All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1971

Who Should Vote?

When a majority seems deter­mined to do foolish things, a re­former might try to fool them into passing a prohibition law. But the majority will neither ac­cept nor respect a law it fails to understand. If the better idea were widely understood, political reform would be quite easy—and quite unnecessary. Advocating a law, as a short cut to understand­ing, wastes precious time and en­ergy that might have been used to explain and justify the better idea.

An excellent example of such patient explanation is afforded by the 85 Federalist Papers offered by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison during 1787 and 1788 to bring understanding and popular acceptance of the new Constitution. To be sure, they wanted “to pass a law”; but their approach was to help the people see the wisdom of the Federal Constitution, to enable them to live within the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

In view of the great interest today in who should be allowed to vote, one is surprised to find only two or three brief references in The Federalist to the matter of suffrage. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay were content, it seemed, to rely on the laws of the various states to determine who might vote. And they could foresee no problems arising, no incentive for any state to manipulate its voting requirements in a manner detri­mental to the national interest. They could never have believed that Congress (in 1913) would be granted power to tax incomes “without apportionment among the several States, and without re­gard to any census or enumera­tion.” Nor could those men of 1787 have conceived of the Federal gov­ernment as a gigantic gravy bowl to be dipped into and drained by hungry blocs of voters.

A Modern View of Government

In the United States, at least, the Federal welfare state is pri­marily a development of the twen­tieth century. Governmental wel­fare measures, if any, before World War I were handled largely at the local level; there had been no substantial use of Federal funds to buy votes, no reason for states to modify their voting laws and practices to gain special privi­leges in Washington. Now, we know. And it is conceivable that the authors of the Federalist Pa­pers might have given more atten­tion to voting requirements had they imagined how far we might stretch the use of the ballot. There simply was no call to explain the limitations of balloting to Ameri­cans of 1787 who understood why government should be limited. And until Americans of our time un­derstand the case for limited gov­ernment, there is no way to fool them into passing a law to limit the franchise.

Meanwhile, debate rages end­lessly over who is to be allowed to vote—whether the franchise should be extended to teen-agers—and about the inequities of this or that particular form of taxa­tion. But seldom, if ever, does such debate get down to basic principles, that is, the discussion of voting and taxation in terms of what government is for and what it ought to be doing.

If one believes, for instance, that a major purpose of govern­ment is to bring about a more equal distribution of wealth—taking from the rich to give to the poor—then it would seem entirely logical to confine the franchise to the “deserving poor” and to levy the costs of governing against the rich who supposedly have con­spired to build up private for­tunes. Teen-agers, in that case, presumably would fall generally among the poor, who “deserve” to vote and to enjoy tax-exemption. But, sharing the wealth is not quite so peaceful and simple as some advocates seem to believe. Someone always winds up with more than “his fair share,” and coercion inevitably is required to get it away from him again. Ad­vocates of force always have fought, and always will, over who should exercise the coercive power.

The Role of Force

It is by no means clear to great numbers of Americans what they want their government to do. On the one hand, they are quite will­ing to tax up to 70 per cent or more of a person’s livelihood, year after year, especially if he is rela­tively productive. Yet, these very same persons will “stand on prin­ciple” against the draft of a young man for 2 years at soldier’s pay.

If citizens of the United States do not volunteer in sufficient force to carry out government commitments, say in Vietnam, then the government will draft them and their property. “Unfair,” cry many of the citizens. “These young men are needed for a do­mestic peace corps. The property taken by taxation is needed in the domestic war on poverty, aid to the cities, aid to education, aid to agriculture, aid to the unemployed—to each according to need.”

These “friends of the poor” in the United States who advocate the use of government force to ac­complish their domestic programs are logical, at least; they have no ideological quarrel with the com­munists in North Vietnam or any­where else. Their quarrel, rather, is with the idea of limited govern­ment and with their “old-fash­ioned” neighbors who believe that government’s only function is to protect life and property and to keep the peace.

Respect for life and property does not originate among men as a fear of reprisal by force in case of trespass but as a sense of pro­priety, a conscience, a capacity to distinguish right from wrong.

Such a distinction is not deter­mined by voting or by tossing a coin. It is a moral decision an in­dividual can and must make for himself only, with such guidance as he may derive from his own ex­perience and thought and from the shared experience and wisdom of others. If it is right to defend one’s own life or property, then it cannot at the same time or by the same reasoning be right to take the life or property of another by force. Those who can understand such reasoning and control their actions accordingly are then ready for the idea of limited gov­ernment—a policing agency of society to preserve the peace, to protect the life and property of every peaceful person against threatened or actual violence by any other person or group.

A Question of Responsibility

In a sense, each human being ought to be in charge of his own life—a self-reliant, self-respon­sible, peaceful, mature individual. And in that case the principle of one-man-one-vote seems reason­able. But few, if any, of us ever quite measure up to the persons we ought to be. And it would, therefore, seem advisable to limit the franchise, or refuse it alto­gether to those who clearly fail to behave responsibly.

Youth, to be sure, is not an infallible sign of immaturity and ir­responsibility. But no one expects a year-old baby to vote for Presi­dent. There’s no magic in any num­ber, but it probably is just as well to withhold voting rights from all persons under 21 years of age. Automobile liability insurance companies, for instance, consider all young men under 25 to be more or less irresponsible.

Buying votes is generally frowned upon as a reprehensible practice. And if it is bad practice, then it would seem reasonable to withhold the franchise from any person the livelihood of whom is derived primarily from govern­ment, say more than 50 per cent, and in any case if he receives more than $10,000 a year from tax-col­lected sources. This would include, among others, most public officials, government employees, welfare clients, teachers in public schools, employees of firms largely de­pendent on government contracts, inmates of prisons and other gov­ernmental institutions.

With reference to criminals and others of proven irresponsibility, the franchise probably should be withheld for a certain period of probation, say for two years fol­lowing release from any penal in­stitution; or, for at least two years following conviction on any criminal charge even if no fine or other sentence were assessed.

The recent public clamor about the poverty level, and the very idea that families with less than $3,000 of annual earnings would be elig­ible for subsidy suggests that ev­ery member of such a family should be ineligible to vote as long as that family condition of pov­erty persists.

Furthermore, in view of the heavy burden of taxes in the United States, it would seem ad­visable to withhold the voting priv­ilege from all members of any family group that pays less than a nominal figure of say $300 a year in Federal, state, and local direct tax levies.

Bankruptcy, whether voluntary or at the insistence of creditors, should be sufficient cause to re­lieve any person of the voting privilege for a reasonable period of time, such as ten years.

The Practice of Freedom Hinges on Education and Understanding

The foregoing is not intended to cover all cases of irresponsible action, but to suggest some of the more flagrant examples that might well be considered by those who want a government primarily for the protection of life and property and the preservation of peaceful conditions in the community. If a person is able to show that he is self-reliant and has not behaved irresponsibly toward others, let him vote in elections and other governmental decisions that ought to be reached democratically.

In the final analysis, however, an individual will tend to look upon this limitation of voting rights through the same eyes by which he views the purpose of gov­ernment. If he wants to protect property, he’ll leave the decisions to the owners; but if he wants to confiscate property and is not con­cerned about such waste of scarce resources, he’ll do everything he can to enfranchise the non-owners and herd them to the polling booth. In any case, the practice of free­dom, today as in 1787, is entirely a matter of education and under­standing.



Trampling Justice

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine?… The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of prop­erty is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater oppor­tunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

JAMES MADISON, from The Federalist Papers, No. 10

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.