Like all products of high school social studies classes (the day history became “social studies” was a watershed in American public education), I have been lectured on the evil of voting literacy tests and poll taxes. They are now against the law, thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 24th Amendment, respectively, and invoking the specter of a “voting literacy test” remains a sure way to rouse the troops. Voting literacy tests often served as an excuse to intimidate blacks at the polls, and they are certainly objectionable if discriminatorily applied. Yet I see nothing wrong with such tests in principle. If someone is going to participate, albeit in a humble way, in the great affairs of state, ought he at the very least to be able to read? And how about a math test while we’re at it? Sample question:
If one million people are taxed $1 each, and the money is given to one of them, how much wealth has been created?
A. One million dollars.
C. Are we counting transfer costs and malinvestment?
B or C, you get to pull the lever. If you answer A — well, thanks for playing.
Poll taxes I find no more noxious than any other tax. Supposedly the trouble with poll taxes is that they force a citizen to pay for exercising his fundamental rights, but the same criticism applies to property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, and most other taxes you could name, none of which were ruled unconstitutional on “equal protection” grounds.
The death of one man, Stalin said, is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic. This observation can be generalized into what I will modestly deem Haspel’s First Law: all crime ceases to be criminal when committed on a large enough scale. A liar is only a liar; a gigantic liar is the Minister of Information. If a man owes $5 million he is a bankrupt; if he owes $500 million he is a real estate developer. Giving a bum booze money in return for his vote is election fraud; giving thousands of people a permanent living at taxpayer expense in return for their votes is democracy in action.
Nine of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution deal with the mechanics and the limitations of the franchise, so there’s surely no harm in one more. Why not deny it to full-time government employees? These are paid voting armies, bribed not with liquor for a day but a sinecure for life, and not individually but by the thousands. They ought to be recused from elections, as judges recuse themselves from cases in which they are personally interested. One could extend the logic to argue, for instance, that we ought to recuse Grandpa as well, who has no business voting himself free prescription drugs out of the public largesse. The difficulty here is that in a welfare state, that fiction by which everyone maintains himself at everyone else’s expense, nearly all of us receive government benefits in some form, and the line becomes difficult to draw. If we restrict ourselves to people whose livelihood derives entirely from tax revenue, however, the matter stays simple enough.
Liberty in this country has declined as the franchise has expanded. In 1869 the 14th and 15th Amendments eliminated racial and property qualifications. Along with them came Reconstruction, a program of occupying the South with federal armies, which failed completely even from the point of view of the ex-slaves whose rights it was designed to protect, and was so resented that almost no Southern states voted Republican in a national presidential election for eighty years thereafter. You need not be from the South to regard the episode as less than a highlight in the history of personal liberty.
The immediate consequence of female suffrage was Prohibition; women had always led the temperance movement. In twenty years, with ardent female assistance — Roosevelt, like all Democrats, polled far better with women than men — the top income tax rate rose from 7% to 78%. Thanks, ladies!
In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, adding 11 million potential voters, not quite enough to elect McGovern. I attended a reasonably well-regarded liberal arts college. Out of its 1,000 students there were probably 50, assuredly not including me, who could be trusted with the franchise. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was the slogan, which had more force when there was a draft. “Young enough not to drink, young enough not to vote” is less catchy but equally logical. Youth must be served, just not liquor.
Next week: bringing back the property qualification. If I’m in a really bad mood.