Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Votes for who exactly?

Someone recently raised with me the issue of why all governments, no matter how good, get into electoral trouble over the long-term. There are of course various reasons, including self-satisfaction, institutional inertia, inevitable increases in corruption, and the inevitability of an opposition eventually sorting itself out. But my point is that the real reason is simply time.

Even the very best governments, facing the very worst oppositions, have to face the fact that after 11 years in power they are facing an entire generation of new voters who have never known anything else, and are willing to try any sort of change. If your new voter was six or seven years of age in the first term of the government, they realistically had little interest in or understanding of politics. In the intervening 11 years virtually every statement they have heard about politics has blamed the government for everything that is wrong (perhaps fairly, but who knows). Naturally they are quite capable of believing that any alternative must be better. All an opposition has to do is play dumb and not make any comments it can actually be caught out on, and it will be elected.

The average voting margin in an Australian election is 48% versus 52% (with the peculiarities of the system occasionally allowing a government with about 49% of the vote to win anyway). This means that you only need 2% of the population to change their minds between elections, which is not a difficult thing in itself given what passes the minds of the average voter. Once you add in the fact that more than 10% of the electorate is voting for the first time, it is hard to see how any government, no matter how inspired, can survive simple demographic change.

Which of course brings us to the question, should those 18-year-olds be voting in the first place?

I always raise this issue with the level of seven students when we are looking at ancient Greek democracy. I asked them what magical thing suddenly allows them to get a vote? When they identify that I’m talking about a birthday, I then use the question that Professor William Rubinstein once asked at a seminar I was running for the Deakin education faculty. “Why shouldn’t you pass an IQ test before you vote? Why shouldn’t a really smart 14-year-old, get a vote in preference to a really stupid 18 year old?”

This almost always gets a debate going on, but usually along the lines of “just cos”. However I was shocked, stunned, and not a little amazed (to quote Billy Connolly), to have one young girl recently respond with, “Well even 18-year-olds don’t know enough about the world that they should be voting yet!”

This is of course usually correct, and I was delighted to repeat to her class information on the site of Australia’s most embarrassingly puerile political organisation before a recent election. On one page they had the argument that the voting age should be lowered to 16 years. Which might have been fair enough if you didn’t keep reading through the website, because soon after that they had another page quoting the new scientific evidence that the human brain is not properly developed for decision making and judging risk until you hit your early to mid-20s. Naturally, being completely unconcerned with self contradictory statements, they were happy to suggest on this page that people should not be chargeable with criminal offences until they hit 21!

In fact age franchise is a fairly recent, and fairly stupid invention. Many other franchises have been tried in the past, almost all of which have equally unjustifiable reasoning. There have always been sex franchises of course; many places have had race franchises; franchises based on religion have been common; property franchises have been popular; franchises based on the amount of tax you pay have been used; and some recent writers have even suggested that you should only get a vote if you pay one more cent in tax than you receive in welfare support.

This last concept, suggested by science-fiction writers such as David Webber (whose Honor Harrington series have a better discussion of political philosophy than most of the academic discussions who concurrently find in bookshops), is actually much closer to the original Greek idea of democracy than any other version of the franchise. It implies the concept of putting in before getting a say.

The Greeks combined the words ‘demos’, in which roughly translated as ‘the people’, and ‘kratos’, which approximately equals ‘power’: to put together the concept of democracy. But it is important to note that the word did not have a particularly positive connotation. Plato, and others, considered it to denote ‘ the tyranny of the unworthy’. And they foretold the time of ‘ bread and circuses’, and suggested that it would always be very, very stupid to give people a say, unless they had demonstrated their willingness and ability to put the welfare of others above their own greed.

For the Hoplite class in Ancient Athens, this was relatively easy. Having a say, and being in a position where you could be elected to high office: involved in an extremely thorough demonstration of sacrifice, commitment to the group, and willingness to take risks for the benefit of their society. You had to buy a very expensive bronze armour and equipment from your own purse; train regularly at your own expense; sublimate your own ego to the good of the phalanx; demonstrate your willingness to take orders and work as part of the team; and to take the most dangerous positions in the front rank of the fighters: and only then will you be eligible for high office. Anybody who would not undertake the three great requirements of being a member of the Hoplite class - farming, fighting, and participation in politics - was defined as completely unworthy. In fact they had a special terms are such a person, as they called them ‘idiotes’.

Other members of Greek society were also allowed to vote if they took a risk. Poorer farmers were enrolled as skirmishers, and could thus qualify for a say in the politics, and for lower positions of authority in the system. They would never take as much risk as the upper middle class hoplites in the front rank of the phalanx, so it was inconceivable that such a person could be elected to high authority. But they did take many of the administration positions in the Athenian empire, which we would consider to be civil service officials. (The argument that the Athenian empire was expanded to satisfy the needs of these middle-class officials I have covered in another article.) The very poorest could serve in the Navy as rowers, and thus also get a say. It was inconceivable that such a person would be elected to a high position. The amount of authority you could have, and the amount of say you effectively had, was correctly proportional to the amount of risk you took in the preservation of your society. Demonstrated unwillingness to play the proper part in the welfare of your society - being an ‘idiotes’ - actually excluded you from any say in the process as well.

Most level seven students who I discuss this concept with are usually quite impressed by the concept that you should demonstrate a willingness to put the interests of others above your own interests, before you get a vote. Some of course insists that they have a right to a vote just because. (Sorry, that should be… “ just ‘cos”.) Yet the vast majority seem intrigued by the idea that they should do either a couple of years of military service, or, in the modern world, at least a couple of years helping the Salvation Army feed the homeless: before being offered a vote in return.

Unfortunately I doubt we can get voluntary service as a prerequisite for voting up. Shame really, but probably not surprising. We are too ‘democratised’… But perhaps there is a more ‘modern’ way.

Interestingly, when we returned to whether people should get a vote at any specific age, it was a Baby-boomer teacher who got quite hot and bothered about the concept that people should get the vote at age 18, if they could be conscripted at age 18. (I carefully refrained from mentioning to the students that we could do in interesting little social analysis exercise at this point.)

I returned to the concept of directly to age and service. In Victoria young drivers can get a learner’s licence at age 17, but require adult supervision. They get the first grade of their ‘P’ plates at age 18, and work through another level before reaching their full licence status at age 21. (Which happens to coincide with the point at which the brain is supposedly reaching maturity. Coincidence?) Certainly given that the age at which people can leave school and start work is about 16 or 17 in most states, I see no reason to this bar them from starting the process of having a licence at the same age. On the other hand I can see no real justification are saying “you can start work, so we will give you unrestricted right to drink and drive as well”.

There are two things wrong with just giving somebody a vote at a certain age, even on the excuse that they can do other things at the same age. The first, is that they have not demonstrated any commitment to what they are being given a vote in yet. The second is the abandonment of the ideal of an apprenticeship.

Personally, I think we should throw the idea of age out the window, and go with the idea of contribution. If someone starts working and paying taxes at the age of 16 or 17, they should be entitled to have a say after the completion of a full year of paying taxes (let us called this ‘L’ plate’s). perhaps the first stage of their ‘P’ plates would see them eligible to vote in local government. Another year would get them to the point where they could vote in state elections, and the process would be complete when they could vote in federal elections. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it might give them a chance to see the effect (or lack of effect), of their vote in the political system at a local level, before they get thrown into the national and international decision-making arena.

Writer after writer, philosopher after philosopher, has warned against the dangers of giving things away without a recognisable cost. By far the most dangerous thing you can give away without any sense of duty or obligation being involved, is a say in how your society is run. If we are not going to insist that people have demonstrated a willingness to put the welfare of others above their own, then at the very least we might consider having a vote as being as important, or dangerous, is driving a car.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Nigel,
    Would you please contact me at about a possible article for our magazine? (Against the Odds). Thanks
    Andy Nunez