Saturday, July 28, 2007

One Man . . . Four Votes?

In addition to being enticing, elusive, and intellectually provocative, the above title should, I realize, by some people's lights, read "One Person . . . Four Votes?" But since I'm going to be arguing here against the universal franchise as currently structured, I'll leave it as is. Anyway, women rarely pay visits to my little clubhouse, so I'll run the risk of offense.

There's been an intriguing discussion going on at Unqualified Reservations regarding the nature of democracy, and more specifically, whether or not it is simply an adaptive fiction. For those (like me) unfamiliar with this term, an adaptive fiction is "a misperception of reality that, unlike most such misperceptions, manages to outcompete the truth."

One UR commenter, Michael S, points out that democracy in its current, hallowed form, (universal suffrage) has hardly been practiced long enough to have proven its itself as the best and final Fukuyamian political solution.

Michael S. said...

One point worth noting in any discussion of "democracy" is that human society really has very little experience with this form of government as it is now defined - i.e., universal-franchise, one-man-one-vote, with seats in representative assemblies apportioned to populations in the districts or ridings represented.

I'd be willing to hazard that almost no historical examples can be cited that are more than perhaps 70 or 80 years old. Ancient democracies, like those of Athens or republican Rome, had highly restricted electorates. Most of their denizens, including numerous slaves, did not hold the franchise. This was also true in the United States until 1865. Property qualifications for the franchise were only slowly removed, and the franchise in the U.S. cannot be said to have been truly universal until the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, banning the exaction of poll taxes as a qualification for voting, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In other words, the universal franchise in the United States dates from about the same time as the independence of most British and French colonies in Africa.

One-man-one-vote-once was the usual sequence of events in most of those places, which very quickly threw off their parliaments, prime ministers, robed and bewigged judges and barristers, and slid either into anarchy or tyranny. The decline of self-government in the United States under the universal franchise has not been as precipitate, but one would have to be a fool not to see its signs.

This got me to thinking about a John Derbyshire article I read a year or two ago, in which he argued for the disenfranchisement of non-military government employees. You know, Derbyshire's always willing to think the best of our boys in uniform. But he does have a point, and I soon found myself intrigued enough to email Derb with my proposal, really just a thought-exercise, as to the re-rigging of the American voting system. Derbyshire's reply was, in essence, "fat chance!"

Fair enough. As I've said, it's only a thought-exercise, and I expect never to see any of these provisions come to pass. Nevertheless, and simply for my own amusement, I've constructed a less egalitarian - why not just say it, an unfair - voting system intended to produce better electoral outcomes. At the same time, one of the constraints of this exercise is to make such a proposal as palatable as possible to the general citizenry.

What is that, you say? The masses would rise up in righteous rage? Yeah, maybe . . . not that any politician would ever be suicidal enough to propose it. On the other hand, the citizenry is made up of lots of people, like me, who will talk politics all evening, but can't be bothered to step into the booth. Perhaps democracy is both an adaptive and self-selecting fiction, filtering out those most likely to gum up the works.

Well, here goes. My anti-democratic, elitist, and entirely unlikely overhaul of the American voting system:

Contra Derbyshire and his desire to disenfranchise government employees, we're not going to get away with disenfranchising anybody. It's just a matter of time before convicted felons re-claim their right to vote. Bearing this in mind, my preferred strategy is subtraction by addition, adding voting power to those whom I deem worthy, and denying additional votes to those I deem unworthy. Finally, I would attempt to rationalize the whole thing in a sufficiently family-friendly, pro-education, and patriotic way, thus deceiving the American public into adopting a better elective system.

Under this system, citizens could qualify for the right to exercise between one and five votes in any federal election. These votes are as follows:

1. The Citizenship Vote: This is the vote we all currently know and love. All you have to do to get it is to be a breathing 18 year old+ citizen, not noticably retarded, and without a felony record. You also have to register, and under my plan, you would still have to register, because some people are too stupid/lazy to register.

The rationalization: Everyone has a right to vote, and everyone's vote counts.
The justification: The need to appease every citizen's belief that he or she has a right to vote.

2. The Informed Citizen Vote: All high school students will be required to take a one-year sequence of courses on American History and the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. At the end of this sequence of courses, students will take a federally-administered test, consisting only of multiple choice questions based upon issues of fact rather than opinion. Passage of this test, in high school or at any point in one's life, qualifies one for the Informed Citizen vote. This test has no bearing on the student's GPA.

The particular questions used in the test will be selected out of a large item bank, and all of the questions in the bank will be made available to test takers ahead of time. Thus, all test takers - and remember, you can take this test at any point in your life - will have equal access to the pool of questions from which their particular exam will be drawn. A reasonable ability to memorize, and the self-discipline to study, will be sufficient to pass the test.

The rationalization: This will encourage a politically informed populace, and will require high schools to provide students with at least one year of instruction that students might actually use in the event of their arrest.

The justification: Some people are too stupid/lazy to pass this test in high school, and such people, almost without exception, will never find the wherewith all to study this subject on their own and take the exam at a later point in their lives.

3. The Net Contributor Vote: Given to everyone who pays more in federal taxes than he or she receives in government payouts, including salaries, welfare benefits, and Social Security. This provision would also exclude employees of private contractors which derive more than 50% of their revenue from federal contracts.

The rationalization: People who make a net-positive contribution to the federal till deserve an extra vote.

The justification: See John Derbyshire's article, take a look at the prescription drug benefit legislation, drive through a public housing project, or pick up an AARP publication. People are people, after all.

4. The Military Service Vote: Current service in one of the branches of the military, including the National Guard and Reserves, entitles a citizen to this vote. Veterans of military service only keep this vote so long as they remain in the Guard or Reserves.

The rationalization: We don't want to penalize our active-duty servicemen and women simply because they draw a government paycheck in excess of their federal tax obligation. They're defending our freedom.

The justification: People who serve in the military tend to make up the better component of the American lower-middle to working class, and particularly since they bear the brunt of America's military adventures, it only seems fair. Plus, I wouldn't want to take on the military when they discover that their members are being denied the Net Contributor Vote. This vote compensates them for their disqualification in the Net Contributor category.

5. The Parental Responsibility Vote: Anyone legitimately able to claim one or more dependent children on their Federal Income Tax Return, and providing for those children through funds earned rather than federal benefits, is entitled to this vote.

The rationalization: Children are our future, and parents are in effect voting not only out of their own interests, but also in their children's interests.

The justification: The justification isn't actually that different from the rationalization, though the emphasis differs. To the extent that people ever take the long view in life, they do so when they're raising kids, if they're ever raising kids. The period of child-rearing more or less corresponds to that period during which people are carrying the greatest load in their society.

To sum up, before you have kids, you live for yourself; after they're grown, likewise. Under this provision, people who provide for their own kids will be rewarded with an extra vote, and those who - for whatever reason - don't, won't.

You will note that the title of this post is "One Man . . . Four Votes?" and yet I've listed five potential votes. Bad math? Not really. It would difficult, though not impossible, for one person to claim all five votes. The only way to do so would be to make a relatively high salary while serving in the military reserve, and to pay federal taxes in excess of one's compensation from the military. I don't know what one is paid to serve in the Guard or Reserve, but I suspect that it exceeds the amount that most Guard or Reserve members pay in taxes.

Thus, Americans of sound character and strong capabilities (patriots like you and me) would probably, at any one time, qualify for no more than four votes. Still that's better than what you've got now. But I wonder if those four votes would be enough to actually lure me into the booth. Sadly, I suspect that, even under a system of my own devising, I'm destined to remain a voting voyeur.


Theodore Breehn said...

Derbyshire should have at least said something like good idea. I know my grand reforms (move national capital to a near unhospitable place and limit length of any bill to the number of words in the alphabet) have no chance, but that does not make them a bad idea.

Your proposal is good and if that is where it would stop, it would help. problem is, we won't stop at the ones you propose. Soon, there will be proposals for special classes, racial and gender minorities, etc.

I am reading Burnham's "The Machiavellians" right now. It is stuff to make you even more cynical about rulers versus ruled. No matter what system of government we have, we may have government for the people, but we shall never have government of the people and by the people.

Still, I don't pull the lever, because we have paper ballots here and I do vote every election. The big reason is that I admire most of the people I know who take part in the thankless task that is local government under our town meeting and selectman system.

Black Sea said...

Derbyshire's response was terse but polite. I suppose he's subjected to a lot of wierd ideas via email, and this one has absolutely no chance of being implemented, or at least, not in this society. (We can all dwell within our little semi-utopias of the mind.)

In the real world, you're no doubt correct about the proliferation of extra votes for all sorts of protected classes of people. As a matter of fact, such an outcome is far more likely than the scheme I have presented.

I am increasingly of the the belief that the obsession with governmental systems, rather than the substrate of culture from which they emerge, is a huge error.

In relatively orderly cultures, a parlimentary democracy, a federal system, a cantonal system, or, for that matter, a system of monarchical succession, will all produce tolerably effective governance.

In cultures with high levels of conflict and few restraints on violence, all of these systems will quickly break down into something more representative of the actual workings of the culture. They can't do otherwise. Another reason why our forays into other people's . . . oh well, do I even have to complete the thought?

As to not voting, over the past few years I can plead the difficulties of casting a ballot overseas, combined with the overwhelming sense that such action would constitute, at best, a purely symbolic gesture.

Now that I'm back home, maybe I'll give it a whirl.

Anonymous said...

Neville Shute wrote a novel about a system like this, 'In The Wet,' published in 1953. IIRC, it posited a system in which british citizens could earn up to 6 votes in categories very much like yours, and followed the adventures through which its hero earned the 7th vote, which was awarded by the queen.

Black Sea said...


I suppose it's indicative of something about my way of thinking that it reflects a political scheme floated only hypothetically in a relatively obscure novel published more than half a century ago. Story of my life.

I'll look for Shute's book.

B322 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Black Sea said...


I was, in part, trying to keep the concept from getting too complicated. I'm not, nor would I ever want to be, a tax attorney or IRS drone. As I've pointed out above, this is one of those notions I toy with only out of boredom, because even I know it doesn't have a prayer of going anywhere in the real world.

But it's good to know that someone is scrolling through my old posts.

B322 said...

Yes, nothing wrong with keeping things simple. The more complicated proposals have even less of a prayer.

In truth there may never be any solution to the problems caused by universal suffrage. But I too play compulsively with ideas, particularly on political structures.

Some of the most interesting have already been made up. In 19th Century German municipal elections, voters in each of three classes each elected the same number city councillors. However, the classes didn't have equal numbers of voters; instead, it was just all the voters were ranked in order of taxes paid, and each class was supposed to, near as possible, be responsible for an equal aggregate tax payment.


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