Principles and the Franchise

Principles and the Franchise:

Many of you have been following the debate over the last few days, mostly conducted at Cassandra's but also here and at Elise's place, on the issue of the franchise. Of these, Elise categorically rejects, as unprincipled and immoral, the idea of limiting the franchise; Cassandra rejects the idea as well, categorically for all biological distinctions, and on other grounds for service-based distinctions. T99 appears to be interested in the idea, but believes that the safest position is universal suffrage.

I have been arguing that we might reasonably talk through the idea of limiting the franchise -- in other words, I disagree with Elise that the idea is immoral by nature. I agree with her, and with Cassandra, that biological distinctions are categorically unacceptable as a standard (other than youth, which is non-controversial as we all appear to agree that children should not be able to vote). I'm going to talk a bit more about where I think the idea may be worth exploring in a moment, but first I want to address one of Elise's concepts.

Elise raises the objection that the concept of limiting the franchise is "unprincipled," in that it is not based on a moral principle, but mere pragmatism. There are two replies to that objection that ought to be made.

First, political philosophy has to have an element of pragmatism in formulating its principles. We have heard, for example, that 'the Constitution is not a suicide pact.' This means that, if some application of a Constitutional principle would destroy the Republic, the Constitution may be set aside.

That is not 'unprincipled.' Rather, it is one of the principles. This is akin to the "feasibility" loophole in Just War Theory's idea of jus ad bellum: if a war cannot be won, no matter how fully justified it may otherwise be on grounds of self-defense or sorrowful humanity, the war cannot be justified. War always causes harm, and therefore there must be a pragmatic chance that the war will be able to achieve success: you cannot morally wage a war simply because your heart is pure. You have to have a chance to win, or otherwise you're killing people for no reason. You may be right on every other principle, but you have to be right on this one too.

So, to justify considering limiting the franchise, we would need to show that the current franchise is causing what T99 refers to as a "feedback loop" whereby the government-dependent classes are voting themselves wealth from the public treasury at a rate that is likely to destroy the Republic. That position would need to be thoroughly argued, which is not the business of this piece. At a glance, though, it is not infeasible that we are indeed facing such a contingency.

Second, it is in fact the case that there are principles that would justify limiting the franchise. We discussed Alexander Hamilton's -- which he took from Blackstone -- at Cassandra's place today. This is the relevant part of the Blackstone quote Hamilton cited.

If it were probable that every man would give his vote freely and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing these delegates, to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty, and his life. But since that can hardly be expected in persons of indigent fortunes, or such as are under the immediate dominion of others, all popular states have been obliged to establish certain qualifications...
We are accustomed to thinking that Hamilton, etc., was aiming at 'the mob,' in the way that Plato and Aristotle were deeply concerned about the negative effects of democracy. They had reason to be, as we were discussing in another post at Cassandra's today: they had seen that democracy destroy itself, lead them into wars and then refuse to commit to supporting those wars (as Nicias at Sicily was at times denied support by the legislature); they had seen it lead them into civil war; they had seen it twice suspend its constitution; they had seen it give itself to foreign powers, and domination by Sparta. They had seen it execute Socrates, who had fought for it in his youth. The Romans likewise were deeply concerned about the reality of the Roman mob.

Hamilton, though, is not really taking an aristocratic stance against the mob. He's not worried about how the mob would vote, if they could vote independently: he's worried that their domination by a powerful, wealthy figure who controls their destiny will decide them. Hamilton was not out to prevent the poor from voting, that is to say: he was out to prevent the rich from dominating the new republic with bribes, favors, and threats. What he was doing was protecting the middle class, those shopkeepers and yeoman farmers who had fought for the revolution.

That's 'pragmatism' of the sort Elise is concerned about. It's also, though, a principle: that a certain independence is required in order to be able to participate in a vote. Today we don't consider poverty a bar to independence, because we have generous public programs that are 'entitlements,' so that no one can be pushed to the point of starvation by a wealthy mill-owner. Yet consider the drug addict, whose addiction may drive him instead of his reason: is he independent enough -- does he, as Cassandra says in her post on character, have adequate character -- to participate in public life? But he may have committed no felony that would disqualify him.

I do not share Hamilton's principle. I offer it merely an example of a principle.

I have a different core principle that is causing me to look again at these issues: the concept of frith. As we begin to watch the nation tear itself apart, I naturally look toward frith as the thing we need to rebuild. And what is it? It is a concept of mutual support, common defense, and service to each other. The word is related to "friendship," and to "freedom," because it is this fellow-service that allows us to win and defend a space in which we can be free.

If this is my guiding principle here, it is not a commonly understood one; and it's one that many of you may have not encountered elsewhere. I haven't written about it for a long time, so it's possible you have forgotten even if you've been a long time reader.

The first post on the subject comes from the earliest days of the Hall, way back in March of 2003: scroll to Section V in this essay. Here is a post from 2003 on the subject. Here is one from an early debate between me and Cassandra, on shame.

The debate in 2007 has a number of parts, which begin here; then here; then Joel's first reply; my reply to him; his reply to me; mine to him; Daniel's reply.

The principle is not mine alone, however: we very recently discussed how many of our traditional liberties, including the franchise, are based in feudal service. This is much the same concept, although frith is the Old English rather than the Carolingian version of it.

I have named two groups that seem to me to be good sources: parents who faithfully raise their children, and military servicemembers. I've named something that seems promising as an example of a disqualifier: betraying your bond to your children (as for example by abandoning them without support). I'm sure there are other kinds of qualifying service, and other kinds of things that should be disqualifying; I've only begun to think this through in the last few days. I may eventually reject the idea; but I want to think about it, and talk it through.

Neither group is a pragmatic choice on Elise's terms: both are quite likely to oppose me on any given question. For example, see this post from 2004, when I talk about the frith-bond between myself and a beloved friend who disagrees with me on everything political: but this is just the kind of person, devoted to the nation and its joys, that we ought to want to enjoy the franchise however she votes.

In any event, I wanted to note that there is a principle at work here -- one that I've thought about, and written about, both at length and for a long time. I hadn't really thought about how to apply it to this question before, but if a failure of frith and a rise of government-backed plundering factions are bankrupting and destroying the nation, we may want to look at ways to use what frith remains to strengthen the republic. Looking for people who have demonstrated the virtue in their lives, and making them the chief voice in guiding our future, may be one way of doing that. There may be other ways; there may be better ways. This is why I'm thinking about the question, however.

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