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Voting against is still voting

Earlier this month, Amendment One—an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that precludes the state from recognizing gay marriage, among other kinds of domestic partnerships—was passed by voters. Much has already been made of the bill’s content and the need to “vote against,” but it seems to me that the issue should never have been put to the vote in the first place.

One of the problems with a statewide referendum on the issue of gay marriage, or any domestic matter, is that it implicitly assumes that the state—as opposed to the county, city, neighborhood, place of business or any other pool of people—is the appropriate unit for collective decision-making. It suggests that state residency is a common denominator fundamental enough to bind 9.7 million people to one another’s opinions, interests and backgrounds—complex, diverse, and contradictory though they may be. It contends that it is morally acceptable for 93 counties to decide an issue not only for themselves, but for the remaining seven as well. And it denies a man—or two, or several—the opportunity to lead his life as he, and not as his distant neighbors, sees fit.

In fact, this is true of any state election—from the local to the federal—regardless of the issue or its outcome. To be sure, the Amendment One decision results in a greater and more visible loss of freedom than many others, but each and every vote that has ever been cast has been predicated on establishing a uniform set of rules for a heterogeneous group of people. A simple examination of the purpose behind voting shows this to be true a priori. If, on the one hand, the population was entirely homogeneous, there would be no need to vote, since our identical beliefs, incentives and experiences would compel us all toward the exact same actions and conclusions. The vote, by virtue of its own existence, therefore implies our heterogeneity. On the other hand, it also implies our search for—or perhaps toleration of—one-size-fits-all solutions to our varied and diverse problems. (If we were content with different solutions for different people, again, there would not be a need for the vote).

As local backlash to the Amendment One decision has shown, however, one-size-fits-all solutions tend to fit the mobs that instate them better than the minorities that reject them. Put otherwise, the outcome of the recent vote is not actually a uniform solution for the heterogeneous population of North Carolina. It is a uniform solution for the largest homogeneous community within that population, by which all of the smaller, subordinate populations will henceforth be made to abide. The tension arising from this arrangement, as Friedrich Hayek noted in “The Constitution of Liberty,” is fundamental to the democratic process. “The current theory of democracy,” Hayek wrote, “suffers from the fact that it is usually developed with some ideal homogeneous community in view and then applied to the very imperfect and often arbitrary units which the existing states constitute.” Both the imperfection and arbitrariness of state-level decision-making have revealed themselves to progressive voters here, many of whom now seem to be eager to distance themselves as much as possible from the state and their fellow citizens.

Take, for example, their observation that support for Amendment One is inversely related to level of education, and that those counties that voted against the amendment are all home to major universities. It is, of course, difficult to say exactly why it is that voters have invoked these relationships, but some seem to do so as an assertion of the validity of their position. What has been overlooked, however, is the way that this reality affirms the ideas of Hayek and Hans-Hermann Hoppe on democracy as a process. It is likely in many cases that those living close to universities may choose differently—not always better and not always worse, both of which are subjective moral valuations in the first place—than those living in more rural areas. After all, the influence of the schools on the surrounding populace will undoubtedly restructure the behaviors and philosophies of citizens in ways so varied that we cannot hope to anticipate them. To put such a matter to a statewide vote then—in which every possible character trait and personal history becomes a variable—is something of an absurd version of “apples-to-oranges.” Each voter holds the population of North Carolina to his or her own personal standards and influences the decision toward his or her own personal goals, with the result that millions end up unhappy.

Hoppe discusses this same basic problem in relation to the immigration question, but his point about the supremacy of small states in collective decision-making would be fitting here as well. “Secession solves this problem,” Hoppe explains, “by letting smaller territories each have their own admission standards and determine independently with whom they will associate on their own territory and with whom they prefer to cooperate from a distance.” He goes on to point out that as units of decision-making get smaller and smaller, the variability between states increases to the extent that the varied interests of a diverse global population are increasingly better served. And, so long as citizens are able to “vote with their feet,” pressure will largely be put on communities to make themselves as appealing as possible.

Hoppe’s point is an extreme one, but it does not take a secession to return to what many of us have known since we were children, and what many of us have wished for in the past few weeks: that each of us should be allowed to decide what is best for ourselves, so long as we only allow others to do the same. Placing each personal decision—from our lifestyle choices to the fates of our wealth and estates—on state and nationwide ballots violates this basic principle, and we are ever the more frustrated for it.

Chris Bassil, Trinity ‘12, is currently a research technician in the department of pediatric oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Mass.

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