Saturday, September 18, 2010

Democracy in America?

I touched on this subject last year in a Facebook post, but it is a question that deserves serious consideration in a place where more in depth discussion can take place: should we allow everyone to vote? It is an inflammatory question, given the deep reverence Americans place on the right to vote, but I'm not asking this just to poke people in the eye. Democracy is the rule of government by the people; government itself involves the monopoly of the use of force. Government is extremely complex in operation and theory, but the electorate of this nation barely knows the basic facts, much less the theory behind what constitutes good governance or the empirical record of the history of governments.

Let me put it to you this way: would you let a group of 18 year old kids who have never worked on or even examined how vehicles work repair your car? Would you drive that car afterwords?

If you are like me, you are thinking of course not! That's a sure way of getting killed, along with whoever is in your car and whoever you happen to hit. Government is far more complicated than cars and the stakes are much higher: over a hundred million people died due to tyrannical governments in the last century. That doesn't include war. That is just governments butchering their own people.

My recent experiences in a history classroom have revealed just how little many students know about history or government. And they are two years away from voting. Many of the advanced political science students cannot tell how many female justices are on the Supreme Court (hint: if you can't, I'm heavily implying you are not qualified to take part in government). Doubts I once had about this study disappeared quickly. If anything, I think those numbers are skewed towards the brighter Americans, as those more likely to do poorly would refuse to take that test in the first place.

I'll grant that implementing restrictions on voting would be difficult. Politically, in fact, it would be impossible, as those who would lose that right would certainly use any chance to vote before implementation to protect that right.

But as a matter of principle, shouldn't we only encourage people to vote if they have made a concerted effort to understand good governance and current events? Rather than telling everyone to go vote, shouldn't we set a societal norm that those who do not put any effort into knowing shouldn't be deciding with matters of natural rights for other people?

I'm of the opinion that if you haven't read at least one of these books, you shouldn't head to the polls: John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Publius' Federalist, or de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Again, I understand that the universal right to vote is a basic principle of American democracy now. But if the basic principles are wrong, everything built upon them is likely to be wrong as well. Just because a principle is basic to the populace does not mean it should go unquestioned.

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