people have toward how their family and friends vote is relatively laissez faire. Sure—they’re morons for publicly opposing or promoting school choice or lower taxes, but it’s their right to vote their opinion and our obligation to leave them alone about it. Of course, the lead up to voting day is filled with denunciations and character assassination of politicians and their supporters, but once the screen is pulled across the ballot booth, that’s that.

But voting, unlike holding forth at your office Christmas party or family dinner table, isn’t just a matter of stating one’s preferences. It’s a means of allocating resources, and when resources are allocated for one thing, they can’t be used for another. That foregone use is the real cost of a resource, and it is reflected the resource’s money price. Resource allocation has costs, whether done politically with votes or economically with dollars. Furthermore, legislation often has negative, unforeseen costs associated with it. So there are costs associated with voting. Do voters bear them? Or rather, does each voter bear the same costs and enjoy the same benefits associated with every piece of legislation? Hardly.

Theorists of many political persuasions agree that the hands-off approach to expressing one’s preferences through voting is a net benefit of the democratic system. They could be right. A considerable amount of the democratic system’s appeal comes from its ability to guide resources from many citizens to one group of voters via opinions expressed at the ballot box. That is, it’s ability to concentrate benefits and disburse costs.

What this means is that those voters well acquainted with the political system get their opinions turned into policy at someone else’s expense. The costs of implementing a policy as well as the costs incurred if the policy fails are not born directly by its supporters but by taxpayers as a whole. What’s more, proponents of a piece of legislation or supporters of a politician have no guarantees the legislation or politician will turn out as advertised, yet they are free to enter the ballot box and determine how someone else’s resources will be used.

Who do they think they are?

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