Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

 

Common sense is not so common.

—-Voltaire

 

 

The Founding Fathers of this nation were, by and large, well-read men. They knew their philosophical heritage. Interest in Aristotle declined in the 1600s and 1700s, the period known at The Enlightenment, because Aristotle was associated with medieval, Church-controlled teaching. Plato was seen as free from the ecclesiastical baggage and restrictions, and even those who did not agree with his rationalist idealism were familiar with his works. In Britain, a new school of philosophy, Empiricism, arose, devoted to a strict attention to the information given by the senses (which Plato would have despised) and to the ideal of inquiry into truth through careful conceptual analysis (which he would have approved). Plato was, in many ways, the father of Western philosophy; John Locke was the father of modern Anglo-American philosophy. It is thus fitting to consider how the political philosophies of these two very different thinkers can shed light on the nation begun by their intellectual descendents.

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” is dedicated to the ideal that all citizens should have part in running the government. That is the ideal, or the horizon; in practice, often democracies have fallen short, and limited the status of “citizen” to a smaller group. The first democracy, Athens, excluded most of its population: women, slaves, even long-time foreigners could not vote, address the assembly, or exercise even basic rights. But still, Athens extended political power from a small aristocracy to a much larger group, and later intellectuals would seek to extend the ideal of equality still further. For his part, Plato thought all this “equality” was a terrible idea. Democracy, after all, killed Socrates; Anaxagoras and other philosophers were also persecuted by “the many.” If you want something done well, you get someone who knows how to do it; a ship’s captain doesn’t take a vote from the sailors, and the captain of the ship of state shouldn’t either. Most people are simply too irrational and too uninformed to govern responsibly or effectively. Instead, government should be run by a well-educated elite, who sacrificed their own material prosperity for the duty of governing a country that would take care of its citizens, as the philosopher-king determined was best. Stupid people simply should not have a right to vote; to allow the corruptible majority that sort of power is to open the door to tyranny.

Two thousand years later, John Locke came to the opposite conclusion. In his view, all people are basically rational, and thus all should have some voice in the government; and all are also corruptible, and thus none can really be trusted with unchecked power. Therefore, he argued that the state should be run by a government with separate institutions for executive, legislative and judicial functions, independent but interacting to create and enforce laws written according to the collective will of the people. A true government is one that governs for the good of the people and protects their interests as they have expressed them through a process of voting and choosing representatives; when government starts to ignore their will, it collapses into tyranny. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible be able to make their voices heard through some sort of democratically-elected body of representatives.

Yet, despite their differences, there are some points on which Plato and Locke can agree. In different ways, both have checks and balances on the political power of the governing powers. For Plato, political power is separated from economic power. The leaders are “public servants” in the very real sense that they are on the public payroll. They are not allowed to extort luxuries for themselves; in fact, they are to live lives of great material simplicity. For Locke, the balancing of power comes from each individual being essentially a free person, who is understood as yielding only some rights for the sake of communal life. Each has a right to the products of his or her own labor, and furthermore each has a right to vote for representatives who will speak for them all in the legislative assembly. There is an economic check on the power of the government, as well as the political one provided by the vote. Both Plato and Locke understand the danger of tyranny, and have similar descriptions of the tyrant: a person or possibly a clique, governing not for the sake of the people but primarily for the sake and benefit of the tyrant only. For the tyrant, running the government is a means of personal profit; even when the tyrant makes laws that benefit others, it is always as an expression solely of the tyrant’s own will and for the tyrant’s benefit.

A tyranny might benefit others to gain their support, as when an apartheid government caters not just to the political leaders but also to the powerful minority that supports them. It is also possible that the Leader might have whims that benefit the people. The tyrant might like growing things and establish parks where the people also can relax, or value learning and therefore establish universities. Still, the fact that Hitler gave us the autobahn does not do much to improve our view of his tyranny. The definitive element of tyranny is that the private will and interests of the Leader become the governing force of the society. Tyrants do not distinguish between personal affairs and affairs of State; the government exists to fulfill the wishes of the Leader, and the Leader and cronies feel entitled to profit from it. Personal slights or political rivalries are treated as betrayals of the State itself, prompting threats of legal and extralegal retaliation. Plato and Locke had their experiences with tyrants, and despite their very different philosophies and very different historical circumstances they agree fairly well on the nature of a tyrant.

They disagree, radically, on how to prevent tyranny, and that suggests ways in which they view tyranny differently. For Plato, the problem is money; good governments are those that strictly limit how much property the leaders can own, requiring them to live and eat together, at government expense but also control. His real-world analog was Sparta, where the political leadership lived like soldiers on campaign, wearing simple clothes and eating plain, sustaining food. When political leaders can earn profits, Plato says, they will inevitably begin to mix their personal business with the nation’s business. A democracy that allows everyone to own property and to exercise political power will have as many tyrants as it has citizens, all competing to pervert the common good for their own benefit, until finally one tyrant wins out. Instead, the political/military aspects of the society must be firmly in control, but also separated from personal profits that motivate most people.

Locke does say that the leaders of a civil society must act according to the needs of the nation, not the profits of the leadership. However, he sees the threat as coming more from the tyrant’s overreach of power. After all, everyone has a God-given right to private property. To limit the ability of any one person or group to become tyrannical, Locke seeks to divide the power of government between different institutions; and the legislative branch in particular is to be controlled by elected representatives of the people, to make laws that reflect the will of the majority. It is when this separation of powers breaks down, and one person emerges who is able to usurp and combine the legislative, judicial and executive functions, that individual (or perhaps small group) is able to bend the government to the personal profit of the tyrant. So for Plato, money corrupts, and it is the power of money that threatens to undermine government; for Locke, power corrupts, and it is that political corruption that allows profiteering and graft.

Has one or the other proved more convincing over the course of history? Plato’s ideal society, with an elite ruling over the many, has been seen as giving comfort to tyrants, who are apt to imagine themselves as the philosopher-king he describes even when their own personal lives stray far from that ideal. And in fact, tyrants and would-be tyrants did come from among the disciples of Plato, notably including the Greek tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius II. It is easy, it seems, to find followers who will adopt Plato’s recommendations against democracy, free speech and the rest, but harder to find those who will go all the way and renounce personal comfort and wealth in return for being granted leadership.

Locke’s heritage has been more concretely successful. The United States was founded largely by students of Locke, who implemented many of his recommendations. In turn, later British and European governments began to move more towards Locke’s vision of a limited monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, until that has become the dominant form of government in Europe and in many other industrialized countries. While Lockean democracy has often fallen short, and occasionally staggered, rarely has it utterly fallen into tyranny. And at least rhetorically, popular sovereignty is the standard which our politicians profess to follow.

In practice, though, the actual commitment of politicians to Locke’s ideals seems less at times than their professed devotion. This is not merely to say that many would-be tyrants are less than honest about their ambitions; it is to say that while many U.S. politicians may claim to adhere to Jeffersonian ideas of democracy derived largely from John Locke, in practice they seem to think they are Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Plato favored censorship of the arts to avoid arousing the passions; conservatives in the U.S. seek to classify pornography as a public health threat (more so even than childhood obesity or chronic homelessness) so it can be restricted. Plato sought to limit participation in government to an elite that would preserve the social order; conservatives in the U.S. have argued for at least thirty years that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” and thus sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans.[1] This temptation towards elitism (whether the “elite” is defined educationally, racially or whatever) is certainly not limited to conservatives; when I was in college, the most cliquish and self-serving of the student politicians were avowed liberals. They were all political science majors, looking forward to careers in politics or political law. Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, was a particular favorite of theirs, based on their writing in the student newspaper. Their argument was that everyone else was such a narcissist that it was up to them, the self-sacrificing student government, to run things for our good, and the rest of the citizens should just sit back and be grateful—and quiet. I guess the difference is that conservatives in the U.S. seem to have read 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and thought they sounded pretty good, while liberals are more likely trying to recreate Brave New World. None, alas, are really trying to establish Plato’s ideal society, for they all lack the one essential requirement: complete denial of private property to leaders. In that regard, they all claim to be guardians but are in fact more like tyrants.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about Plato’s advice. Shouldn’t social decisions be made by the best educated, most clever and imaginative persons possible? And shouldn’t people who agree to serve do so out of love for the country, rather than hopes of personal gain? And isn’t it a fact that “common sense is not so common,” and that in fact the majority are not either capable or inclined to be effective leaders of society?

This, in fact, is the real difference between Plato and Locke. Plato thought that rationality is pretty rare; most people are ruled by their appetites, and therefore a society that is ruled by the many will be ruled by appetite rather than reason. Locke thought that reason was, if not universal, at least common to most people. He said that reason is the law even in the state of Nature where there is no formal law; even without police and prisons, we more or less know right and wrong and are inclined to do what is right and reasonable. We may disagree, particularly in our own interests, and that is a second element in Locke’s philosophical anthropology: human nature is always mixed. Plato famously argued that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Reason strives for truth; appetite strives for self-gratification; and between them, spirit strives for personal honor and acclaim. Some people, he said, are motivated by their reason, a greater number by their appetite; but some are willing to forgo pleasure for the badges and parades and admiring looks that a brave, self-sacrificing life earns. Locke on the other hand assumes that people are rational and irrational at the same time, liable to self-indulgence and partisanship but also capable of social and practical reasoning. For this reason they can live in a free society where everyone has a voice, since all have something to contribute, but at the same time they need a society because in a state of complete anarchy they would find it too difficult to judge impartially between themselves and their neighbors. The civil society that Locke imagines gives a framework for the exercise of liberty, protecting it against both tyranny and selfish excess.

Since both the Platonic and the Lockean philosophies agree on the danger of tyranny, and both agree that a form of separation of powers is the best way to guard against it, we can accept this as our starting point. Plato’s model, separation of leadership from property, simply has not worked; even he admits as much when he discusses how even Sparta struggles to curb the acquisitiveness of its leaders. Locke’s plan to have separate branches of government, each checking the other so no one person can easily seize total power and become a tyrant, has had more success. Furthermore, as our history has shown by the ever-expanding right to vote, Locke’s philosophy is capable of self-correction and growth. And it is, simply, “the American way.” Our nation was founded, and our Constitution written by people who believed in Locke’s basic insights and who sought to create laws that would bring them to fruition.

Should stupid people be allowed to vote? I follow Locke here: yes! We are all stupid, at least at times, and are almost all capable of reason, at least at times. But more to the point, to deny anyone the right to vote is to put the state at war with that person. Anyone who cannot vote is little more than a conquered subject, not a citizen. A stable society is one where as many people as possible participate and have a stake in the decision, and in the success of the society as an ongoing project. And conversely, a society that denies a sizeable segment of its population the rights of citizenship, and most importantly the right to have a part in writing the laws, creates an enemy in its midst, an enemy that contributes to the economic health of the society and thus cannot simply be ignored or ejected, but who has no good reason to support that society. To be denied the vote is to be a slave, with all the injustice, and all the instability, and all the perverse dependence of the “master” on the “slave” that this entails.

[1] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People To Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)
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