Last month Noah Millman linked to Damian Linker’s overblown argument that the modern Republican Party is actively plotting to disenfranchise the poor. To Linker, a liberal, it goes without saying that this supposed plot, if successful, would have monstrous results. Millman, judicious as always, took a moment to analyze what those monstrous results would actually be.
Millman summarizes two “Randite arguments” he claims to hear on the right for excluding non-taxpayers from the franchise – both of which he goes on to dismiss as “transparently absurd”.
The first argument, as he puts it, is “that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote).”
The second is “that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).”
Having done a bit of browsing on the kind of websites where such sentiments are current, I suspect Millman has phrased these specimens of the “two most common forms” of right-wing anti-democratic thinking in a manner that makes them easier for him to undermine. Even so, I’m not sure he quite does the job.
Taking the points out of order, Millman’s criticism of Randite argument #2 is that we should “read [our] Livy”, and “take a look at the history of Latin America”, to see what chaos can result from entrenching the division between rich and poor. I’m sure Millman knows far more about both those subjects than I do, but in any case it seems obvious that there are a lot of intermediate steps between 21st century America and, say, the late Roman Republic; to argue that we may have extended voting rights a shade too far is not to say they must be rolled back to the days of the Gracchi. We might wish to go only as far as that notorious Randite John Stuart Mill, who conceded in an 1861 treatise in favour of universal suffrage that:
It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. 
On these grounds the compassionate anti-democrat might argue that, even if contracting the franchise does inevitably lead to some social instability, it will compensate by helping ensure the solvency of our institutions; the poor would be better off under a stingier but sounder government than they would be scrabbling in the ruins of a failed republic. (Obviously your receptivity to this argument depends on how much faith you have in the sustainability of the welfare state.)
As for Randite argument #1, the “transparently absurd” notion that representation should be “proportional to one’s contributions” to the state, all Millman really tries to prove is that such a change would be difficult to implement. Apart from taxpayers, any number of interest groups could argue that their non-monetary contributions gave them a moral claim to a greater say in government; Millman identifies soldiers, mothers, and the descendents of slaves as citizens who, whatever their contribution to the treasury, might justly make such a case. And on what principle would we adjudicate these competing interests?
But to say it would be difficult isn’t to say either that it’s impossible or that it shouldn’t be done. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to democratically negotiate various deviations from the ideal of one-person-one-vote. In both the United States and Canada, residents of rural and more remote districts usually have greater weight apportioned to their votes than those who live in urban or more central areas. For instance, the 170,000 residents of the riding of Brampton West, in suburban Toronto, elect as many Members of Parliament – one – as the 26,000 residents of Labrador, making the Labradorian vote roughly six and a half times as weighty as the West Bramptonian. Regardless of whether you think this is fair, few would argue that a parliament elected under such rules was illegitimate, much less that it was incapable of debating whether Labradorian and West Bramptonian votes should be made either more equal or still less so.
In short, there’s no reason a legislative body elected under existing voting rules couldn’t debate and vote on the merits of changing the rules to favour certain voters in subsequent elections. This is in fact what Nevil Shute imagined in his 1953 novel In The Wet.
The novel is set in the then-near future of the early 1980s, mainly in a post-World War III England that is exhausted, impoverished, and stifled by rationing and central planning – not unlike the post-WWII England with which Shute and his contemporary readers were familiar. The hero is an Australian pilot who lands the plum job of captaining the Queen’s personal airplane. In contrast to the mother country, Australia is vibrant, prosperous, and growing, conditions which the author attributes to its adoption some years earlier of a system of “multiple voting”. Citizens can acquire up to seven votes, in any combination, according to the following criteria:
- The first vote is given to every citizen on reaching the age of 21.
- The second vote is for university graduates and commissioned military officers.
- The third vote is earned after living and working abroad for at least two years.
- The fourth vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen without divorcing.
- The fifth vote is for earning at least £5000 in the year before the election. (This is a pretty elite-level income. A newly-built three-bedroom house, we are told, costs four or five thousand Australian pounds.)
- The sixth vote is for officials in any of the recognized Christian churches.
- The seventh vote is given only at the discretion of the monarch. (At the novel’s climax our hero, a “three-vote man”, saves the Queen’s life, earning the rare and prestigious seventh vote.)
Shute is a little fuzzy on how this cockeyed scheme managed to get implemented. Apparently it began in the state of Western Australia, which, the protagonist explains, “was always pretty Liberal” (in the Australian and European sense of pro-free-market). As to what happened next:
“Aw, look,” said David. “West Australia was walking away with everything. We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in. When we got multiple voting we got a better class of politician altogether, people who got elected by sensible voters.” He paused. “Before that when a man got elected to the Legislative Assembly, he was an engine driver or a dock labourer, maybe. He got made a Minister and top man of a Government department. Well, he couldn’t do a thing. The civil servants had him all wrapped up, because he didn’t know anything.”
“And after the multiple voting came in, was it different?”
“My word,” said the Australian. “We got some real men in charge. Did the Civil Service catch a cold! Half of them were out on their ear within a year, and then West Australia started getting all the coal and all the industry away from New South Wales and Victoria. And then these chaps who had been running West Australia started to get into Canberra. In 1973, when the multiple vote came in for the whole country, sixty per cent of the Federal Cabinet were West Australians. It got so they were running every bloody thing.”
“Because they were better people?” asked the captain.
I’m not going to try defending this as a piece of writing. Much of In The Wet concerns the boring romance of the pilot and his English girlfriend. There’s a lot of long-distance flying. I think we’re supposed to be awed by descriptions of the futuristic aircraft in which the Queen travels from Canada to Australia with just one refueling stop on Christmas Island, but in this respect Shute was too prophetic for his own good; what once seemed fantastical is now mundane. The voting scheme is by default the most interesting thing about the novel. Luckily, it’s fairly central to the plot. At the end of the book, the Queen essentially blackmails the UK into adopting the multiple vote by threatening to relocate permanently to Australia.
I am, to put it mildly, unconvinced A) that Shute’s scheme would ever pass in the first place, and B) if it somehow did, that it would have anything like such a dramatic effect on the quality of our legislators. Shute, like most political commentators, believes that if “sensible” voters were in charge, they’d elect the kind of governments he happens to favour – in his case, pragmatic, pro-monarchist, moderately right-wing ones. Just like Thomas Frank, who is convinced that the Matter With Kansas is that its citizens don’t share his left-of-centre outlook, and Bryan Caplan, who believes the properly informed Rational Voter must necessarily adopt libertarian views like his, Shute assumes that where he has convictions, his political foes have only prejudices; where he reasons dispassionately, they are swayed by cheap emotionalism; where he considers the common good, they selfishly pursue their own trivial fancies. 
I don’t hold a much higher opinion of the electorate than Frank or Caplan or Shute. But I can’t help noticing that intelligent, thoughtful, idealistic people (like, for instance, Frank and Caplan and Shute) manage to hold widely divergent opinions on every imaginable topic of contention. John Derbyshire in an article somewhere made the point that if in the 1930s or ’40s the franchise had been restricted to university professors, the United States would probably have wound up with a Communist dictatorship. His point being that highly intelligent people often support stupid ideas. Why? For the same reasons stupid people do. Because those stupid ideas become fashionable. Because they’re emotionally appealing. Because they flatter our sense of self-importance. Because it’s not obvious how stupid they are until you see them put into practice.
So if you’re going to extend or limit the franchise, it’s not enough to say you’ll favour “sensible” voters. You need to work backwards from what kind of government you want to create. Shute desires a certain set of policies; he knows that wealthy people, parents of teenage children, military officers, and clergymen tend to support those same policies; so he gives their votes extra weight. In his day, no doubt, it also seemed reasonable to gamble on the conservative instincts of university graduates and those who’d worked abroad. The resulting electorate might not usher in an age of philosopher-princes, but it would probably stick up for Queen, country, and low taxes.
On the other hand, if you want more liberal policies, it helps to spread the franchise as far and wide as you can. Here in Canada there is occasional talk about lowering the voting age to sixteen; it won’t surprise you to learn that the New Democrats, Canada’s most left-wing mainstream party, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of this change. In the States, the Democratic Party is fighting to extend citizenship to a few million illegal immigrants who, by a funny coincidence, are highly likely, once enfranchised, to vote for Democratic candidates. This isn’t to say the NDP or Dems are cynically supporting these policies solely with an eye to their vote share. Like conservatives in the US and Canada who are pushing to tighten ID requirements to vote, on the probably spurious grounds that voter fraud is a widespread problem, they fully believe their own rhetoric, and get sincerely indignant when you challenge it. They believe they’re acting disinterestedly in the name of justice. You’d think intelligent people would be quicker than others to notice when they’re deceiving themselves, but their facility for self-deception is correspondingly more nimble.
People who put their faith in modern democracy make two assertions that strike me as debatable. The first is that the existing system is fairer than a system that would limit the franchise to those deemed, by whatever inevitably imperfect method, to be the most responsible citizens. Whether or not it’s fairer, it’s certainly easier to say “To heck with it – votes for everyone!” than embark on the awkward task of telling some of us we’re less qualified to bear the burden of governing. The second dodgy assertion is that our system is more effective at producing good government. This assertion of course depends on everyone agreeing beforehand on what constitutes good government, which it’s not in our nature ever to do; that’s why we resort to democracy in the first place. We can probably agree that avoiding outbreaks of anarchy is a good, objective measure of effectiveness; by which metric, universal suffrage has so far performed pretty well. But the experiment is less than a hundred years old. There’s no guarantee that fairness and effectiveness, in the end, must go together.
PS. I might be the only person you’ll ever hear arguing against universal suffrage who doesn’t believe under a “better” system he’d enjoy a couple well-deserved extra votes. Under Nevil Shute’s rules I’m a one-vote man, and almost certainly always will be.
1. That John Stuart Mill passage is from Chapter 8 of Reflections on Representative Government, which advocates extending votes to “the very lowest ranks of the people”:
[I]t is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.
However, “the prevention of greater evils” permits – in fact, requires, “by first principles”, Mill says - the disenfranchising of tax evaders and parish relief recipients, as well as the uneducated: he advocates a “simple test” for voters in the presence of the registrar to determine literacy and numeracy. This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s scheme, half-jokingly proposed in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:
[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system – smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers – and fathers – decline to be humiliated twice.
In the same essay Heinlein recommends Mark Twain’s The Curious Republic of Gondour, which outlines a voting scheme very much like the one in In The Wet.