Friday, September 19, 2008

Voting is not intrinsically good

We all know that one shortfall of modernity is its tendency to treat absolute, timeless truths as merely relative. But there is also another aspect to this, for the opposite is also true: there are many things that our society treats as things intrinsically good which are only relatively good. For example, reading is treated as good in and of itself, regardless of what a person happens to be reading. This, of course, is false; the content of what we read is extremely important (otherwise, why would the popes have thought it good to institute an Index of Forbidden Books?).

But perhaps the biggest thing that Americans hold to be good in and of itself and at all times is voting. "Regardless of which candidate you support, the important thing is that you get out there and exercise your right to vote." Why is that so important? There are so many tired old canards about voting repeated ad nauseam in this country that I am shocked that anybody still says them, much less believes them. Let's look at some of these worn old phrases.

"Voting is a sacred right. Our forefathers fought and died so that we could have the right to vote."

What exactly does this refer to? Which forefathers? Are you talking about the American Revolution? We had elected our leaders for a long time before the Revolution, and before the Revolution, people had a keener sense of the importance of local government, as well. In fact, I'd say people had a much better understanding of and participation in the democratic process prior to the American Revolution. Our forefathers of 1776 certainly weren't fighting for the right to vote. We had local government by election for a long time prior to 1776. After the French and Indian War the British began appointing colonial governors, but the local governing bodies, assemblies, etc. were all popularly elected for decades. The Revolution was not fought for the purpose of getting the right to vote.

Was it those who fought in the War of 1812? I don't think so; that was about stopping British impressment and (in a sloppy sort of way) about conquering Canada. The Mexican War? Nope, voting wasn't on the line there, either? Perhaps the Civil War? Only if you were black could this apply to the Civil War I suppose, but even in that war, nobody was fighting over a right to vote. Freeing the slaves wasn't even contemplated until half way through. World War I wasn't about the right to vote. Yes, I know Germany and the central powers were monarchies, but they all had elected bodies as well, and realistically it takes a person completely ignorant of history to think that the United States proper was ever threatened in World War II, at least the way the history played out. Our "right to vote" was never threatened in World War II.

I would say the case is a little stronger in World War II that we were "fighting to keep our democracy." But it can (and has) been argued that there was never much of a chance that Hitler could have actually invaded the United States, especially after 1942. Goering wanted to bomb New York, but nobody seriously talked of an invasion of America, and contrary to popular belief, Hitler was not out to "conquer the world."

Korea? Vietnam? One of the dozens of measly little conflicts of the Reagan or Clinton or Bush eras? Where are these wars that were fought so that we'd have the right to vote? The fact is that no war was ever fought to preserve Americans' right to vote.

"The important thing is that you exercise your right to vote, regardless of who you vote for."

We are very used to hearing this, but it is kind of nonsensical. Of course it matters who you vote for! That's the whole purpose of voting is to be able to vote for somebody! There's no intrinsic value in voting itself that renders it automatically virtuous apart from the person for whom the vote is cast. This line about "the important thing is that you exercise your right" is a line used by liberals because they know that the larger the franchise, the more likely it is that they will get into power. Why? Because the more prisoners, illegal immigrants and other down-and-out, uneducated people they can grant the power to vote to, the greater chance there is that they will swallow their insane agenda.

I'll tell you something: I hope more people stay home on election day. I honestly do. Why? Let's be honest: I think most people are too incompetent to vote, and that you ought not to be allowed to have a say in how the country is run unless you have a stake in the welfare of the country. This was the original idea behind property qualifications for eligible voters: if you owned no property, you were not trusted to vote in the best interests of the country but only out of self-interest.

But that aside, the fact remains that we are fully capable of exercising our right to vote to elect an evil person to the highest office in the land. If the majority of people will be swayed by evil, then I hope they stay home. Turning out en masse to vote for someone who promotes evil is not a good. It is good, as the Catechism says, that people be allowed to participate in the political process. But, as we all know, democracy is only good insofar as the people doing the electing (and the elected) are themselves committed to goodness and morality. As soon as that is no longer the case, voting no longer is universally good, but derives its goodness (or badness) from the person you are voting for.

I would be in favor of greatly restricting the franchise in this country. Isn't it a rule of thumb in business and administration that the more people you involve in decision making the bigger the mess you wind up with?

"How do you respond to the claim that you cannot complain about the actions of the elected government if you did not vote? It makes a bit of sense to me."

This argument does seem to have some sense to it on the surface, and it is hard to have a comeback to this if you have not taken a lot of time to think about this issue. As I wrestled with this question over the years, I came to the conclusion that this argument is errant for several reasons.

First, it is ultimately saying that only those who participate in electing the government have a right to complain about it, but fails to distinguish that though many people may vote in an election, only the majority actually elects the government.

Think of it this way: If there are two candidates, only one can win. What about the minority whose candidate lost? Can they not complain? After all, technically, they had nothing to do with electing the person in power since they voted for somebody else, yet nobody suggests that people who voted for a losing candidate cannot fact, it is commonly accepted that they have even more cause to complain because their complaints then have an added "See, I told you so" strength to them. Granted, this does not really prove why people who do not vote have a positive right to complain, though it does show that the argument that they can't complain is illogical.

Second, if voting is the criteria for who can complain, are we going to suggest that children under the age of 18 cannot complain about the political system? I doubt it: teens are commonly encouraged to understand and critique the political system as a type of initiation into the responsibilities of political citizenship that come with attaining majority.

Third, we could point out that most people don't vote in their city elections, or for the school board, things like that. The numbers are that around 80% of people do not vote locally. If that is the case, then we can retort that most people would then have no right to complain about their local school districts, local road construction projects, local scandals or anything else locally. Of course, if any of these people are caught in the midst of an irritating and useless construction jam, they will still complain anyway, even if they didn't vote for the County Road Commissioner, and they will still feel justified in complaining if the actions of government are inconveniencing them, whether or not they voted. That is my point and the crux of this post: if somebody suffers because of government, the burden is on government to explain why it is harming people, not on us to justify why we are complaining.

But can we establish a positive right to complain apart from showing that denying that right to people who don't vote is illogical?

Well, anybody has the right to complain about anything anytime they please-that's one of our First Amendment rights, and actually, the right to criticize the government was closer to what the Founder had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment (as opposed to those who interpret it to justify smut and filth).

But beyond our First Amendment right, I'd say that the argument "if you didn't vote don't complain" suffers from a very fundamental flaw: it mistakes the act of voting for the totality of participation in government. In other words, too often "participating" means nothing over and above the act of voting. We are encouraged in the Catechism to "actively participate" (nice choice of words, huh?) in our government. What is active participation? Many would reduce the idea of participation to voting alone. This is a gross misunderstanding of what participation in government is. If voting alone were participation, then why did the Founders restrict the franchise so narrowly? Voting was originally accorded only to white property-owning males. How could they claim to set up a government "by the people and for the people" if voting was so stringently restricted? Modernist interpretation would just say that it was because the Founders were all racists and hypocrites. Or perhaps they had a different understanding of participation than we do now?

So what is our expanded definition of participation in our republic? First and foremost, the right to criticize the government, which has been denied people in totalitarian countries. The right to freely discuss and talk about politics without fear or recrimination and to publish your ideas. The right to form organizations for the end of influencing the political system or attaining political goals. The right to run for political office yourself. The right and ability to contact your representative and make your grievances known to him. The right to know what is going on in government and to make all government records public. The right to be treated fairly and humanely by your government and to protest when you are not treated fairly. The right to be educated about politics and make yourself knowledgeable about our own political system and about the abstract concepts of politics in general.

All of these rights can be exercised apart from the right to vote. A person could still do all of these things and not vote, as I know many Catholics do. In fact, I'd say a person who does all of these things but refrains from voting participates in government much more than a person who only votes and doesn't do anything else mentioned above. Therefore, the idea that voting alone constitutes participation is fatally flawed. It may be important, but it is not the only thing.

"If voters should be competent, what criteria you would propose to determine voter competence? Suppose, for example, only citizens who have completed post-graduate studies were allowed to vote. I think the outcome of the upcoming presidential election would be quite clear in that case. And if that is not a good criterion, would you instead require a minimum income?"

No, I would not require a minimum level of education nor any sort of minimum income, per se. With this question, we must distinguish between what I would propose in a vastly different, perfect society, or what I would propose realistically in our current system.

In a perfect world, I would propose as criteria for voting the solemn recitation of the Nicene Creed before the Blessed Sacrament, coupled with an abjuration of Communism and another solemn, deprecatory oath upholding the truthfulness of one's profession. That would be ideal. The goal (in my mind) is to make sure that only moral people are voting, and I think this would be a good way.

But, realistically, that would not be feasible in our current system. I realize now, however, that when I said most people were too incompetent to vote, I was not primarily referring to intellectual capacity (as our commentator said, if only people with advanced degrees could vote, we know how that would go); rather, I think I was referring to one's moral trustworthiness. We want people to vote who have good morals and will not compromise them. Ultimately, I want people who have Christian morals to vote and everybody else to stay home. I don't care if certain persons are disenfranchised, because I don't see voting as an ultimate good. But anyhow, what criteria would I propose for voting in our current system?

1) A property qualification: you must own some kind of property. Some may object that this is the same as an income qualification. It is insofar as you must have some kind of income to purchase property, but it is not the same thing. There are a lot of poor people out there who own their own home, because their homes are in cities where property is cheap.

2) An oath of loyalty to the Constitution, much like our military personnel swear upon enlistment. It would not stop subversives from voting, but it would at least remind people of what a serious matter voting was.

3) 100 hours of community service prior to being allowed to register to vote

4) You must have been a citizen in this nation for a least 4 years prior to being allowed to register (this would apply only to immigrants, not to people born here). In other words, you can't vote as soon as you get your citizenship. You have to live as a citizen for four years before being allowed to exercise that right.

In addition to these qualifications, I would propose the following changes to our existing system:

1) As one person suggested in the comment box, military service would accord one the right to vote irrespective of all of these other requirements (except 2, which is part of military enlistment).

2) Voting would not be a "have it or don't have it" type of thing where you either can vote unconditionally or you can't ever. It would be like a license: it could be suspended for certain things and then restored.

3) In keeping with number 2, I don't think felons ought to universally lose their right to vote forever. They ought to get it back sometime after their release from prison, provided they meet the five requirements above.

4) If a person who could vote failed to exercise their right for a period of six years, it would be revoked and would only be restored in exchange for another 100 hours of community service and a fine.

I'm sure I could think of a lot more things, but these are some preliminary ideas. Many of you will probably think they are stupid, and I welcome any critiques or complaints (or compliments!).

Designing ideal political systems is a venerable and ancient tradition in Western Culture.


Clavem Abyssi said...

This is exactly why I prefer a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry, as well as a Rich Inner Life.

All kidding aside: how do you respond to the claim that you cannot complain about the actions of the elected government if you did not vote? It makes a bit of sense to me.

Anonymous said...

I should be delighted to know what criteria you would propose to determine voter competence. Suppose, for example, only citizens who have completed post-graduate studies were allowed to vote. I think the outcome of the upcoming presidential election would be quite clear in that case. And if that is not a good criterion, would you instead require a minimum income?

Jeremy said...

This reminds me of my government professor in college. He basically said that getting everybody to vote is stupid and if you're a moron I don't want you to vote because you'll probably vote for the wrong person and cancel out my vote because you are such a moron.

Good stuff.

hesiodos said...

I like Heinlein's suggestion of limiting the franchise to veterans. Perhaps not allowing those on welfare to vote would be good.

Anonymous said...

"[...] World War II. Germany couldn't even get more than a little way in to France and they were going to conquer America? Give me a break."
Watcha talkin' bout? Germany took over France in a couple of days.

BONIFACE said...

Sure, but they only took the northern half of the country and never were able to subdue the south.

Peachy Sarmiento said...

Pope Pius IX condemned universal suffrage in his encyclical Quantam Cura, and in the Syllabus of Errors. Therefore, whoever votes is excommunicated latae sententiae.

Boniface said...

Peachy, can you cite where? I just read those documents and cannot find anything like what you are referring to.