Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Un-Franchising: Civic Virtue And The Decline Of the Republic

Geez, I have to take a day off for real one of these days...

John Hinderaker of PowerLine presents us with a sample of Democrat hate-campaign tactics:

This email arrived yesterday from MoveOn, whose communications are generally indistinguishable from those of the Democratic Party. The subject line was "New York Times stunner."
Republicans are trying to steal control of the U.S. Senate by making it harder to vote.

Pitch in to help defend the right to vote and stop Republicans from stealing the 2014 election.

This plea requires a certain chutzpah, as stealing elections at the polls has always been a Democratic specialty. I think what they are actually referring to is Republican efforts to ensure honest voting so that Democrats can't steal elections.

Well, yes. But behind the obvious assault on the trustworthiness of American elections lies a subtler assault on our understanding of the legally created, defined and constrained privilege of voting. That attack dovetails with an even deeper and more threatening attack on the very concept of rights.

You might be nodding at this point. The Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch tend to be much more intelligent than average – anyone below IQ 130 would be unable to grasp most of what's posted here – and correspondingly quick on the uptake. But there’s a trap in that: an increased likelihood of "skimming" out of excessive confidence. So: Do you think you read and comprehended the previous paragraph accurately?

If you answered "yes" without rereading it slowly, the rest of this post is for you specifically. Take your time over it.

When the Republic was young, a would-be voter had to present evidence of certain criteria:

  • He had to be a citizen.
  • He had to be at least twenty-one years of age.
  • He had to own real property -- land.
  • He had to have been a resident in the district where he proposed to vote for a legally stated minimum interval -- usually, one year.

Those qualifications had a very pointed point: They constituted prima facie evidence that he would take a sober interest in the consequences of the elections in which he wanted to vote. In a sense, they were a proxy for an attestation of civic virtue.

No, those qualifications are not infallible proof of civic virtue. But then, whether a man possesses genuine civic virtue is a very tough thing to certify with perfect confidence. Even those who know him personally can get it wrong.

Civic virtue might be the hardest of all the virtues to practice routinely. It consists of the ironclad resolution not to use one's legal privileges -- note: not one's rights -- to one's own advantage at the expense of others.

The privilege of voting is the most important venue for civic virtue in our time. That so many Americans vote their personal interests at the open and obvious expense of others --"ObamaPhones," anyone? -- is a dead giveaway that we suffer a severe general deficiency of civic virtue, at least around election time.

In his early award winner Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein famously proposed that the vote should be conditioned upon prior honorable military service. Heinlein believed that to expose oneself to the rigors and hardships of military service better certified civic virtue than the legal qualifications enumerated earlier -- and he might well have been correct. But then, Heinlein was already clear on a critical concept that the Left has done its best to obscure:

Voting is not and has never been a "right."

Needless to say, leftists and one-worlders generally detest Heinlein and all his works.

If you have my sort of elephant's memory, you probably recall, from the 2008 elections, a seriously meant proposal to allow the citizens of other countries to have a voice in American elections. The argument was that since our federal government's decisions have an impact far beyond our own borders, owing to our military power, our "world policeman" role, and our many bases overseas, it's unfair that the many millions of non-citizens so affected should have no say in those decisions. By that "logic," it's only "right" that persons the world around should have some sort of influence over the selection of the persons who make those decisions.

As with so many other specious arguments, if you buy the unstated premise, you buy the consequent. The unstated premise is, of course, that merely being "affected" by Washington's decisions is a sufficient rationale for claiming the "right" to influence them, indirectly through the electoral process.

I could spend the entire day ripping that premise to shreds. Given your already postulated top-3% intellect, Gentle Reader, I'll pass on, having merely noted it.

I'm not the first to pulverize this notion of a "right to vote," of course:

The followers of Rousseau's school of thought — who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times — will not agree with me on this. But universal suffrage — using the word in its strictest sense — is not one of those sacred dogmas which it is a crime to examine or doubt. In fact, serious objections may be made to universal suffrage.

In the first place the word universal conceals a gross fallacy. For example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out of four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth. This fourth person advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for excluding the others.

Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for those who are capable. But there remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females, insane persons, and persons who have committed certain major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?

A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for himself alone, but for everybody. The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective system are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a difference of degree. If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one's birth, it would be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and affects everyone in the entire community; because the people in the community have a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon which their welfare and existence depend.

I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I wish merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had always been what it ought to be. In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual's right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder — is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?

Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would jealously defend their privilege? If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?

[Frederic Bastiat, The Law, 1850]

Bastiat's logic remains crystal-clear, diamond-hard, and beyond refutation. Yet the Left is unaffected, for a simple reason: Leftists are determined to use government power as an instrument of plunder.

Reflect on the "Occupy" nonsense, and the millions who support Barack Hussein Obama in hopes of getting more "free stuff."

Lurking behind the notion of a "right to vote" and all similar notions is the phantasm of human equality. He who proposes such a thing implicitly assumes that as we are all "equal," we "should" all have the same "rights." In the usual case, he lacks an understanding of all three quoted words. The exceptions are outright villains.

No two persons are "equal." Neither can we be made "equal," even under the utterest application of State power. The best we can do -- indeed, the absolute requirement of a free society -- is equality of individuals' rights:

  • Recognition of each man's natural rights to his life, his liberty, and his honestly acquired property;
  • Pace Bastiat, the constraint of the law to the protection of those rights;
  • Absence from the law of any exemptions for particular persons;
  • Absence from judicial procedures of any special allowances for particular persons.

The alternative is a class structure that awards different privileges and enforceable responsibilities to persons of different classes: what Isabel Paterson called a Society of Status. That's the antithesis of the American ideal. It exposes some to unbounded predation by and for others, and makes individual freedom effectively unattainable.

But we cannot have an equality of individuals' rights if we're unclear about what those rights are and whence they originate.

In The Discovery Of Freedom, Rose Wilder Lane observes trenchantly that "no one is born with an inalienable ballot." This is as true today as it was in 1943, when she wrote it. It's even more important in these days of rampant political predation in quest for electoral invincibility.

The original qualifications for the vote might have been flawed. Yet the motivation behind them -- the effort to certify an acceptable degree of civic virtue in the would-be voter -- was sound, and remains imperative. We cannot and will not return to Constitutional, freedom-respecting government unless a serious attempt is made to renew that effort.

Quite a lot of people must be taught that their ballots are not inalienable -- and the sooner, the better.


Ronbo said...

Once again my hat is off to you, my patriot friend, as you put into excellent prose what I've said on my blog several times over the years - to wit: the right to vote and hold office should be granted only to those who have served honorably in the military for a period of six years.

Yes, this would mean the creation of an oligarchy, but it would be an oligarchy based on duty, honor, country and open to all citizens willing and able to defend the Republic.

The verdict of history is that democracy, the rule of the majority, mobocracy, call it what you will - simply does not work.

Therefore, those who idea of a "New Republic" should address this key issue.

pdwalker said...


I believe that's not what our host said.

The key point that I take away is that the "universal franchise" must be more select to a group of individuals more capable doing what is right for all rather than doing what most benefits themselves.

The parasites who sell their votes for "free stuff" will have to lose that privilege before any attempt can be made to restore the country.

As to how should retain this privilege, our host has not said. That's a discussion Mankind has been unable to resolve in thousands of years.

Old Barstid said...

Actually, I also believe the franchise (vote) should be an earned privilege. To vote you should prove that you place the good of the body politic above that of your own corporeal body. Military service, firefighter, police, anything in which you must occasionally risk your precious skin to serve those who are unknown to you except as fellow countrymen and women. Being landed is good, as I would only allow landowners to vote on property taxes. Why should thousands of people in any county who do not own so much as a foot of soil get to tell the landowners how much they must pay in taxes? How is that even fair? So we would allow the grasshoppers to vote to tax the ants? However, for most voting purposes, a term of service in any occupation wherein you must risk placing your neck between the nation and harm will do. Military, police, fire, ski/mountain rescue, foreign service (embassy duty, which we have seen is risky these days), general rescue - anything in which you must prove, at risk of your life, if necessary, that you think of others before you think of yourself.

John said...

I have a long held thesis, not proven, but with tons of anecdotal evidence, that every bad idea of the past 250 years can be traced back to Rousseau. For all those would be time-travelers who want to go back and shoot young Mr. Schicklgruber or Mr. Dzhugashvili to improve the world, you would do better to go back a bit farther and off the odious Mr. Rousseau. A lot of awful ideas would've been snuffed in their crib.