Donald Trump says the presidential election is “rigged.” Although he provides no evidence for his charge, lots of things can be said about it. For one thing, he equivocates over the word rigged to include voter fraud along with news-media/polling bias—two very different things. The former suggests that the outcome is predetermined, the latter only that influential organizations try to move voters in a particular direction. (Ignoring third parties is one flagrant way to do this, but that may redound to Trump’s benefit in some cases.)
I might also point out that Trump has helped “rig” the electionagainst himself with his inveterate estrangement from the truth and his braggadocio about and apparent penchant for sexual assault. These flaws have overshadowed what otherwise would have been damaging information about Hillary Clinton’s political career and the WikiLeaks disclosures. Compared to Trump’s antics and outrages, dry emails about Goldman Sachs speeches and the Clinton Foundation just aren’t sexy enough to grab the electorate’s attention. Cable TV’s quest for ratings may adequately account for the seeming bias; viewers are more likely to reach for the remote when they hear about transcripts of speeches to Wall Street than when they hear “locker-room banter” and insults. Considering that Trump is partly a creature of the media, without whom he might not have won the Republican nomination, the case for sheer anti-Trump bias is not so straightforward.
Trump is also buffoonish, so let’s face it: he makes better TV than the robotic Clinton does. A candidate without Trump’s abundant baggage might have had an easier time prosecuting the case against his deeply flawed, state-worshiping opponent, even in the face of media bias.
But there’s another side to the “rigged election” charge that’s bound to go unnoticed. The American political system, like all political systems, requires a good deal of peaceful cooperation to operate. This is obviously relevant to the transfer of power, which gets so much attention nowadays. This cooperation goes on in two respects: first, between the government and the subject population—government cannot rule purely through force because the ruled always substantially outnumber their rulers—and second, among the many individuals who constitute the government’s branches, agencies, and bureaus. Again, we cannot explain this process purely by the use of force. Even totalitarian states understand this, which is why they invest so much effort in propaganda ministries. Ideas, not force, rule the world.
Why does one government branch or agency or bureau or officer carry out orders from another? The answer cannot be the threat of force alone, for that would only set the question back a step: why would anyone carry out an order to use force against a defiant officer of the government? We can’t have an infinitely long line of people with each person forcing the next one up to obey orders.
What ultimately explains compliance, or cooperation, with government is not coercion but ideology: government officers carry out orders because they and a critical mass of the community in which they operate believe the orders are legitimate and ought to be carried out. That’s a matter of tacit if not explicit ideology. If those officers and enough members of that community came to have different ideas, the orders might be defied with impunity, if anyone were still giving them. On the other hand, if a private individual started giving the same kind of orders the state gave, no one would regard them as legitimate and sanctions against defiant persons would not be respected. (I briefly explore this idea in “Subjugating Ourselves”. Michael Huemer has written the book: The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey.)
When enough time is added to ideology, the result is custom—another reason that people comply with the state without the need for force. As Étienne de La Boétie wrote in The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (1576):”It is true that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force; but those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. This is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance, unaware of any other state or right, and considering as quite natural the condition into which they were born…. [I]t is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.”
The point is that government requires an unappreciated degree of cooperation, without which it would break down. Force may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. If enough people refused to regard the outcome of an election as legitimate, it would not be treated as such. Why does a chief justice swear in a president-elect? Why does a former president vacate the White House and make way for his successor? Why does a president order the enforcement of laws passed by Congress? Why are those laws enforced by the people with the guns? The answer to all these questions and more is ideology. This is not to say that no one ever refuses to obey a government order. But an isolated defiant government officer would not herald a change in society’s ideology; hence, someone else would be easily found to execute the order and the public would regard this as legitimate.
Now this of course does not mean that anarchists have achieved their goal of a society based purely on cooperation. An individual who refused to cooperate, say, by resisting taxation or regulation, would be subjected to aggressive force without real recourse because the state would be the judge in its own case. Besides that, the “consent” that the state enjoys is manufactured by its tax-financed virtual school monopoly, among other institutions, bolstered by a mystical nationalism and secured by the problem of collective action. (How many people would defy the state if they were fairly certain that many others would do so?) So although the political system can hum along without routinely using force, dissenters can “legitimately” be put back into line violently if necessary. That most people would passively watch this happen believing it was proper, only confirms that the state depends on something other than force for its day-to-day operations. If a freelance would-be tyrant were giving the orders, no sense of legitimacy would hold bystanders back from helping victims to resist.
Thus the much-touted peaceful transfer of power in the United States, which Trump is now said to jeopardize, is not the result of force or the threat thereof, but of ideology and custom.
Why bring this up now? It’s relevant to the case for anarchism. Most people who reject anarchism do so largely because they believe (like Thomas Hobbes and to a lesser extent John Locke) that without the state as an enforcer of at least last resort, internally generated cooperation would be inadequate to sustain a peaceful and efficient society. Thus an ostensibly external agency—the state—is necessary to impose the minimum degree of cooperation required for society to run smoothly.
We’ve seen, however, that government also supposes internal cooperation—there is no superstate to police relations between the government and the people, or among the many individuals who constitute the government. Government is not an external agency to society. The standard objection to anarchism is thus blunted by the fact that it applies equally to statism, including minimum statism (minarchism). Ideology and custom are immensely powerful in both contexts. If the public’s implicit or explicit ideology can sustain a state, we have no reason to believe it could not sustain a stateless society. If the real constitution of a society is its widely accepted code of conduct and resulting incentives (regardless of words on a piece of parchment, if that even exists), then a stateless society has a constitution fully as much as any other society with a state. The pertinent question, then, is not whether a society has a constitution, but whether the constitution is grounded in natural justice. (I have more to say about this matter in America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. Also see Roderick Long’s “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism.”)
Finally, I think we can say that the elections are rigged but not as Trump would have us believe. They are rigged in the sense that the outcome is predetermined for power and against liberty. It’ll take a change in ideology to change that.
This piece originally appeared at Richman’s “Free Association” blog.