Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Democracy and stupidity II

The Maverick Philosopher responds to my post on democracy and stupidity. His chief criticism?

If all interests must be counted equally, then I wonder if this doesn't entail that voting privileges must be extended to all mentally competent people who can read and write.

This would entail extending the vote to children and criminals, something he regards as a reductio ad absurdum. While I agree that it creates pressure for the widest possible franchise, I don't think that it necessarily requires giving children the vote, and I have no problem with inserting a tacit arbitrary restriction to adults if it makes him happy.

(At the same time, the inability of modern democratic systems to properly represent the interests of children and young people is a well-known flaw. Because they cannot vote, they have no effective voice, and it is particularly easy for their elders to pursue policies which unfairly impose costs on them. Running deficits, using finite resources, and allowing pollution are three general examples. More specifically, there's the American policy of conscription during the Vietnam War (which targetted people who could not then vote), and New Zealand's own student loan scheme, which imposed costs on future tertiary students so that their parents could enjoy lower taxes. Recognition of this fact has led to a general downward trend in the voting age, and it looks to go even lower in the future...)

As for criminals, there's nothing at all absurd about them voting - as Maverick points out, they have just as much a stake in society as anybody else. Civilised societies recognise this. Sadly, the United States does not.

Reading on, Maverick shares the same concern as Philosophy et cetera - that people may not necessarily know their own best interests, and that

injudicious and misinformed people could easily vote against their own best interests.

Indeed they might - but that is no reason to deny the validity of their choice. Fallibility is a part of being human, and people's mistakes are theirs to make. Denying this and arrogating to yourself the right to second-guess people's choices on the grounds that they may make a mistake not only strips their lives of meaning, but it invites us to supplant their interests with our own. More importantly, it is the first step on the road to the gulag and the re-education center. "People don't know what's best for them" is the underlying justification of every totalitarian government.

Finally, Maverick raises the idea of the "common interest". This is ontologically dubious - all interests are ultimately personal - and inasmuch as people vote against it, it cannot truly be said to be "common". But even if it were, it would still be no reason to limit political choice. As Mill said,

if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

This goes for voting as much as speech.