Sunday, August 5, 2007

Jonah Goldberg and the Limited Vote

Over at Townhall, Jonah Goldberg has an excellent article on the forbidden topic of all forbidden topics. Kiddie porn? Eugenics? Nefarious NBA referees? Criticisms of religion? Well, that last one is getting close: restricting who can vote.

Any suggestion of such a thing is liable to bring back images of poll taxes and discrimination to keep "them" from voting. Such a reaction, in Goldberg's view, and mine as well, throws the baby out with the bathwater.

"A very high percentage of the U.S. electorate isn't very well qualified to vote, if by 'qualified' you mean having a basic understanding of our government, its functions and its challenges. Almost half of the American public doesn't know that each state gets two senators. More than two-thirds can't explain the gist of what the Food and Drug Administration does.

Now, the point isn't to say that the American people are stupid, which is the typical knee-jerk reaction of self-absorbed political junkies. Rather, it's that millions of Americans just don't care about politics, much the same way that I don't care about cricket: They think it's boring...

And yet, to suggest that maybe some people just shouldn't vote is considered the height of un-Americanism. As economist Bryan Caplan notes in his bracing new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter," there are few subjects on which Americans are more dogmatic and ideological.

Indeed. This is especially surprising given the fact, as Goldberg notes, that we already limit who can vote. Children are excluded, as are the felonious. And yet the idea that the more people who vote, the better off we will be, has become a secular religion not to be questioned, but to be taken on faith, despite any evidence to the contrary:

"The evidence is that if every eligible voter voted, national elections would probably remain unchanged. 'Simply put,' political scientists Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger wrote in a 2001 article, 'The Political Implications of Higher Turnout,' U.S. 'voters' preferences differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted.'"

This rings true to this actuary's ears. The only way more voters would change the results of the elections is if the sample of people voting now are dramatically different from everyone else in terms of political preferences. I've never seen any data to support that, and yet every few years the get-out-the-vote crew is out there chanting it as if it were as solid a fact as the roundness of the earth. Some have even gone so far as to suggest making voting a paying lottery, or even making it mandatory. Interesting that they would bring up a lottery, because from an entirely short-term self-interested POV, it is more logical to buy a lottery ticket than it is to vote: it costs less (if you count the value of time), is more likely to change the outcome, and brings greater rewards of being "right". If we are to increase voter participation, appealing to monetary self-interest is not the way to go.

But back to the unquestioned premise - why? I am reminded of one of those interviews with "undecided voters" during the presidential campaign of 2000, an event I encourage anyone doubting the wisdom of my and Goldberg's view to witness first hand. It can be quite illuminating. In this case, George Bush had been asked about all the millions of uninsured (relative to health care) people in the country, and his answer was (paraphrasing from memory):

"Many of those people are very young, and have limited funds, and have decided voluntarily that it is in their interests to spend their money on other things rather than health care."

The point here is not to lobby for or against that view, but just to note what he actually said. Yet, one of the undecided voters claimed he said this:

"Young people don't need health insurance"

Now, one does not have to be an anarchist to understand that the nation is not better off having such ignorant people voting. Goldberg sums it up this way:

"So, maybe, just maybe, we have our priorities wrong. Perhaps cheapening the vote by requiring little more than an active pulse (Chicago famously waives this rule) has turned it into something many people don't value. Maybe the emphasis on getting more people to vote has dumbed down our democracy by pushing participation onto people uninterested in such things. Maybe our society would be healthier if politicians aimed higher than the lowest common denominator. Maybe the people who don't know the first thing about how our system works aren't the folks who should be driving our politics, just as people who don't know how to drive shouldn't have a driver's license. "

I can't improve on that. What I think I can improve on is the solution. Goldberg suggests a test on basic government function. I think this would fail for a couple of reasons:

1) The danger of the poll tax experience should not be dismissed lightly. Any test is going to carry the bias of the testmaker, and in cases where one party has a lot of control, that gives one more advantage to incumbancy, and they already have enough thank you.

2) It will be a simple thing for the get-out-the-vote crowd to find out what the questions are, and prep the people they drive to the booths. I can see the scene now in the van, as the undecided voters are told the names of their representatives, for the first time and to be remembered for exactly 90 minutes, that they have two senators, and that Supreme Court justices cannot be voted out of office.

My proposal is considerably more radical, but addresses the problem more directly and neutrally. First, take a cue from Florida, who inadvertantly did it right in 2000. Make the ballot complicated. Design it so that it cannot be filled out correctly without a grasp of logic and the English language. Reject all ballots filled out incorrectly.

Second, heed DeTocqueville's words:

"Democracy can survive only so long as it takes the electorate to realize their vote carries the key to the treasury."

IOW, once everyone starts voting solely on perceived financial interests, rather than by any solid philosophical underpinnings of what government should do and how, then it just becomes mob rule, with everyone wanting to vote themselves more of other people's money, and the Democracy dies. I think we are on the cusp of that transition now, and the answer is strikeingly simple, yet politically suicidal: remove the right to vote from anyone who receives more in government transfer payments than they pay in taxes. Put simply, if you do not contribute to the national GDP pie, you don't get a say in how it is divided. Seems fairly straghtforward and just, but any politician who suggested such a thing assures his own destruction because of four letters: AARP.

I'll leave the details of that aspect of it for another post. In the meantime, consider Goldberg's argument. I think it is a good one, and one we should act on soon.

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