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September 07, 2010

Virtue and the Limited Franchise

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes" When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

- Abraham Lincoln, letter to Joshua Speed

I started this post over a week ago but got sidetracked. My series of posts examining the notion of limiting the franchise provoked far more responses than I anticipated. Unfortunately I've been too busy to give these responses the time and thought they deserve.

I was pleased to see that while I was in Seattle, Grim continued the discussion. Being female (and therefore assured of my ineffable rightness), I was even more gratified at his conclusion:

.... this exploration -- as interesting and profitable as it's been to look back at the source of the franchise, to note that the arguments for expanding it were based on virtue, and otherwise to examine how we got to where we are -- hasn't really brought forth useful results. Elise said that her chief objection was that she couldn't think of a way to limit the franchise that would ensure that all and only the right people got to vote. So far, I haven't been able to think of one either.

All I came up with as good examples of qualities that would demonstrate virtue were honorable military service, and faithful parenthood. That's inadequate: I can think of lots of people I know who don't fall in either category, but who are certainly not folks who should be disqualified from voting. And I can't think of any quality or union of qualities that would be a good proxy for virtue: neither education, nor income level (Hamilton notwithstanding, I don't think either wealth or payment of taxes is a good model), nor much of anything else that comes to mind is really useful in this regard.

I doubt that limiting the franchise is the answer. The lesson of the Norman expansion of the franchise is that it's worked better than the systems that did not expand it. I don't think there are good moral reasons to believe that the franchise should be universal and unearned, but I also can't think of a good model for earning it that allows all and only (or mostly) the right people to have access.

If I had to explain to someone who has never blogged why it is that I've been doing this all these years, I'd point to discussions like this. Over the years, the conversations I've enjoyed most have been with writers and commenters who thought I was wrong about something.

Sometimes I learn from people who agree with me. Usually this happens when their reasons for doing so are ones I'd never considered. There have even been times when a comment meant to agree with me made me doubt some aspect of my argument. But the conversations I really relish are the ones that force me to re-examine my assumptions about the world.

Speaking of assumptions, I've been very remiss in not getting a clarification out there where everyone will see it.

Back in August I linked to a very short (3 sentences!) post by Kevin D. Williamson. We had quite a discussion as to what he meant to say, but later in the comments of a subsequent post, Mr. Williamson was kind enought to clarify his point for us:

My argument has little or nothing to do with the specific value of extending the franchise to women or declining to do so. (I have not much thought about that question.) I am still less concerned about proposals that would result in the election of more Republicans to public office (because I am not sure that would produce the results that I desire).

My argument is that voting is in general a crude way to address complex problems and that we grossly overestimate the value of voting. Treacly tributes to the 19th Amendment require an antidote, and I offered one.

Given a choice, I would undo the extension of the franchise to people under 21 (in fact, I'd raise the voting age to 25) and rescind direct election of senators. I do not have any strong feelings about women's voting per se.

I don't feel too bad about misunderstanding his point because the post was quite brief, but also because being misunderstood is an occupational hazard on the Internet. But I also think it's important to correct the record since we now have more (and better) information.

And please accept my apologies for not getting this up here sooner!

Posted by Cassandra at September 7, 2010 05:05 PM

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And this is why I say I don't hear any talk of removing the female vote.

For two reasons.

1. People don't have such beliefs.

2. Those that do, talk to women. They do not talk to me or in my presence. For good reason.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 7, 2010 05:29 PM

Williamson advocating moving the voting age to 25 seems strange to me. It is moving an arbitrary age from one point to another, which doesn't really address anything other then by chance. If the voting age were to be moved back I would say make the franchise dependent on not being claimed as a dependent. If you aren't looking out for yourself, why should your opinion matter?

Posted by: epv at September 7, 2010 05:36 PM

"which doesn't really address anything other then by chance."

how is aging chance. does somebody roll a 7 to stay 20.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 7, 2010 06:36 PM

The assumption is that aging gives you experience, which makes you (and here's the error) wisdom. We don't really know how to measure the latter (those are the people we want voting) so we use age as a proxy. It's not a very good one. I know some wise teenagers, and some foolish people even older than I am (and they have always -been- foolish, it's not that they are slipping into dementia or Alzheimer's.) I thought 25 was a great idea when I was 21 and felt incompetent to vote; now I'm not so sure it shouldn't be 35, or biological grandparent, or ... any of a number of things, probably a combination of several things. At least five of:

over 35,

honorably discharged veteran,

honorably serving military service person,

grandparent (that is, your children, whether biological or adopted, have children, whether biological or adopted),

own (without mortgage) at least 40 acres of land,

paid real estate taxes for at least ten consecutive years,

paid school taxes for at least ten consecutive years,

paid taxes for at least ten consecutive years,

have kept at least ten people employed for at least ten years (or some other man-century) at some legal, profitable, not tax-supported business,

not have been convicted by a jury of a crime of intentionally attacking another person and been sentenced to more than a year in prison for that conviction in the preceding twenty years,


there are lots of them available. Age is a poor proxy, used because it's been historically used. With computers to aid our memory and destroy our privacy, perhaps a better proxy for wisdom can be found and used.

Posted by: htom at September 7, 2010 07:53 PM

The interesting thing to me is that I know many people who are responsible, good parents, have built businesses and amassed wealth... and they voted for Barack Obama :p

They also truly believe that an "enlightened" society doesn't allow income inequality and that government ought to force people to share their wealth since most of us won't do that voluntarily.

They really see this as a fairness issue. The only arguments I've ever made to any of them that gain any traction are:

1. Moral hazard: if you eliminate risk, people behave less responsibly (and often cause problems for themselves that they wouldn't if they had to face the consequences of their choices). I've used the argument of a child who is coddled and overprotected and also reminded them that they faced hardships in their formative years and became better people as a result of them. These arguments resonate with them, but are not enough to overcome their discomfort at having more than others.

In a way, it's similar to the 'limiting the franchise'. They have some moral sense that income inequality isn't fair and even if they can't think of a way to eliminate it without creating *worse* problems (and I've actually had some of them admit this to me) they keep saying, "But there must be *some* way"!

2. I've had some success pointing out the unfairness of taking from those who work hard and giving to those who don't work at all (and they admit there are people like this). But again, the power of the anecdotal case (but what about so-and-so who just had bad luck?) overrides the argument.

The problem, in my view, is that there's no universal experience that guarantees that we'll develop the same notion of what virtue is. Or fairness.

I find the "supporting yourself" limitation emotionally attractive but it would have deprived me of the vote for most of the 20 years I spent as a full time wife and mother. There is no doubt I worked hard, but I had no income. There is no doubt I was not a freeloader. One of my neighbors (a Marine warrant officer) came up to me when my children were small and said, "You know, I have known a lot of folks in my life but I have never seen anyone - male or female - work as hard as you do."

And yet I was utterly dependent on my husband's income :)

Posted by: Cassandra at September 7, 2010 08:14 PM

If we go by "5 of these things" on htom's list, I couldn't vote. And I'm pretty sure I'm no freeloader who doesn't deserve to....

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 7, 2010 11:00 PM

I am old enough to remember when the voting age was 21. I remember that it was dropped to 18 on the basis that if you were old enough to die for your country you should be old enough to vote.

The privilege of drinking was dropped to 18 basically on the same argument. Then, after a while, the insurance companies found that there was in fact no correlation between the two. Just because you were old enough to die for your country didn't mean that you had sound enough judgement to consume alcoholic beverages responsibly.

So I've got what I think is a very logical argument why the voting age should go back to 21. If you're not old enough to be responsible enough to consume alcohol responsibly - as proven by the traffic statistics - then you're not old enough to vote responsibly.

Posted by: RonF at September 7, 2010 11:17 PM

For what it's worth, I don't qualify by htom's terms either. It's a much more demanding system than I had considered.

I had envisioned a much easier system, where "any one" qualifying factor would be enough, provided that you hadn't disqualified yourself through something like felonious behavior. Even that, though, proved to be too hard to design: proxies for virtues are hard to come by, and there's no obvious test for virtue. It's not hard to say what the relevant virtues are, but it is very hard to establish objective standards for proving that you have them.

Posted by: Grim at September 7, 2010 11:20 PM

However, let me say that it was a pleasure to learn that the exploration was gratifying to you, Cassandra. I found it fruitful and interesting, even if it produced nothing by prescription; but even that is useful. If it only suggests that our current path is 'least worst,' that's not nothing.

Posted by: Grim at September 7, 2010 11:38 PM

I only hit three of them. I've over 35, I've been paying payroll taxes since I was about 17 and I'm not a felon. I owned a home (with a 30 year mortgage) for about 5 years, so I have 5 years of real estate taxes (and school taxes, I'm pretty sure, most places, those are based on owning real property), but I'm not even a parent, so I can't be a grandparent; I've never served in the military; I've never been an business owner, so I've never been an employer. Oh, and 40 acres is a lot of land and who can afford to buy it and get a mortgage paid off any time soon?

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 8, 2010 12:12 AM

The franchise is already limited in different ways, age, crimanal status, length of residence, etc. What seems to be being considered are just different ways of limiting the franchise from what we currently use.

I agree with Grim that I cannot think of a way of limiting the franchise that will ensure that only the responsible will vote, but what about using multiple factors? Take the list posted by htom. Not many can meet all of the requirements that he listed, I know that I couldn't meet them all, but what if the requirement was that you meet at least one or possibly two out of the list? Of course, the list could be expanded to include any criteria that could indicate responsibility. For example someone that has paid taxes for 10 consecutive years and owns at least 40 acres of land could vote, even if they don't meet any of the other requirements. Admittedly, this could possibly lead to an 11 year old voting, but there wouldn't be very many of that age group that would qualify, and I have known some 11 year olds that I would trust to cast a responsible vote, before some of the adults that I know.

I'm not necessarily advocating for this, but the limits on franchise that we use are somewhat arbitrary, and can differ from state to state. Another set of rules and limits might not be as bad and could possibly be better. At the very least different rules aimed at identifying responsible voters would not be as arbitrary as our current system.

Posted by: Charodey at September 8, 2010 12:15 AM

I have no idea how this could be implemented in a way that could not be corrupted, but shouldn't any potential voter be able to demonstrate a minimal understanding of American history, the constitution and how government actually works? I'm sure we've all seen quotes from and/or videos of adults who have no clue about any of those things and are motivated solely by which candidate or party promises to give them something for nothing.

Posted by: Suds46 at September 8, 2010 12:31 AM

Over the years, the conversations I've enjoyed most have been with writers and commenters who thought I was wrong about something.

Yes, dear.

Posted by: BillT at September 8, 2010 05:47 AM

Not entirely intending to revisit the question of franchise limits (Grim is right insofar as it may be time to table the question and mull things over), but I wonder whether we're asking the wrong question concerning limits.

To paraphrase Justice Stewart, "We may not be able to define [virtue], but we know it when we see it." Maybe we shouldn't be asking who should be allowed to vote; maybe we should be asking who should not be allowed to vote. We already say that children and felons should not be allowed to vote. We already say (generally--some local communities are looking at removing this restriction) non-citizens should not be allowed to vote. Are there other categories that should not be allowed, or is this list sufficient? I suggest that any additional restrictions be curable by the person so restricted, as the current list is.

On the present topic, I specifically object to the "allowed to vote" criterion of owning, mortgage-free, 40 acres of land, even as just one of several criteria. That's too high a bar, and it smacks of the landed gentry aristocracy of our colonial days, to which the citizen soldiers who did most of the fighting correctly objected, as this would cede lordship over the new nation to this aristocracy.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at September 8, 2010 08:13 AM

The list was not a considered thing, just the first things that came to mind; there are lots of things that should be added (volunteer work (from fireman to Meals on Wheels to ... ), ..., Red Cross first aid certification, election worker (poll, not party or candidate.) I barely qualify, old, vet, pay lots of taxes; the rest of them I don't meet, and I have mostly stayed out of such legal troubles. My apologies to those whom my brevity disenfranchised, it was not intentional.

Posted by: htom at September 8, 2010 08:25 AM

A state's people should decide who is authorized to vote in the interests of the state against the interests of the people or vice a versa.

A nation's people should decide whom shall vote for federal power or whom shall vote against federal power.

And in the micro scale where issues concern only a limited set of individuals, the self or the family, then they should be the ones whose votes only matter.

The idea and principle is to redistribute power from the hands of those at the top and bring it back to the source, those at the bottom.

It does not matter at all which criteria is used to give or take away the franchise from individuals. So long as you have evil people deciding such things and implementing them, you're only going to get an Evil System.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 9, 2010 06:54 AM

Great googly moogly!

Have I missed some interesting conversations or what?!

I think I'll be in catch up mode for some time, although this topic already has me sketching a nested if/then/else or switch statement. The sharing of which, if I ever finish the draft, will undoubtedly land me in the timeout corner.

Posted by: bthun at September 9, 2010 06:19 PM

Missed ya, bthun!

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at September 10, 2010 12:15 AM

welcome back to the land of oz, BTH

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 10, 2010 09:15 AM

Grim continued the discussion. Being female...

Wait, wait -- Grim's being what, now?

Posted by: BillT at September 12, 2010 09:39 AM