Recently, I got into a short discussion on Facebook whether voting implies a Lockean “consent of the governed.” My (friendly) opposition claimed voting is consent because voting is an affirmation of your United States citizenship. They claimed it is a voluntary action; nobody is putting a gun to your head to make you choose whether to vote or not. Hence by virtue of voting, you are signing a contract agreeing to abide by the Constitution and laws passed by the government, regardless of the outcome of the election. I didn’t think it was appropriate to (nor would I have been capable of) respond in a Facebook post, so here is my response.
My initial reaction was an intuitive feeling that voting, or participating in the system in some other way, cannot be considered consent. In the same way we may assert someone who is coercively imprisoned cannot be said to be consenting to their imprisonment if they accept food from their imprisoner, we cannot say that participation assumes consent. Likewise, someone using government roads or some other service cannot be said to be consenting to the government; in the case of roads, individuals are left with very little choice but to participate and use the government roads since it has monopolized the production and maintenance of roadways, through its coercive system of taxation, by which they can provide this benefit for free. This effectively monopolizes the system because no business can compete with free goods and services. In both situations, individuals are left with no real choice but to participate in the system, since the State has all but made it impossible to withdraw from it.
To understand the underlying issue of whether voting may imply consent, we must first reference the 14th Amendment, which states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States.” For some, this is a blessing; so many individuals have crossed over the border between Mexico and the United States illegally in the past few decades with the intention of having a child on U.S. soil so their child can become a U.S. citizen and be entitled to all the perceived blessings that come with it. For those radical libertarian, anti-government, and anarchist individuals born in the U.S. who consider U.S. citizenship more of a burden than a benefit, this presents a problem. Whether they like it or not, from the moment they are born on U.S. soil they are subject to the coercive power of the US government even though they never originally consented to it. The 14th Amendment, de jure, at the moment one is born, implements an initial condition of coercion upon any individual born within United States borders. Even should they totally abstain from participation in any government services throughout their life, they will be subject to U.S. laws by virtue of the barrel of a gun pointed at them by a federal agent should they not obey government dictates like taxation. The government’s claim on you may be illegitimate, but that won’t save your from being unjustly victimized at the hands of a despot. Certainly, an individual who abstained from government obligations would be morally justified in doing so and the government would be acting as a coercive criminal if they did not recognize it as such. The government threats of jail or death for such a refusal can readily be classified as circumstances in which any contract created between government and (unwilling) subject was created under duress, and is void. The initial and ongoing compulsion executed by the American government is the compelling evidence leading to a rejection of the sentiment voting implies consent to the government.
With the 14th Amendment, the government has presented the choice of either refusing to participate in the system and be punished, or participate in a system in which one has a minute chance of rectifying one’s abject condition (prior to this they would have claimed dominion over the individual anyway, albeit with a fuzzier justification, mostly through property taxes). And with the 16th Amendment granting the government the unwarranted ability to tax one’s income, the ruthless circle of plunder was completed. This is the true nature of the so-called “voluntary” decision of whether to vote or not. As Lysander Spooner said in No Treason, voting, in these circumstances, is a defensive measure adopted in the hope of rectifying the wrongs perpetrated by an illicit government. As an analogy, imagine you were kidnapped and held in prison against your will. Let’s say your captors decide to give you the choice of playing a game of dice with them; if you roll five 6’s in a row, they will release you. They say you can either participate in this game of dice or you can persist in this state of involuntary bondage. However, they stipulate that your participation in the dice game constitutes consent to further imprisonment should you not roll the five magic 6’s that grant you your freedom. Would anyone say this is a valid contract? Would anyone assert since you were given the choice of whether or not to participate in this dice game it was a voluntary action expressing consent? I think we may see, after some reflection, the absurdity of claiming that voting, or any other participation in the government, may constitute consent to the government. We could make a similar analogy with a slave being born into slavery and coerced to operate within the system. Pretending they had a choice by giving them the chance to choose a white slave master, in the hope of their being treated less harshly by a more benign master, no more validates their slavery because they voted on it than does the above situation legitimize their imprisonment because they agreed to play the dice game. The voting paper could explicitly state “voting is a contract and participating is a declaration of consent” but this contract isn’t valid because they are actively threatening the individual with compulsion.
I would recommend reviewing what Lysander Spooner wrote on why “Voting Does Not Imply Consent”. This is a succinct portion of his longer treatise, No Treason, addressing the issue directly. Here he touches on a slightly different analysis of voting, but still reaches the same conclusion that voting does not imply consent. “To take a man’s property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution.” If it were the case that anyone born within the United States was not automatically a U.S. citizen and therefore not automatically subject to the jurisdiction of the federal government, and that the government did not attempt to expropriate the property of individuals with or without any actual consent, only then could we say that an individual, by voting, may be expressing consent. Only then would their choice truly be voluntary because they could live free of the laws and jurisdiction of the State by refusing consent and because they were not actively being expropriated by the government.
The idealist thing to do may be to refuse to vote or in any way participate in the government, knowing that you are vindicated when the government tyrannizes you and exercises its illegitimate dominion over you. For all intents and purposes, though, it is a rather foolish endeavor, especially in light of the above proof voting is not consent (at least not in the current and historical state of affairs in the United States).