It is often said that when choosing from among bad options, one should choose the lesser of the evils. With the Election 2016 upon us, this bromide is applied to the problem of choosing a candidate.
Why is this "lesser of two evils" theory incorrect, beyond the fact that you’re still choosing an evil?
It is actually quite easy to demolish the "lesser of two evils" theory. Before doing so, here’s a partial list of some alternatives.
- The "positive checklist" theory - Here a voter has a roster of minimal standards he or she wants in a candidate. The number of these standards that the candidate meets determines that candidate’s strength.
- The "opportunity" theory - Opportunities are taken or created, never given. When it comes to elections, this idea becomes: which candidate allows for people (and not just politicians) to act on their ideals?
- The "continuation" theory – Will a candidate continue the laws/regulations/programs that his/her predecessor implemented?
- The "iconoclast" theory – Will a candidate discontinue the laws/regulations/programs that his/her predecessor implemented?
There are problems with each of these theories.
With "positive checklist" theory, what happens when a candidate meets most but not all of the items on your checklist? For example, suppose you are pro-2A and pro-choice, and your candidate only supports one of them?
With the "continuation" theory, will the candidate really continue or complete his/her predecessor’s policies? Can Bush 41's "kinder and gentler conservatism" be really be considered a continuation of Reagan's philosophy?
With the "iconoclast" theory, will the candidate really and truly discontinue his/her predecessor’s policies?
The common problem with all these theories (including the "lesser of two evils" and the "opportunity" theories) is the fact that none of these theories are "value neutral" - each relies upon the concepts of good and evil, without defining what those words mean. When theories leave terms like good and evil undefined, that leaves users of these theories free to fill-in their own definitions. As such, each of these theories can be applied by voters regardless of their political leanings, to candidates regardless of their political leanings.
Even the "opportunity" theory isn't immune from this. For the Alt-Right, the “opportunity” theory would require a voter to choose the candidate that will most easily allow us to take back our freedom, or to create it anew. For the Left, it requires them to pick the candidate who will further extend government control.
The "lesser of two evils" theory has problems that are unique to it, however. To make these problems clear, consider this (wildly) hypothetical situation: suppose our two evil candidates are that asshole Jimmy Carter and that dictator Idi Amin.
The asshole Jimmy Carter was a pretty bad president, but he wasn't responsible for implementing a regime of terror that resulted in the slaughter of 300,000 people. In this case, most people would say that the asshole peanut farmer was the lesser of two evils, and he would win in an election.
Here's why "choosing the lesser of two evils" is wrong in that situation:
The lesser of two evils has been given lots of "wiggle room". By being elected, asshole Carter is free to be as evil as he wants to be, as long as he isn’t as evil as Idi Amin.
Further, by being "soft evil" it takes the opposition longer to establish itself against asshole Carter. Reaction against Idi Amin (at least amongst Americans) would be quick and lethal.
Also, the laws/regulations/programs that asshole Carter implements results in a lessening of standards amongst the people, as they are "free enough".
Finally, extending the previous point forward in time, asshole Carter serves as a "gateway drug" for politicians who will follow in his legacy. Thus, Bill Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama were allowed to wreak havoc.
Does the "lesser of two evils" still sound reasonable?