Having written about the rhetorical and academic perils of assuming a direct relation between modern political concerns and those of people in past times, such as the Founding Fathers, it might be worth looking at some of the more practical dangers in this line of reasoning. To provide some grounding for my subject, “democracy,” consider the original extent of the electoral franchise in America: generally, only white male property owners could vote, and many positions for which citizens now elect candidates (Senators, the President) were appointed by representatives of the state governments. One could conclude that the Founders were a cabal of racist, sexist oligarchs, but this would be the same anachronistic error: it denounces historical persons for failure to live up to modern standards as if these standards were as relevant and influential then as they are today. The Founders were influenced by the prevailing ideals of their times, in which their “white supremacist patriarchal oligarchy” was one of the freest and most accountable forms of government on Earth.1 Hopefully, this is another area (like gun politics) where we connect with the spirit of the Founders’ ideals, rather than the implementation. When people talk about bringing the country back to the ideals the Founders wanted, surely they mean this in terms of general, abstract principles.
We could hope for that, but in vain. Recently, several public figures have expressed a desire to limit the franchise to property owners, or called into question the wisdom of allowing the poor to vote. Consider this statement by Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips:
The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.
Or from this essay by pundit Matthew Vadum:
…the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.
Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.
Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor. It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money. It’s about raw so-called social justice. It’s about moving America ever farther away from the small-government ideals of the Founding Fathers.
We should, of course, be disturbed by such sentiments, but what’s new here isn’t that people think like this, it’s that they’re being so open about it. The “competence question” is a common critique of democracy that argues that allowing everyone to vote is unwise since not all people are equally competent to make political decisions. It’s a neat trick that makes it easy to disenfranchise various groups so long as sufficiently few people understand that the purpose of democracy isn’t good government, but just government. It is unjust to subject people to laws unless they consent to the authority of the lawmakers. Democratic government is accountable government, and reducing the franchise is generally a way to make political decisions about people without their input. There are limits to this principle, of course: children are not allowed to vote on grounds of competency, but children are also not fully accountable to the law, and are not responsible for their own upkeep and legal participation, this being the obligation of parents or guardians. When people start wondering if some group is really competent to vote, or if there ought to be some special requirement, they should be asked if they are comfortable with grown adults being tried as juveniles and provided for as wards of the state.
This specific argument takes the question of competency and adds an explicit economic dimension. The poor are not competent to vote because they don’t have a “vested interest in the community.” While they presumably have a vested interest in the laws to which they are subject, this is itself a threat, since their interest is in voting themselves a share of others’ wealth. Poor voters thus cannot be trusted with the vote, since they will undermine the institution that is truly important to promoters of this opinion: property. The hidden, underlying assumption here is that property is more important than accountable government.