The Absurdity of Colombia’s Mandatory Vote

Millions of Colombians condemn the state's failures time and time again by deciding not to vote.
Millions of Colombians condemn the state’s failures time and time again by deciding not to vote. (Cancillería Colombia)

EspañolA paradox of Colombian politics is that everyone here knows that the state doesn’t work, and yet there is a constant demand for that same dysfunctional, terribly inefficient Leviathan to solve all kinds of problems.

This applies from the most elemental activities, such as paving Bogotá’s devastated, pothole riddled streets and avenues, to much larger issues, for instance having politicians and bureaucrats whose primary aim in public life is something other than sacking the treasury so as to finance private extravagances that make Trimalchio appear as the prototype of fiscal conservatism.

Thus, when state corruption in Colombia reaches levels similar to those seen in Djibouti, Mongolia and Benin (try looking up the latter country on the map without recourse to Google), the first instinct is not to reduce the size of government in order to decrease the amount of available booty to be plundered.

Astoundingly, one usually hears calls for the creation of even more bureaucracy, for instance in the form of an anti-corruption Czar with a battalion of pen pushers at his command. And so there is a constant attempt to solve problems that emerge in large part due to nepotism, disproportionate public spending, and an excess of sinecures handed out by the state by increasing public spending, creating even more sinecures and endlessly expanding the putrid conditions under which nepotism grows unfettered.

This is all a bit like emptying a petri dish in an damp, unkempt, fungus-infected locker room.

In the best of cases, such statist measures are counterproductive. In the worst, they exacerbate the original problem. And that is precisely what one can expect from the current attempt to impose the mandatory vote in Colombia.

The considerable rate of voter abstention is due to the fact that a great percentage of Colombians trusts neither the state nor the political class. With respect to Parliament, whose approval rating is a mere 18 percent, citizens seem to agree intuitively with the wise aphorism, attributed to Twain or Gideon J. Tucker, stating that “no man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislative is in session.”

The fact that a Colombian congressman’s salary is 49 times higher than the minimum wage hardly helps to reduce citizens’ deep suspicion towards professional politicians, from whom they see very little results in return for their astronomical salaries.

In fact, people’s daily contact with state institutions consist mostly of an endless series of frustrating and wearisome encounters, for instance when facing the gargantuan bureaucracy that needlessly hinders the simple registration of a small business or even the payment of taxes.

Such an inept state is present where it shouldn’t be, above all since it places unnecessary obstacles that hinder the individual from getting ahead economically. At the same time the state is incapable of fulfilling its actual duties, for instance providing security on city streets. And it is precisely this complete failure of the state to achieve proper aims with the available means that millions of Colombians condemn time and again by deciding not to vote in national and local elections.

Citizens might resign themselves to paying taxes which clearly won’t be used in an optimal manner if they are not simply squandered in boondoggles and corruption. But they see no valid reason to vote for candidates and parties that, in democracy’s free market, seem incapable to offer anything that might result mildly attractive to the consumer.

The political class seems to utterly ignore the fact that such a decision is entirely conscious and that it constitutes an expression of freedom. As my colleague Javier Garay writes:

An individual’s decision to not vote is in itself a form of political participation … In a free society, an individual has the choice whether or not to participate in collective decisions. In a free society, the individual does not live according to the state, but based on his own particular interests, desires, and expectations.

In this case I can detect two bands that have joined forces in order to undermine liberty. On the one hand, one finds the progressive bien-pensants who, despising what they regard as the apathy, ignorance, or “lack of civic culture” of the hoi polloi, are as usual willing to use state coercion in order to force their less enlightened countrymen to act appropriately.

All of this, of course, is done with “purely pedagogical aims,” the goal being to perfect Colombia’s wanting democracy. This is the point where elitism and authoritarianism converge. As someone related to the Green Party wrote on Twitter when Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro banned alcohol sales on certain days a few months back: “As long as there are no prevention policies and culture, we must resort to repression. ‘Lesser evil!'”

The second group supporting the compulsory votes is composed of those who have the most to gain from such a strong-arming measure: the electoral barons, the hereditary fat cats, and the actual and potential caudillos who usually head the parties’ election lists. By forcefully increasing the total number of votes, such candidates will guarantee their seats in Congress in perpetuity.

This will be the case not only because, as Garay argues, the compulsory vote won’t decrease corrupt electoral practices, but also because this measure will be accompanied by the also compulsory “closed lists” in which the voter must choose a party rather than an individual candidate. Needless to say, it won’t be the young mavericks with new ideas heading those lists, but rather the old guard alongside their allies or relatives.

If such an alliance between idealists hoping to put a stop to the patronage system and the patrones themselves seems absurd, the most absurd part of the debate concerning the mandatory vote is that the initiative comes from the Liberal Party.

Now, it’s common knowledge that the Colombian Liberal Party long ago abandoned any serious claim to defend liberalism, especially if by liberalism one understands limiting the state’s coercive powers to the maximum so as to allow the individual the freedom to take decisions and act while facing a minimum of obstacles, barriers, or constraints.

It’s no coincidence that the Liberal Party is a member of the Socialist International and that it uses that platform to weaken economic liberty. But this latest attempt to reduce Colombians’ already precarious political freedom marks a new low, and it makes clear that Colombia’s true liberals are not in the party that, despite its name, betrayed all principles espoused by classical liberalism.

In Colombia, classical liberals/libertarians don’t have a party of their own yet, but they are advancing the ideas of liberty through new means, primarily through the university student organization Students for Liberty and the recently founded think tank Center for Free Enterprise.

From these clusters of liberal thought there is emerging a movement that, though in its fledgling stages, is proposing the only real alternative to the statist policies of the Colombian political establishment. In Cervantes’ words: non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro (liberty is not well sold for all the gold in the world).

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