On Friday night I shared a few beers with Freddy, a friend of mine, and around 2AM we were sufficiently inebriated to debate politics. “So,” I said, jabbing my beer bottle in Freddy’s general direction. “Who are you voting for?”
There’s a federal election next weekend, you see, and in Australia, voting is compulsory. I know that just made a few of you choke on your Starbucks double-decafs, but it’s true. There is a reasonably sensible case to be made for compulsory voting, but I don’t like it because it means elections get decided by people who live in marginal electorates and don’t give a crap about politics. It’s difficult to persuade intelligent, well-informed people to change their political views, so political parties target the swinging “who-cares” voter bloc. This time around, for example, the government’s chief campaign claim is that if the other guy is elected, interest rates will go up, a position backed by no credible evidence and believed by no economists, including the ones employed by the government. The Opposition, on the other hand, is simultaneously arguing that the Prime Minister isn’t fit to run the country and that shortly after the election he’ll probably resign anyway, points that stand up pretty well on their own but cancel each other out when you put them together.
The reason I’m voting against the government is that it’s been busted several times telling big porkies. To my mind, the way to deal with governments who lie to the general public is give them a big kick in the political backside. If you don’t, they realize there’s no downside to lying, and they do more of it. It’s a systemic thing: voters are meant to reward or punish government behavior. It’s the only way they’ll learn.
I am not the only person to think this, and indeed “truth in government” is a big election issue. Until Friday night, I thought it was the election issue, but Freddy had an alternate view. “Max,” he said, blurring in and out of focus, “nobody cares about truth in government. All politicians lie: the government, the Opposition; all of them.”
“Well, what about Iraq,” I said. “We participated in an invasion that killed ten thousand Iraqis because the government told us they had weapons of mass destruction.”
“Nobody cares about Iraq!”
“Pfff,” I said. “Then what do they care about?”
“What affects them. How much money they’re going to end up with in their pockets. That’s why the government is going to win, because they’re talking about interest rates, and the other guys are talking about morals.”
A chill ran down my body, and it wasn’t only the beer I had just spilled: Freddy was right. It didn’t matter that the government had lied, or that its interest rates scare campaign was dubious at best: it was speaking to people’s self-interest.
Self-interest is a scarily powerful concept. Regardless of what you think about the morality of self-interested behavior, it trumps altruism time and time again. The reason why you, reading this blog right now, are living in a capitalist country is that capitalism harnesses the power of self-interest and socialism tries to repress it.
When you’re up against self-interest, it’s pointless to argue about ethics and community. You can only beat self-interest with more self-interest. “What about the fact that the government doesn’t even control interest rates, and that in fact when they do rise it’s because the economy is doing so well that it needs a brake applied?” I argued.
But even I could tell this was too complicated, and Jen came downstairs to tell us that it was three in the morning and would we please stop yelling. “Okay, then,” I said, with less volume. “What about this. The fact is, your single vote won’t make any difference to the election outcome anyway, so you might as well vote against the government so at least you can say you didn’t support lying bastards.”
Freddy considered this. “Hmm. Maybe.”
Aha! Apparently I had found an argument so stupid that it just might work. This would never fly in the US, but in Australia, where it is compulsory to exercise your right to be free, maybe it was just what the Opposition needed. Is it too late to run up a quick series of TV spots? “And next Saturday, remember: your vote won’t make any difference whatsoever. So please vote for us.”