Thursday, November 15, 2018

Casting Our Vote(s)

Let us give thanks that this election cycle has ended, and we'll have a short rest from the acrimonious politicking. (Maybe. It seems that nowadays we hardly get a moment's peace before campaigning for the next election starts.) The political barrage reminds me of an entertaining article on that topic by Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein's essay and story collection EXPANDED UNIVERSE includes a short section defending his controversial novel STARSHIP TROOPERS and proposing, with varying degrees of apparent seriousness, alternative methods of determining who gets the right to vote. (You won't find this piece by scanning the table of contents; it's the Afterword to "Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?") He suspects that one major objection to STARSHIP TROOPERS is that it portrays a political structure in which the franchise must be earned—a policy Heinlein seems to approve of. He asks us to stipulate that "some stabilizing qualification is needed (in addition to the body being warm) for a voter to vote responsibly with proper consideration for the future of his children and grandchildren—and yours." He points out that the "Founding Fathers never intended to extend the franchise to everyone"; a citizen had to be "a stable figure in the community" as evidenced by owning property, employing others, or the like. Heinlein skips over the part where the Founding Fathers didn't grant the vote to the Founding Mothers, much less people of whatever gender who belonged to the wrong race.

He goes on to suggest some possible alternatives to universal "warm body" franchise, in addition to the STARSHIP TROOPERS requirement for earning citizenship through public service. (1) The government's sole source of revenue comes from the sale of franchises. In other words, legalize the buying of votes. Heinlein believes if the price per vote were set high enough, few rich people would want to impoverish themselves to control an election. (2) Solve a math problem in the election booth before being allowed to cast a vote. As a variation on that plan, deposit a non-trivial sum of money first, which you get back if you qualify but lose if you fail the test. Under that rule, only citizens seriously interested in the political process would bother to participate. Considering that he thinks his idea of requiring people to solve a quadratic equation might be "too easy," I'm dubious of this notion. Having never really grokked math and having forgotten whatever I once knew about quadratic equations, I would surely find myself disenfranchised.

His final suggestion arises from the fact that female suffrage hasn't changed society and politics as much as suffragists predicted. Maybe the change didn't go far enough. Suppose, in a spirit of fairness, we don't allow men to vote for the next hundred and fifty years? Voting, office-holding, and the profession of law would be reserved for women. He goes even further with this modest proposal by pondering whether those rights should be restricted to mothers, who have an inescapable stake in society.

Like Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" for eating babies, Heinlein's hypothetical ideas for reforming our political system sneak up on the reader so smoothly that, for a few seconds, one feels they almost make sense. He also mentions Mark Twain's "The Curious Republic of Gondour," which can be read here:

The Curious Republic of Gondour

Under the system of this imaginary nation, every citizen automatically has one vote. They acquire additional votes, however, according to their education and wealth. A poor man or woman with a "common-school" education has two votes, someone with a high-school diploma gets four, and a university education bestows nine votes, a coveted and highly respected honor. The number of votes one is entitled to also rises in increments based on wealth, but those can be lost if the individual's wealth decreases. As a result, in the government of Gondour "ignorance and incompetence had no place. . . . A candidate for office must have marked ability, education, and high character, or he stood no sort of chance of election."

Imagine living under a government where we could count on those qualifications!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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