The Futility of the Ballot

Excerpted from the book;

Individual Liberty
Selections From the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker
Vanguard Press, New York, 1926
Kraus Reprint Co., Millwood, NY, 1973.


No superstition was so tirelessly and so mercilessly attacked by the editor of Liberty as that of the ballot. To those who defended it and advocated it as a means of securing liberty he was always ready with a biting answer. Here are some samples of such:

General Butler's long-expected letter [in acceptance of the nomination for the presidency given him by the labor party] is out at last. The question now is how many it will hoodwink. Among these at least will not be Liberty. Would that as much could be asserted of all who think they believe in Liberty. But the political habit is a clinging one; the fasci-nations of political warfare seldom altogether lose their charm over those who have once been under its influence; traces of faith in its efficacy still linger in the minds of those who suppose themselves emancipated; the old majority superstition yet taints the reformer's blood, and, in face of evils that threaten society's life, he appeals to its saving grace with the same curious mixture of doubt and confidence that sometimes leads a wavering and timorous Infidel, when brought face to face with the fancied terrors of death, to re-embrace the theological superstition from which his good sense has one revolted and to declare his belief on the Lord Jesus, lest, as one of them is said to have profanely put it, "there may be, after all, a God, or a Christ, or a Hell, or some damned thing or other." To such as these, then, Butler will look for some of his strength, and not be disappointed.

The platform announced in his letter is a ridiculous tissue of contradictions and absurdities. Anti-monopoly only in name, it sanctions innumerable monopolies and privileges, and avowedly favors class legislation. As far as it is not nondescript, it is the beginning of State Socialism, - that is, a long step towards the realization of the most gigantic and appalling monopoly ever conceived by the mind of man. One sentence in it, however, commands my approbation. "the laboring man votes for his Fetich, the Democratic party, and the farmer votes for his Fetich, the Republican Party, and the result is that both are handed over as captives to the corruptionists and monopolists, whichever side wins. Mark this: the laborers and the people never win!" True, every word of it! But why not go a little farther? Suppose both laborer and farmer vote for their new Fetich, Ben Butler and his party of State Socialism, what will be the result then? Will not both be handed over as captives to a band of corruptionists as much larger and greedier as the reach and resources of the government are made vaster, all in the service and pay, not of a number of distinct and relatively weak monopolies, but of one consolidated monopoly whose rapacity will know no bounds? No doubt about it whatever. Let those who will, then, bow before this idol, - no Anarchistic knee shall bend. We Anarchists have not come for that. We come to shatter Fetiches, not to kneel before them, - no more before Fetich Butler than Fetich Blaine or Fetich Cleveland or Fetich St. John. We are here to let in the light of Liberty upon political superstition, and from that policy can result no captivity to corruption, no subserviency to monopoly, only a world of free laborers controlling the products of their labor and growing richer every day.


I greatly admire Hugh O. Pentecost. He is a growing and a fair-minded man. His Twentieth Century, now published weekly in an enlarged form, is doing a useful work. He already accepts Anarchy as an ultimate, and the whole tenor of his writings is leading him on, it seems to me, to a casting-off of his devotion to the single-tax movement and to reforms still more distinctly State Socialistic, and to a direct advocacy of Anarchistic principles and methods. It is because I believe this that I feel like reasoning with him regarding a vital inconsistency in his discourse of January 13 on "Ballots or Bullets?" in which, moreover, the tendency referred to is marked.

After laying it down as a principle that force is never justifiable (and, by the way, I cannot accept so absolute a denial of force as this, though I heartily agree that force is futile in almost all circumstances), he goes on as follows: "If it is not justifiable for the establishment and maintenance of government, neither is it justifiable for the overthrow or modification of government...The intellectual and moral process of regeneration is slower than force, but it is right; and when the work is thus done, it has the merit of having been done properly and thoroughly." So far, excellent. But mark the next sentence: "the ballot is the people's agency even for correcting its own evils, and it seems to me a social crime to refrain from its use for regenerative purposes until it is absolutely demonstrated that it is a failure as an instrument for freedom."

Now, what is the ballot? It is neither more nor less than a paper representative of the bayonet, the billy, and the bullet. It is a labor-saving device for ascertaining on which side force lies and bowing to the inevitable. The voice of the majority saves bloodshed, but it is no less the arbitrament of force than is the decree of the most absolute of despots backed by the most powerful of armies. Of course it may be claimed that the struggle to attain to the majority involves an incidental use of intellectual and moral processes; but these influences would exert themselves still more powerfully in other channels if there were no such thing as the ballot, and, when used as subsidiary to the ballot, they represent only a striving for the time when physical force can be substituted for them. Reason devoted to politics fights for its own dethronement. The moment the minority becomes the majority, it ceases to reason and persuade, and begins to command and enforce and punish. If this be true, - and I think that Mr. Pentecost will have difficulty in gainsaying it, - it follows that to use the ballot for the modification of government is to use force for the modification of government; which sequence makes it at once evident that Mr. Pentecost in his conclusion pronounces it a social crime to avoid that course which in his premise he declares unjustifiable.

It behooves Mr. Pentecost to examine this charge of inconsistency carefully, for his answer to it must deeply affect his career. If he finds that it is well-founded, the sincerity of his nature will oblige him to abandon all such political measures as the taxation of land values and the government ownership of banks and railroads and devote himself to Anarchism, which offers not only the goal that he seeks, but confines itself to those purely educational methods of reaching it with which he finds himself in sympathy.


Next: Voluntary Cooperation a Remedy
Return to Individual Liberty menu
Pictures of Benjamin Tucker