Monthly Archives: February 2016

“If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain”

With the presidential election coming later this year, and one that I might not vote in, I thought it was an appropriate time to respond to a criticism I’ve received in the past but never answered adequately.

“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.”

Here are three reasons why I think that’s wrong:

1. An individual vote doesn’t matter.

In 2012, the United States had 129 million people turn out to vote. Even if we divide that by 50 and account for some of the differences in state sizes and voting procedures, it’s still clear that your vote is a nearly infinitisemal part of the total. The truth is that your vote only counts in the case of a tiebreak. If there is no tiebreak, even if you hadn’t voted, the results would have turned out the same.

Why is this relevant? Because it doesn’t make sense to say that unless you did something of symbolic value, with no real impact, you have no right to complain. The argument’s plausibility rests on you being able to do something about your situation, and if it loses that, it loses its basis.

2. If a person’s views are outside the box, those views can’t be furthered by voting.

Imagine a box of opinion in mainstream politics. Anything within this box is votable – there is some candidate or the other that represents the opinion and is willing to fight to make it reality. But what if your views are outside the box? If your views aren’t represented by a candidate with plausible chances of becoming president, then they simply can’t be furthered by voting for existing candidates. Once again, voting turns into an action without consequence. (In reality, presidential elections are worse than the box analogy makes it seem: you actually have only two distinct points to choose from, and any view outside, and also, in between, is not votable – I could add more nuance to this, but I’ll leave it there for now)

3. There are other ways to advance a political cause than through voting.

The biggest fallacy the argument exhibits is its overwhelming emphasis on the importance of voting, as if there exist no other means to change a society one lives in. You can start a blog, talk with your friends, talk to strangers, start an organization, donate to an organization, educate yourself, live your ideals, join a protest, etc. etc. Even complaining itself is a way you can advance your cause. And with that, I think the argument is fully demolished.


Photo Credit: The Daring Librarian via Compfight cc

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Net Neutrality and Facebook’s Free Basics: A Case Study on Being Too Stubborn

In the past two years, Facebook has brought access to basic internet services to people in developing countries through a campaign called Free Basics. While Free Basics (as the name suggests) is completely free, it only offers limited services, a characteristic that is inflaming net neutrality advocates to not just criticize Facebook, but in some cases even call for its illegalization.

Net neutrality is the position that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content equally and without prioritization. The stock example is the issue that took place between Netflix and Comcast/Verizon a few years back. Many accused Comcast and Verizon for slowing internet speeds for Netflix streaming, which (at least as claimed) was particularly outrageous since they may have been doing so in an attempt to rid themselves of competition in the television arena. Net neutrality advocates want to ban this sort of behavior so that those that use the Internet as a platform to sell products and services do so on an even playing field.

While I think there are problems with net neutrality in general, what is more disturbing is when advocates take that principle to the point of absurdity. The outlawing of Free Basics is one such example, and economist Don Boudreaux brings clarity to that with a thought-provoking analogy:

A hungry woman dying of thirst in the desert is approached by an entrepreneur who offers her unlimited quantities of bottles of water and a selection of snacks, all at a price of $0.  No strings attached.  The entrepreneur also informs the woman that, if she wishes, he’ll sell to her a seven-course meal (champagne included) for $100.  A moment later an armed regulator shows up.  Offering nothing to anyone but diktats, the regulator orders the entrepreneur to cease and desist this practice of differential pricing.  Unless the entrepreneur offers to the woman access at one, flat price to all that he sells, the entrepreneur must not offer the woman anything.

Uncertain of the woman’s willingness to pay enough for a seven-course meal (champagne included) – and unable to afford to supply such a meal free of charge – the entrepreneur leaves the scene, giving the woman nothing.  The woman soon dies as the regulator boasts of his magnanimity at having protected her access to “food-neutrality.”

The situation with Facebook is the same. Through Free Basics, Facebook is offering completely free access to the Internet. It’s true that these involve only access to limited services, but something is better than nothing. It’s fine to try and persuade Facebook to expand the services they offer (as long as one keeps in mind there is a price they have to pay for this, and at some point it becomes overly difficult), but as soon as a person goes from polite criticism to the use of force to prevent them from doing anything, he steps over the line. It’s not just disrespectful to Facebook, who is attempting to help developing nations, but disrespectful to the people of these developing nations, including many impoverished individuals who have never had access to the Internet before.

A separate criticism Peter Nowak makes is that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not properly understand philantropy:

Ultimately, the difference between charity and marketing is that the true altruist doesn’t seek anything, including recognition, in exchange for a donation.

Those who seek something in return are merely catering to their self-interest.

A self-styled philanthropist like Mark Zuckerberg should know that.

Nowak might be correct in criticizing Zuckerberg for being deceitful about his motives – the CEO claims to be doing this out of altruism, yet includes Facebook as one of the services Free Basics offers – but I don’t think that’s very important. While altruism is an amazing virtue, it is not always practical. The most beautiful quality of capitalism is that people in market economies are led to serve others despite being motivated by self-interest. The person who exchanges goods he has produced for money does so only because he values the money over the goods. Meanwhile, the person who exchanges the money for the goods does so because he holds the opposite valuation. Through the voluntary trade of the property each owns, both parties benefit. In offering selective services free of charge, Facebook is receiving something it values more than it is giving up – likely the access to millions of users and the data they provide. Likewise, the individuals who are choosing to get access to these basic services are doing so because they value the access free of monetary charge over the data they give up. Attempting to ban Free Basics is direspectful of the choices these people themselves think will bring them benefit.

Which brings me to my final point. Though I disagree with net neutrality in general, I at least can admit that the arguments for it are plausible. Proponents are scared that the internet they know will change for the worse and become segmented based on the selfish interests of ISPs. But they need to realize that there are exceptions to be made. In stubbornly holding onto the idea that there should be a neutral internet, they should not go so far as to say that otherwise there should be no Internet. Because a third option, a completely free, though limited Internet, helps and would help billions of people on the planet, a portion of which are too poor to afford anything else.


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