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Don’t Do Politics? Think Again.

The circus that has been the early stages of the 2016 presidential election is enough to make anyone, regardless of ideology, want to flee politics. For political skeptics, the spectacle confirms many claims we’ve long made about the ugliness of the political process and our desire to have no part of it.

Some of us even maintain that we refuse to participate in politics on principle.

We need to be careful about saying things like that because most who claim they want nothing to do with politics are, in fact, engaged in it all the time. What we really mean to say, most of the time, is that we do not wish to engage in electoral politics.

Politics is omnipresent wherever humans negotiate over power and governance. 

That’s fair enough, but elections and voting and what elected officials do are not the sum total of politics. Just as money and markets are not all there is to economic activity, so elections and voting are not all there is to politics.

Unfortunately, both we and our critics often treat voting and electoral politics as the only kind of political activity that matters. In my 26-plus years at St. Lawrence University, the one aspect of my political views that has bothered my colleagues of all stripes the most is that I don’t vote. Aside from making the usual arguments about the power of voting, some have suggested that not voting means that I’m not engaged in my community in ways that are important.

These concerns, as well as the libertarian claim to reject politics, are mistaken. Once we expand our conception of politics to go beyond elections, we can see all the different ways that almost all human beings — and certainly most self-described libertarians — are politically engaged.

Political economist Vincent Ostrom, in his 1997 book T…

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