The Tragedy of the Commons: Why Refusing to Vote Makes You a Selfish Cow
In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin published a widely influential paper in the journal Science that described how self-interested individuals might make rational decisions that immediately benefit themselves, but that also contribute to wide-spread problems in the long-term: the “tragedy of the commons.” In the paper, Hardin gave the example of farmers that share a pasture: it makes sense for each farmer individually to selfishly use more of his fair share of the pasture for his grazing cattle, but this only leads to over-exploitation and a grass shortage for everyone. If only one farmer did it then there would be no problem, but it makes equal sense for every farmer to abuse the resource, leading to an equal problem for everyone.
In a representative government, consciously refusing to participate in the electoral process is no different than a farmer allowing his cows to eat more than their fair share of grass in the common field. Just think of “politicians” as the grass and “voters” as the things using it unfairly.
Like the reality T.V. show development process, the election cycle continues whether you like it or not – and whether you participate or not. Maybe you don’t like the choice of candidates that you have before you; maybe you hate the way that you perceive the current political system to operate; maybe you feel disenfranchised by the way the media presents things or how campaign ads distort the truth: refusing to vote for a candidate only contributes to these problems because it will not prevent some candidate from being elected. Refusing to vote only allows what you perceive as a broken system to continue.
The rub lies in the fact that people who willingly deny being involved in the electoral process are still afforded equal protection under the laws that come out of that process. If government (or, more accurately, politicians) is the resource, then it is the grass that we cows are all sharing. By consciously refusing to vote, you are ostensibly removing yourself from responsibility for the sins of your representatives while nonetheless reaping the benefits of their decisions.
And please note: this goes beyond the simplistic observation that, “you can’t complain about them if you didn’t vote for them.” It is a simple farce that refusing to vote absolves you from being an American citizen; if you live here, then you have a great deal of government-protected freedoms and subsidies courtesy of the very process from which you claim to be disconnected.
There is one element of this sentiment that I do understand: the desire to be released from culpability for the actions of a government with which I do not agree, however much it legally represents me. This is not an unbiblical sentiment: Proverbs 29:2 points out that “when the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” And the people of America are, indeed, groaning.
The point is that we must groan publically in productive ways that can actually afford change. In a representative government, if the wicked are ruling, then we have only ourselves to blame. We voted them in, so if we want things to change then we have to vote them out. Intentionally refusing to participate will never help that to happen.
So vote. No candidate is perfect, for all are fallen men and women. But picking a candidate to vote for is not so much about finding the perfect-fitting shoe as it is finding one that’s on sale: sure, it’s a little uncomfortable at times, but it is the best option in front of you.
All you do by consciously abstaining from the electoral process is eat up the grass deliberately without contributing anything back to the conversation – it makes you a very selfish cow, indeed.