Friday, November 16, 2007

Franchise operation

Lawrence Auster argues that the right to vote should be limited, with the details to be worked out. He says the "basic idea" suggested to him by a friend is "compelling."
The franchise, my friend said, should be limited to married men with children who are net tax payers.

This means that the vote, and the ability to serve in political office, would be limited to men who are responsible contributors to society. Men who are not married, or who do not have children born in wedlock, or who are not net tax payers, do not have a sufficient material stake in the society as an ongoing enterprise to be counted on to play a responsible role in its direction. Therefore they should not have a direct voice--as voters and office holders--in its direction.

Women, generally speaking, are too much guided by emotion and personal considerations to have a direct voice--as voters and office holders--in the direction of society. Look at the ridiculous things political parties today must do to appeal to women. The entire three day minority dog-and-pony show at the 2000 Republican Convention was basically for the purpose of convincing "soccer moms" that the GOP is "nice" to minorities. No serious politics is possible under such conditions. Married women are naturally represented in politics by their husbands, and can exert political influence through the influence they have with their husbands, but the husband is ultimately the one who votes for both of them. Unmarried women as a whole inevitably look to the state to be their provider, and therefore they should not have a direct voice in the government. Also, unmarried women under this proposal are barred from voting for the same reason that unmarried men are, which is that they do not have a sufficient material stake in the society to be counted on to play a responsible role in its direction.

Lawrence Auster is one of my intellectual heroes, but I'm afraid I have to register one of my occasional dissents.

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But first: I agree with Lawrence (I don't think he'll mind the first-name familiarity, as we've corresponded) and his friend that the right to a voice in political decisions is not one to be given frivolously, as our society now does. It's insane that having to present identification at the polling place should be an issue; the "motor voter" law letting people register to vote by checking a box when they apply for a driver's license is equally corrosive to any serious notion of citizenship.

So I'm not claiming that the franchise is something sacred, absolute and never to be limited. I have no problem with keeping people who are ignorant, logic-challenged, and foolish — for example, 18-year-olds — from voting. In determining the course of the state, we should also do without felons, those of considerably subnormal intelligence, and the severely mentally ill.

Beyond that, though, it seems to me hard to devise eligibility criteria that aren't simply a roundabout way of selecting for people who you think are most likely to support your own politics.

Let's talk about this "responsibility" thing, on which Lawrence's case mainly rests. Sure, only responsible people should be allowed to vote. Who's going to disagree with that in principle? But when you get down to the nuts and bolts of implementing the idea the trouble starts.

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People have different notions of what classes are, on average, most responsible. If Robert Heinlein in his novel Starship Troopers was speaking for himself through his characters — and I've read that this was the case — only people in the military, or veterans, should have the vote. That seems absurd to me. People who've been in the armed forces have served their country, which is a reasonable criterion, but hardly the only one and hardly unique to them. There's nothing in particular about military life that gives a person special insight into political philosophy, and those who choose the military as a career probably score higher on certain personality traits that may or may not be conducive to good judgment in matters of state.

Property qualifications have a certain superficial appeal, although inheriting real property indicates only a talent in choosing parents. Still, many people who own land have acquired it through their own efforts, which says something for their initiative. However, acquisitiveness or commercial talent are not per se political virtues. The idea that owning land develops character by requiring foresight, sustained attention, and so on used to be a better argument than it is today. How much character does it take to phone the lawn service and the plumber?

Lawrence sees a potential litmus test in requiring voters to be (a) men, (b) married, (c) with children, (c) who are net taxpayers. I will not caricature his thought by implying that he imagines those qualifications guarantee wisdom, or even support for his political views. I accept that he just means that, on the whole, that is the kind of electorate more likely to make considered and sensible judgments.

Is it?

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I don't pretend to be completely objective. Although I meet three of his four criteria, saving only having children, I would be ineligible. So would my wife. I make no claims for myself other than being reasonably intelligent, although I do not believe I have lost any IQ points for declining to propagate. My wife, on the other hand, is extremely intelligent. The idea of withholding the vote from her and expecting her to
"exert political influence" through me as her husband is a non-starter as far as I'm concerned, and I'm sure it would be for her, since we don't always agree politically.

To repeat, I understand that Lawrence is not claiming he has the perfect formula, and he just feels that some well-considered criteria are better than none at all. I do jib at the idea that parenthood is an earnest of maturity or intelligence or other desirable qualities in a voter. Most men are parents, and as far as I can observe they are all over the lot concerning personal characteristics. The same is true of men without children. I can't buy this as a determining factor.

There is a good argument that a person should have some stake in society other than dependency to be allowed to have a share in decision making. If the term "net taxpayers" is designed to take account of people who have worked but become disabled, it's a reasonable qualification. Of course, someone might be physically disabled all his life and incapable of gainful employment, but still be a modern Aristotle. Any rule is going to create the odd inequity, though.

Lawrence Auster is one of our most valuable provocateurs, which I recognize even when I can't second him. And the question of who we want choosing our lawmakers deserves to be considered without preconceptions.

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Dr.D said...

Rick, are you aware of the blog It presents some similar ideas, although I cannot recall all the details off the top of my head.

I am certainly inclined to agree that we need some sort of reform in this regard. I think it would be good for the nation. I believe that it is the only chance we have to pull back from this ever increasing spiral of Congress buying more and more votes by granting entitlements to more and more people. The "takers" must be disenfranchised if this is to be stopped.

Rick Darby said...

Dr. d:

Yes. Basing the franchise on economic criteria is hard to accept at first, because we can all imagine particular cases where it would be unfair to the individual. But as a general filter, it would at least remove some of the temptation for, as you say, vote buying by creating ever more programs that redistribute wealth.

Would that result in those in genuine need through no fault of their own having no safety net? I would hate to think so little of the consciences of my countrymen as to imagine that they would allow that. If nothing else, a voter pool of more accomplished people would probably be smart enough to realize that a class tossed overboard would be a danger to civil order.

I think it's reasonable to require a potential voter to have been, as Lawrence says, a net taxpayer. But voting requirements such as being a married male and having kids would be using the law to promote the personal preferences of many traditionalists, and that's not on.

Dr.D said...

Strangely (I think), there are a number of folks that want to restore the franchise to felons; I just cannot comprehend that. I think we need to be restricting the right to vote, and we need to assure that there are some permanent penalties for falling afoul of the law.

Anonymous said...

Yes, franchise limitation does make sense but, in my opinion, no les important is setting a limit as to who may be voted into office. So, for example, we may forbid persons under a certain age and/or those who have never been gainfully employed (with exceptions made for the disabled)from becoming candidates. This should take care of the problem we currently have (in each western country, I believe) of a political elite constituting of people whose life experience being limited to uni and... being a politician.

Terry Morris said...

Rick, you raise some good points that need to be addressed.

Dr. D., a few years ago I heard and read of a pol in Texas who wanted to grant the elective franchise to his 14 year old son, and all 14 year olds. And he even went so far as to write a draft bill to this effect. As I recall his basic argument was something to the effect of "my son is more politically astute than most people of the current arbitrary voting age." If his dad is any indication then I think he may be right. ;)

Anonymous, my opinion is that if we're going to make exceptions for disabled persons, we need to really be sure they are completely disabled from landing gainful employment. A person who is physically disabled, for example, is not necessarily totally without means for self-support and self-sufficiency, though in certain cases they may be.


zazie said...

I suppose youknow these lines, from "New England two centuries ago" written in 1865 by James Russell Lowell :
"....Faith in God, faith in man, faith in work - this is the short formula in which we may sum up the teaching of the founders of New England.......Looked at on the outside, New England history is dry and unpicturesque.....Extrinsically, it is prosaic and plebeian ; intrinsically, it is poetic and noble ; for it is, perhaps, the most perfect incarnation of an idea the world has ever seen. That idea was not to found a democracy. They had no faith in a systemwhich gives Teague, because he can dig, as much influence as Ralph because he can think......Theu would have been likely to answer the claim "I am as good as anybody" by a quiet "Yes, for some things, but not for others".
As you can see, your question is not a new one ; yet, late in the 19th century, it seems that only the intellectual capacities were given importance.

Rick Darby said...


There are other characteristics that are desirable in a voter besides intellectual capacity — after all, a person can be very smart and also paranoid, or vindictive, or self-centered, and so on. But no system can directly test for character.

Therefore, the qualifications for voting have to be based on some objective criteria that might be considered a proxy for character to some extent.

For example, having paid income taxes steadily for a certain number of years doesn't guarantee that a voter is wise or fair-minded, but it suggests that he is not someone who is likely to vote for any candidate who promises him free beer.

I think there are a number of reasonable qualifications for voting that increase the odds that a voter will not act purely out of self-interest. Unlike Lawrence Auster, though, I don't think one's sex or parental status are good proxies for character.

His idea is a good example of the kind of problems that can arise when you set voter standards: the temptation is always there to come up with standards that favor the kind of people you approve of. That's quite a different principle from, let's say, standards designed to ensure a certain degree of intelligence and knowledge of the political system.