Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Universal suffrage: Not always a good idea

Universal suffrage is something we take for granted in western countries. That every man and women above a certain age (in the US 18) can vote is seen as maybe the most important rights of all, and most Americans believe the US should work to spread this right to countries where people don't currently have it.

I agree - to a certain extent.

I believe we that there are two things we need to recognize:

1) Of the fundamental rights - the right to vote, the freedom of speech, religion and press etc - the right to vote is the least important. Free speech occured long before universal suffrage, as did freedom of press and religion. You can have them without having the right to vote. Everyone - exactly everyone - in the US has freedom of speech, even a five year old. But the right to vote is limited to those above 18, because only those above 18 can be trusted to have developed a good enough understanding of the world to vote (that is of course just one reason, but it pretty much sums it up). Which brings us to my second point:
2) In other countries, the right to vote may have to be limited not by age, but by other requirements such as literacy.

It is the second point that I'm going to discuss in greater detail.

In some countries, illiteracy rates are as high as 90 %. This includes most african and some asian countries. I believe that universal suffrage in those countries is undesirable, as people who cannot read doesn't make for good voters. How can you be an informed voter when you can't read a party manifesto? How do you factcheck candidates' claims when you can't read? The answer is you don't. And that is why universal suffrage so often ends in disaster when tried in developing countries.

Look at Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, the massmurderer dictator, was once democratically elected. How did that ever happen? He was just really good at fooling clueless naive Zimbabweans who had no way of factchecking his claims (and who had never heard of the disastrous results communism had brought in the Soviet Union). Ridiculous pie in the sky promises that voters here would have recognized as such were believed by the gullible Zimbabwean people.

I'm not against suffrage in African countries - but looking back, maybe it would have been a good idea to limit the suffrage to the 10 % of Zimbabweans who actually know how to read and write?

This isn't the only time this has happened. Whenever suffrage is given to people who don't know how to read and write, disastrous consequences follow. Often, illiterate people don't even know who or what they're voting for. Someone told them to write down some funny signs on a piece of paper, and that if they did so, manna would fall from heaven. That's essentially how illiterate people vote.

I've already discussed the problems of the "dumb vote" as I call it in a previous post. Now imagine if the "dumb vote" consisted of 90 % of the population. Not a good platform for democracy, right? In particular as politicians in Africa effectively have an incentive to keep their people uneducated; if they were educated they'd vote for someone else. Of course you can't tell voters that you're going to keep their kids away from school, but once elected, you can invent excuses as for why those investments in education that you promised hasn't happened (most likely this will mean blaming everything on the white man)
The risk is also very great when illiteracy is high that a leader will be elected who will make sure that no more elections are held - he will make himself a dictator. Of course this could happen anyway, but the risk is certainly higher in countries where illiteracy is the norm. A democracy where people who can't read or write are allowed to vote is bound to be shortlived.

Iraq and Iran are both countries with low illiteracy rates, and so universal suffrage could - notice, COULD - work in those countries. But certainly not in the majority of African countries.
So what is the solution then? Should we just sit down and do nothing? Of course not.
We should insist on freedom of speech for every human on this planet. We should promote freedom of religion and press as well, and the right to assembly. We should work to educate people in developing countries, through (private) foreign aid investments.

But we should not insist on universal suffrage in countries that aren't ready for it.

Some may say that universal suffrage is the only way the oppressed and impoverished africans can get a say. I understand that point of view, but the facts are truly stubborn: Without literacy, universal suffrage cannot work. Does anyone seriously believe that the leaders elected by said impoverished africans have made anything better for them?

If we want democracy all over the world, and I for one do, we need to understand that it has to happen step by step. As conservatives, we do not believe in revolution; we believe in reform and realism.

It is time we apply realism to the issue of global universal suffrage as well. Thanks for reading.

John Gustavsson


Noelle said...

It is an interesting discussion. On the one hand, using literacy as a limitation to vote is understandable because the ability to read is helpful to understand the candidates positions. On the other hand, using literacy as a limitation to vote is also a good way to keep the oppressed in that condition. It was used as a justification to prevent blacks from voting during the early days of black suffrage. Make it difficult for them to learn to read, then make literacy a requirement to vote. It's a bad idea.

Watching some of the idiotic votes that take place at times I am tempted to suggest limitations on suffrage, but ultimately, it is a right that I cannot feel comfortable limiting. The voters will make mistakes sometimes, as we all do, but hopefully they will also correct those mistakes.

John said...

Thank you for your comment Noelle.

First, I understand this is a very difficult topic. However, I believe that the situation for blacks in the US was different than the situation for blacks in Africa. The US had the power to teach all the black people in the US to read and write, so that they could become informed voters. In many african countries, that's just not the case.

This isn't really about voters making a mistake, it's about tricking people into voting for something, people who don't even know what they are voting for as they can't read or write. They are being used and abused by people like Mugabe.

Machtyn said...

Leave it to my history major wife to make the good points.

I, too, would like to limit the right to vote to people who are actually paying attention. How often do we hear of the Union bus to the polling station. Along the way they are talking up the Democrat candidate (whether or not he's the best choice). How often do have hoards of uninformed, or half-informed, people lining up to vote in the First "whatever" President or leader.

Perhaps a quick 2 or 3 multi-choice question about the major candidates should be administered. If they get one question right, their votes count. If they get none of them correct, throw the ballot out. Questions should be easy - such as "In what state do you live?" "In what state does your representative live?" "[Candidate Name] stands for [hot topic of the day] (T/F):"

The questions would be random.

Again, though, like Noelle stated, for the USA and other developed nations, Suffrage should be universal at the age of maturity.

Youtube search term: end women's suffrage petition Far too many results here. Below are a few.
End Women's Suffrage at another school of excellence
End Women's Suffrage at Univ. Tampa
End Women's Suffrage at Winston Churchill High School - a Blue Ribbon Scholarship school
End Women's Suffrage (Most look like high schoolers, but it could be college.)
End Women's Suffrage - Mall worker's edition

TO BE FAIR, most of the petitioners were misleading in the video, at times, agreeing with people that answered that suffrage = suffering. I can't find the one really good video where the petitioner was not misleading, made the request in non-confrontational ways, and actually got a few correct responses from ladies. The sad thing is, there are FAR too many people who have graduated high school and do not understand how to be good civic members. I realize we can't be knowledgeable or expert in all things, but if we want to VOTE, we need to understand the issues surrounding our vote.

Machtyn said...

Univ. of Vermont:
A good mix of some right and most wrong answers.

Noelle said...

Voters in the US are frequently being tricked into voting for things that are ultimately bad for the country and bad for individuals. The ability to read does not prevent politicians from lying or manipulating the electorate.

I am almost more tempted to limit suffrage to those who pay taxes. Not totally tempted, but paying taxes does make a person more interested in how their money is being spent.

John said...

Noelle, you're comparing apples with oranges. It is a completely different thing in Africa as people there CAN'T factcheck the claims candidates make. At least in the US they can and are able to if they want to. Unfortunately they don't always do, but they can. They're not helpless, like african voters.

Machtyn, it's very interesting that you're bringing it up as I wrote a post about that very thing a couple of months ago:

Basically, I agree with you on the limits to voting. That's another type of limit one could have - my point is, a simple age limit doesn't work very well, in particular not in countries were a huge share of the population aren't educated enough to be informed voters.

Noelle said...

If I believed that the literate citizens of the countries of Africa considered the issues that are relevant to the non-literate citizens, I might agree with you, but I don't believe that.

But then, I've never been to Africa. Maybe all of the literate people in Africa are completely dedicated to the rule of law and the betterment of their countries.

Ohio JOE said...

"but looking back, maybe it would have been a good idea to limit the suffrage to the 10 % of Zimbabweans who actually know how to read and write?" I would bet that these 10% would be even more likely to vote for their current dictatorial form of government. After all, the so-called educated class voted for Mr. Obama and look what we have.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated this post. I don't really have an answer, but I find the discussion productive. Thank you for your efforts, John.

Anonymous said...

First of all, universal suffrage is the only way to protect the rights of the people whom you claim are unqualified to vote. In Africa, the literate people you refer to are the rich, the rich who have become rich off of the accumulation of wealth from profiting off the poor, and in many cases, even fraudulent and criminal activities. The same is true in our country, before women's suffrage, women could not protect their rights because they did not have a say. The same with African American suffrage. I am as frustrated as you are by uneducated voters, but simply put, universal suffrage is the surest way to protect other fundamental rights, at least conceptually. When it comes to the constitution, you have to go with the spirit of it. Democracy is a grand experiment where reality is often different than intent, but it is the intent by which legitimate freedom is measured. Not reality. If we were judged by reality, no country on the planet could ever be free.