In a wide ranging political debate recently, I was confronted with the following statement:

“I do feel responsibility when our government does something I disagree with (whether I elected them or not). We live in an open democracy and the people are responsible for the actions of the government they elect.”

It is a statement that the writer feels responsible for the actions of “our” government even when he voted against it. As evidence, he offers that we live in an open democracy and bear responsibility. Before discussing why people might say and think this, I will examine and disprove this statement. For the purposes of rigour, instead of refuting this more absurd formulation, I will refute a slightly stronger form – that people are responsible for the government they get when they voted for the ruling party (if this is false then it follows that the weaker form is false also).

No Control

Obviously, the “people” in the statement refers to ordinary voters, not political functionaries or officials. Responsibility is impossible without  a causal link from the actor (the individual voter) to the action they are allegedly responsible for, namely government actions. Clearly the voter does not directly cause the government to do anything – the question is whether their actions as a voter exercise control over the subsequent government. In order to be responsible, an individual voter would therefore need to have some control over what happens in the subsequent government.

Individual Control

The state as currently formulated will enact coercively enforced laws, with or without the active consent of the governed. So an individual cannot opt out of the government’s edicts and thereby exercise meaningful control. The only remaining possibility for control lies in voting, which I will demonstrate offers the voter no control of any sort.

The best election possible

Let us consider an extreme scenario where there is an election with an infinite number of political parties, covering every possible combination of policies, all of which are published beforehand. There is only one eligible voter. That voter votes for the party with the exact combination of policies they wanted. Can the voter control the actions of the subsequent government? No – the government is not actually bound by any contract to do what they told the voter they would. So the voter has no control over the subsequent actions of the government – they can only make a judgement call on a combination of the policy package and trustworthiness of the parties they could vote for. Given the constraints of the political system, it is impossible to know with any degree of certainty whether a politician is trustworthy (there are in fact strong incentives for the politicians to engage in deception). If person A defrauds person B, do we say that person B had control of the situation because they chose to deal with person A? Of course not.

Marginalisation

So even with a single voter and an infinite choice of parties the voter is not in control. But of course there are generally tens of thousands to millions of voters. What this means is that an individual voter, even one who votes for the winning party, did not “control” the outcome. Even if they had voted differently the outcome would have been the same. A single vote makes no difference on the margin.

Limited, bundled choices

Further there are of course only a limited number of parties that have the resources to coherently present their agenda (and claim they are trustworthy) at each election. Once again, if you are forced to choose between a limited selection of decision makers, you cannot be completely in control of the decisions they make. Your preferred combination of choices may not have been (in fact almost certainly was not) available.

Hopefully this is enough to completely refute the position that an individual voter has any control of, and therefore responsibility for, the government, even in a democracy, even in one where you voted for the ruling party.

The government we deserve?

But this idea is not isolated to this single comment. The exact same idea is embedded in the phrase “we get the government we deserve” – the implicit argument being that we deserve it because we are allegedly responsible.

Across the spectrum

This is a popular sentiment, common across the traditional political spectrum. A quick google search revealed that the phrase “we get the government we deserve” (or some close variation) is uttered on right-wing blogs, centrist op-ed pieces, and in articles by leftist professors. Almost all made reference to democracy, and none gave a caveat that if you voted against the ruling party, you didn’t deserve it. I read through the online comments where available to see if any of their audiences had challenged the false premise – nothing.

Dubious Origins

The statement was not in fact originally coined by a democrat (although significantly it is often falsely attributed to one – Alexis de Tocqueville). It was Joseph de Maistre, a somewhat Hobbesian defender of absolute monarchy and rigid, structural authority who first wrote the words “Every nation gets the government it deserves” in 1811. Significantly, Maistre believed that the legitimacy of government must be based on compelling but non-rational grounds, which its subjects must not be allowed to question. Maistre was someone who was very interested in finding compelling but non-reasonable bases for complying with the state.

Why is such an obviously false idea, coined by an absolute monarchist to deliberately obfuscate the search for truth in politics, repeated and believed so widely?

Theist Double-think

It is an attempt by those who believe in state theism to shield the state from a particular criticism: that a democratic state is guaranteed to use coercion towards unjust means.

State Theism

I call state theism a complex of ideas where the state has a religious quality to it – it is looked to as the institution that will ultimately save humanity – drive our progress, solve our crises, protect us and lead us to the promised land of a better tomorrow.

The Baddies

In a democratic society, the thought of the dreaded “other side” being in control of government, implementing “bad” policies, sits very uncomfortably with those who believe in state theism. They generally believe the other side is, very, very, very bad, because state theism isn’t so much about the policy realities of major parties (which are generally 95% similar) but instead it is about the promise that the parties offer. Followers of any political party must acknowledge that the “good” party they support won’t always be in office. For state theists this is something of a dilemma because it presents the certainty of the state enacting bad policies that cause damage through coercive and violent means.

The show must go on

But on the other hand state theists must maintain belief in the system, so that the promise can be fulfilled in the future. How then can they justify the evil wrought by the dreaded Other Major Party in the meantime?

Delusion

Their answer is to pretend (convince themselves?) that we get the government we deserve. That way the victims are really the perpetrators so there is no injustice. If you are actually in control of the state, then it can’t be victimising you – you are presumably victimising yourself. If you have bad policies enacted on you, it’s your fault. Salvation awaits the time when the people deserve a good enough government and vote one in.

Conclusion

Where one lie (the state will be our salvation) leads to an uncomfortable conclusion (injustice will be a more or less permanent feature of the political landscape) another lie must be invented to paper over it. Thus the responsibility doctrine.