Sep 092003

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.
B. Zero.
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.

(Update: Mg comments. George Junior dissents. Aaron Armitage comments.)

  17 Responses to “Voting”

  1. A minimal civic and political awareness test ought to be a condition of the franchise, IMO. That "social studies" class didn’t persuade me. But in this monstrous corporate-welfare state we cannot expect beneficiaries to recuse themselves, or virtually no one will vote.

  2. Looking forward to hearing more!

    I assume that your property qualification would have a minimum standard of some sort? Say at least a thousand acres of prime bottom land? We can’t have any riff-raff voting.

    Or — Heavens! — do you intend to allow people who own stocks and bonds to vote as well?

  3. I left "social studies" when I left the public schools, thank God. I did later have a history teacher who said that "the secret to the success of American democracy is low voter turnout." Does that solve your problem?

  4. Alan: That’s why I propose we start with the obvious cases, people who live entirely on tax money.

    David: A thousand acres is chump change when anyone can get 40 under the Homestead Act. A million acres or bust!

    Eddie: Your teacher reminds me of a Spanish friend of mine who says that the genius of America is that its politics is for such low stakes. I agree with both of them: in my ideal election nobody shows up. But I was discussing a different problem, which is that the people who do show up tend to be heavily bribed to do so.

  5. Remember what the Poll Tax did for Margaret Thatcher. Don’t let it do the same for you Aaron

  6. I’m still pushing for the "one dollar, one vote" franchise. Here’s the plan: taxes are eliminated. Every time an election rolls around, if you want to vote, you have to pay a dollar. BUT, you can have your vote counted TWICE for 2 dollars, thrice for 3 dollars, and so on.

    I can hear people screaming, "But then the rich could win every election!"

    Oh wait, they’re screaming that already.

  7. This one will make your hair curl: I believe we should have a "pay to play" rule – You paid taxes? You get to vote. You live off the taxpayers’ government coerced largesse? You DO NOT get to vote.

    That would cut out all the pandering to entitlement junkies.

  8. I am in complete agreement with requirements of basic competency in regards to voting. It’s really too bad the adamant relativists can conjure up the spectre of racist disenfranchisement tactics to put this fine idea down, because I think it’s so absolutely necessary.

    As Eddie T. mentioned, low voter turnout has been the only way I think our country is stable and palatable. I always get suspicious whenever I see (partially government-funded) "nonpartisan" organizations like RockTheVote being promoted, either by themselves or by schools. "Education about the issues" types of exposs promoted by these organizations have always struck me as propaganda, either by the content itself or the content omitted.
    People who don’t have a strong desire to vote shouldn’t be encouraged to either. (Banning [govt.] employees from voting on their own management seems like a sensible thing to do, as well.)

    I want to start an organization encouraging people to stay home/go to work(if applicable) instead of voting. Hard to think of a witty name though. Maybe this is part of a larger problem in that it’s difficult to think up catchy names and phrases for advocation of inaction or dissuasion against action.

  9. I’ve never understood the value of democracy except as a "social stabilizer"–i.e., something which keeps people from rioting in the streets because they feel that they have a peaceful means of fixing whatever their current beef happens to be… Do I care if it is a popular vote sending me to Auschwitz or a personal order of Hitler? Would someone please tell me WHY laws made by a bigger gang are better, more fair, whatever, than those made by a smaller gang. The Bill of Rights passed when the franchise was limited to property owning males and, as Aaron points out, the first things that the chicks gave us were Prohibition and more taxes. A "just," "reasonable" or "practical" law or policy has nothing–repeat, nothing–to do with HOW it was made. What am I missing??

  10. Michael: Would you care to explain what is tyrannical about a literacy test, or about not permitting people to vote themselves a living out of other people’s money?

  11. "Either you advocate democracy or you advocate tyranny."

    I guess Madison was advocating tyranny.

  12. Sure, Aaron, if you controlled the guns, you could go ahead and deny an American citizen the right to vote because he fails a literacy test (I guess that means you don’t believe those who speak languages other than English should have the franchise) or because he fails an IQ test (oh, wait, you don’t believe in those; I guess you think literacy tests do a more accurate job of measuring an individual’s mental fitness); or because he draws a public paycheck and thus cast his one vote for a politician who advocates more public spending, and is thus somehow less of an ‘honest’ voter than someone who works for an oil company and casts his one vote for a candidate who advocates relaxing rules on CO2 emissions; or because he lives below the Mason-Dixon Line; or because he’s a she; or whatever other scheme strikes you as fair. It just wouldn’t be democracy; not anymore, not in 2003. True, time was, the Framers defined democracy as electoral participation by property-holding white males, and Jefferson owned slaves, and blah blah blah. The genius of their Constitution was, and remains, a self-correcting mechanism that allowed the modern day’s wider moral lens to better promote our essential — a better word might be inalienable — freedoms without topping the entire structure. Other generations lived with slavery and Prohibition. We live with Medicare, Social Security and the income tax. Perhaps the Americans of some future century will view these programs as 20th century abominations. Regardless, you simply can’t advocate denying the vote to certain classes of citizens without smearing the idea of democracy itself, and after reading this blog for the past year, I have to believe that most of us here are smart and moral enough know it.

    Anthony — you mean the document where Madison speaks of the new American system of government as an idea which "cannot certainly be too much admired"? Yes, he was worried about factional tyranny; but if my quick re-reading of his essay is accurate, he also rejects any possible solutions to democracy’s inherent flaws as cures worse than the disease (in precisely those terms). Madison and Hamilton saw the world through distinctly different lenses, but they saw the same world, and proposed more or less the same solution, and it has worked — or am I forgetting another political system in human history that promoted greater freedom and prosperity?


  13. Michael: "Gulchians" would constrain democracy even more than Madison did. "Congress shall make no law…" would extend to most of what government currently does. "Democratic institutions" AS SUCH would have less power–just as they are currently restrained in the areas of freedom of speech and religion, for example. So, a hog-tied democracy is something we fight for. This is the kind of "democracy" we could live with.

    On the other hand, you are absolutely right about one thing. Our proposed reforms presuppose a democratic consensus in support of them. "Gulchians" are, therefore, advocates of "gradualism" or "Fabianism" in this respect. Ideological education–or the "Culture-War"–is where the battle must be fought if we are ever to eventually prevail. We know all of this and are willing to "work with" the democracy that we have. As I pointed out initially, at least in a democracy we critics of the status quo have something to peacefully "work with."

    However, there is nothing wonderful or "sacred" about the results of a democratic process. Its injustices and disasters are every bit as unjust and disasterous as those of a dictator, and merely being the result of a popular vote confers no "legitimacy" on such injustices and foolishness.

  14. I agree with you completely, Jim. And I’ve no doubt your Madison scholarship far exceeds my own. 😉 The whole point of the Constitution, though, is that what Madison thought in the 1780s no longer matters; it is the document he helped produce that so skillfully guides that incrementalism you spoke of. Which is, of course, the key — the only way change is likely to come in America, god willing. Speaking of which: Aaron, if you’re listening, please go find Robert’s Wright’s 9/11 essay in the Times Op-Ed, so you can tell us why we shouldn’t believe in one-world government as an imperative byproduct of evolutionary moral destiny…

  15. I do not really understand all the fuss made about democracy. The US of A is a representative republic, not a democracy. If I and my friends vote to take more of your money, it is no more right than if I am a thief or dictator and take your money. Just because everyone (or 50% plus 1, or some other silly formula) voted to take your money does not make it right.

    Yup; if you do not speak English (American English that is) you do not vote in America. If you work for a government, you do not vote for any government. Those in self proclaimed victims groups do not (they do, but they should not) get special consideration.

    Special interest groups (e.g.; environmental moonbats) can and do influence democracy and how people vote and how governments legislate. But this is OK, the federal government is our protector – the federal government must protect us from evil oil companies; the federal government must tell us how to live, what to eat and how much; the federal government must look out for our best interests. We are too stupid to do these things ourselves, but we are not too stupid to vote for those who will do them for us.

    Voting is a sacred democratic right. We must not deny anyone the right to vote, even if we think they are too stupid to know how to live, even if they are voting for those who will tell them how to live (this all government regulation of industry really is).

    Why is the federal government saying anything about CO2 levels, let alone legislating about them?
    I know, I know: our betters, those saints in the federal government and bureaucracies, believe in the reality of global warming; so they legislate about it. But, the relationship between CO2 and climate change is anything but clear. CO2 increases may have even preceded industrialization (those evil oil companies); there is lots of evidence to indicate it did. In any case, increased CO2 is associated with increased vegetation including crops.

  16. Terrence: Please explain how voting is a "right" and how it is "sacred." That’s the part I’m still not getting…

  17. Democracy is toast; we either need a King or elections determined by luck of the draw. Coin flip tournaments all the way up until you have a winner, like match play golf.

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