The preamble to the US Constitution famously begins with “We the People”. And we learn growing up that our government is based on the consent of the governed. We did vote for them after all, or had the opportunity to do so (at least, most of us did).
Thus, a question naturally arises. When government commits crimes, are we responsible?
Obviously, the government actor committing the crime is at fault. So too, is anyone else in the government who ordered them to do it. But where does that line of thinking stop? If a politician ordered the scheme, are all of their supporters to blame? What about people who did not vote? What about people who voted against them but failed to prevail?
The answer might not be immediately obvious. Indeed, a friend of mine recently suggested that we Americans are all culpable for the actions and misdeeds of our government. I can’t say for sure whether he sincerely holds this view or was merely referencing it for rhetorical effect. Either way, the idea is interesting enough to warrant further examination.
Given the quite voluminous nature of the US government’s crimes, both historical and ongoing, it is depressing to imagine we are all responsible for them. (As an aside, this volume of crimes is why I find it difficult to get up in arms about the latest tax-dodging scandal. If my government is involved in oppressing people all the time, why would I want it to have more funding?)
On the other hand, there is something appealing about blaming “We the People”. If you’re concerned about political apathy as I am, this tactic offers a potential cure where self-interest has failed. What better motivation exists than the notion that you are personally responsible for the extensive suffering caused by the US government? Time to get out there and try to fix it. Now!*
But while this is tempting rhetorically, is it actually true? A closer consideration reveals it is not. There are a few reasons for this.
Your Vote Doesn’t Matter
Normally, when we think of responsibility and blame, we think in terms of cause and effect. To say someone is responsible for a given outcome, is to say that their own action, or that of their subordinate(s), caused the result. And without that action, the result would not have occurred.
For example, Person A punches Person B in the face and B gets a black eye. A is responsible for B’s black eye. If A had not thrown a punch, then B would not have a black eye.
That example is straightforward. What if we complicate it slightly? Suppose A has a grudge against B and hopes something bad happens to him. Next, B clumsily walks into a street sign and receives a black eye. A might be delighted by this event when he learns of it and we might think him mean-spirited for wishing harm on his fellow. But he is not responsible for the black eye. Even without A’s ill-wishes, B would have still come to harm.
Our alphabetical hypotheticals are actually quite analogous to the way that voting works. Most elections and ballot initiatives are not literally decided by one or two votes. Even the closest elections typically have at least hundreds of votes as the margin of victory.
If we assume for a moment that a particular election outcome could directly and predictably lead to a terrible outcome, our hypothetical voter is still off the hook. The average voter (or non-voter) can only reliably change their own voting behavior, not everyone else’s.
Imagine a vote was held between a clear pro-war candidate (say, John McCain) and a clear pro-peace candidate (say, Dennis Kucinich)–with John McCain naturally representing the disastrous option. If the election is decided by say 300 votes, the analysis is similar to our second scenario between A and B.
Even if a McCain voter switched to Kucinich, the pro-war McCain would still win, and the nation would shortly be off to war with Iran. If an individual voter switched sides, the only thing that would change would be the margin of victory from 300 down to 298 (assuming a binary election). This does not matter at all.
Given this scenario, we clearly cannot say the McCain voter or the non-voter is responsible for the resulting war. For even if they’d behaved differently, McCain would have still been elected, and the war still would have occurred.
The calculation is a little different for a person with a large audience who has a real shot at influencing numerous votes, as a popular political pundit might. In that case, we might be able to credibly give them credit or blame for a given election result if it were close enough. But again, this does not apply to the average American voter.
Government’s Free Will
Another problem with blaming “We the People” is that it ignores the independent decision-making of government personnel. It might be nice to imagine the government as a monolithic entity that automatically implements the will of the people. In fact, the will of the people, such as it is, must be implemented by human government employees that have the same follies as the rest of us. These government actors also have unique incentives–that may or may not be in line with the interests of the population at large.
This accounts for corruption. No one knowingly votes for corruption, and yet, it still exists. If government is just fulfilling the voter’s wishes, this makes no sense. If government actors are flawed humans with occasionally bad incentives, it makes perfect sense.
This offers another reason to exonerate the average citizen. Government actors frequently act in violation of voter preferences, campaign promises, and even existing laws. As a result, the random citizen, voter or not, cannot possibly be liable for such rogue behavior.
It is useful to consider the logical extension of the notion at hand. If we believe the people are responsible for the actions of their government, there are a great many random and awful things we have to explain. Amongst other things, people my age (millennials) would be responsible for:
- Police brutality
- The Libyan War
- The Yemen War
- The ongoing Drug War
- Extrajudicial assassinations
- Indefinite detention
- The devastation of Somalia
Meanwhile, our elders would have a substantial burden as well:
- Nuking Japan. Twice.
- Interning Japanese-Americans
- The Vietnam War
- The instability in Cambodia and eventual genocide
- Jim Crow Laws
Many of the policies described above were covert, so voters could not have supported them even if they wanted to. But as we have seen, voting confers little responsibility.
To drive home the absurdity, ask yourself this: Are your grandparents responsible for nuking Japan? A political science professor might be able to say yes to that. But common sense offers a resounding no.
Leaving Doesn’t Help
Finally, it may be suggested that the best solution would be to just “vote with your feet” and leave. If you don’t consent to your government’s policy, go live under a better government.
It could be superficially persuasive, but this is ultimately irrelevant to the question of responsibility. If you’re an American citizen now, so the argument would go, you are already culpable at least for the crimes carried out by the government in your lifetime (or at least since you were of voting age). Provided this is so, leaving could only prevent future responsibility. It wouldn’t exonerate you for the liability already incurred.
If you already committed theft, vowing to never commit theft again is nice. But it doesn’t resolve the prior offense. By that same reasoning, leaving can’t solve the moral conundrum at hand.
Admittedly, I’m not sure if anyone truly buys the idea that “we are the government”. But one can’t avoid encountering rhetoric that implicitly relies on this notion, and it’s important to understand why it’s wrong.
We may hope that people will be engaged in the political process to help reduce some of the harms caused by government. But the fact remains that even the most apathetic American is not responsible for the crimes of the US government.
*In fairness to my friend, I should note he doesn’t actually make pompous statements like this.