Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Let the dummies vote, even the rich ones with lots of property

I figure even in Utopia you'd still need to have sewers. Maybe there could be a world in which I don't have to work for a living; I can just sit around, read, and philosophize and all my needs would be provided for me. Such a world would have me driving a car that gets three hundred miles on a gallon of gas... no, wait, it would run on air so there would be no annoying stops at the filling station and no pollution would emit from my tailpipe. Hannity and Colmes would, in this ideal universe, be replaced with Ann Coulter and Kirsten Powers, because I'd rather have attractive blond women debating the issues than two flatulent Manhattan guys. (Of course, it being Utopia, there wouldn't be a lot for the ladies to disagree on). And of course, I could eat pizza and chocolate cake and not only receive all my essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, but also not get fat.

But after all that pizza and cake, even in Utopia, I'd still probably need a toilet.

Which brings me to people voting. William Blackstone, the eighteenth century English jurist who had such a profound effect on Anglo-American common law, was, by our modern concept of nearly everybody being able to vote, rather an elitist. He steadfastly defended his era's policy of only granting the franchise to men of property. In Volume 1, page 165 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir Blackstone declared:

"The true reason of requiring any qualification, with regard to property, in voters, is to exclude such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. If these persons had votes, they would be tempted to dispose of them under some undue influence or other. This would give a great, an artful, or a wealthy man, a larger share in elections than is consistent with general liberty. If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing those delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life. But, since that can hardly be expected in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications; whereby some, who are suspected to have no will of their own, are excluded from voting, in order to set other individuals, whose wills may be supposed independent, more thoroughly upon a level with each other."

What strikes me about Blackstone's stance is that it's one of these cases where what somebody says is probably true--but even so, we have over time come to disregard it because a larger truth is more discomforting. That is, if we could talk to Blackstone we'd acknowledge he has a point about the perils of having a rich candidate buy the votes of poor folks, but we think responding to this reality by not letting anybody vote who doesn't have money is an even bigger affront to democracy.

It's kind of like if you read any of the literature on Brown v. Board of Education, you will occasionally encounter the troublesome question of what would have been appropriate for the Supreme Court to decide if instead of evidence suggesting that segregation in schools had long-term adverse affects on black children, the evidence instead showed rather convincingly that segregating school children by race actually helped the learning process. Given such circumstances, if you argued that Brown was correctly decided, you would essentially be saying that segregation is unacceptable in American constitutional law even if it has positive benefits. And I'd agree with you.

I've always felt that if I were to debate Blackstone on the merits of letting every adult vote, I'd argue first that, as Roger Sherman asserted in the Constitutional Convention, frequent elections "assure the good behavior of rulers" (debates of June 26th), so no elected official is going to survive long in office if he is perceived as inefficient or incompetent. Even if the voters make a terrible choice, in other words, they will have the ability to undo their mistake before too long. This puts a check on a yo-yo serving almost as well as restricting the franchise does. (Or, if you want to be cynical, frequent elections work almost as poorly as restricting the franchise; the point is there are other ways to try to accomplish Blackstone's goal of keeping "great, artful, or wealthy men" at bay.)

Second, I'd remind Blackstone of our recent experiences in this nation's presidential contests. Ross Perrot and Steve Forbes tried to buy their way into the White House; it didn't work, did it? Our electorate has shown at least some disinclination to be bought.

But thanks to the book I'm reading now, I'd have a third argument: even doing what Blackstone advises, only letting men of property vote and excluding "such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own" you still have a lot of goofballs casting ballots. You still don't get rid of the sewers in Utopia, in other words.

The book I speak of is James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski (2006). In chapter 2, Labunski discusses election day in Madison's Virginia, a time and a place where only those with property could vote--oh, and you had to be white and male as well. Labunski writes:

"(Madison's) opinion of the ability of people to choose wisely at election time may have been clouded by his firsthand experience with voters, who sometimes behaved more like drunken partygoers than citizens performing a solemn duty. Back in 1777, when Madison ran for election to the new Virginia House of Delegates, the lower house of the legislature, he refused to go along with the usual practice of providing alcohol to voters at the polling place and around the county to win their support. He thought that the corrupting influence of liquor and other treats was 'inconsistent with the purity of moral and republican principles'... His opponent did not have similar scruples and provided the usual beverages to prospective voters. It was the only election Madison lost by a vote of the people during his long career." (p. 32).

It gets worse:

"Because so many voters expected to be treated to liquor and food, candidates sometimes had to spend substantial sums of money to run for public office, making it difficult for those of modest means to win the election... Even George Washington had to satisfy the expectations of the voters. During a July election in Frederick County in 1758, his agent supplied 160 gallons of alcohol to 391 voters. Although this violated the law... few candidates were ever prosecuted or disqualified from taking office on such grounds." (p. 33).

That's almost two and a half gallons of booze per voter that the Father of Our Country sprung for. I decided to have a little fun and figure out if Washington was running today in Frederick County what that would mean. Well, the Virginia government's website says the county has 44,381 registered voters. That doesn't make it a big American county by any stretch of the imagination; still, if George provided 2.44 gallons of liquor for each voter, as he did in 1758, he'd be on the hook for 108,289 gallons of alcoholic beverages, more booze than is consumed today by even the most ambitious frat houses. Which raises an interesting question I don't have an answer for: did the practice of giving a stiff drink to voters end because people came to agree with James Madison that this was inappropriate? Or as the country's population expanded did it just become too costly for even the richest candidates to provide enough firewater to inebriate the electorate sufficiently to vote for him? My money is on the latter.

So our American experience disproves Blackstone. Even if you only let people of some means vote, you don't eliminate stupid voters.

At least George Washington tried to eliminate sober ones.

On edit: Obviously, I had the numbers backwards; 160 gallons of liquor for 391 voters is only 0.4 gallons. That's still 17,752 gallons of booze if Washington had to provide the same amount per voter in Frederick County today.

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