A news headline screams against Steve Bannon. Why? Because, at some time in the past, he argued that only property owners should vote.
This, of course, triggered predictable responses.
It seems a tad strange that the several states’ ballot-access rules during the original federal republic are cause of scandal today. Yes, the United States franchise was limited to “men of property” during the union’s early years.
I am sympathetic with Bannon’s fleeting opinion. I have had the same thought, turned the same idea around and around in my head.
Well, property owners take on more of a specific kind of responsibility than do the propertyless. Indeed, the very existence of real property in one’s holdings indicates some level of solvency and reliability. Those who do not own property are less likely to be able to cover debts, or repay care provided in cases of incapacitation. Property owners must have a longer time horizon, and are less likely to seek to plunder others’ wealth to cover their own irresponsibility.
That latter possibility is an obvious problem with democracy, so limiting the vote to just those who have some sort of stake — “skin in the game” — in a society based on respect for property rights should discourage corruption and encourage financial stability in government and long-term thinking in general.
Restricting the vote to property owners — that is, limiting the franchise — would seem to provide voters with incentives to support stable, sustainable government, and avoid the temptation to support what Bastiat called “legal plunder,” which entices a widespread urge to attempt to live at others’ expense.
The problem with this, though, is that it does not take into account the reasoning on the issue by one antebellum political group in America. That group was the LocoFoco Party.
These activists of the formally-named Equal Rights Party in 1830s New York — and colleagues in other states — opposed the crony capitalism of their day, the corruption and insider self-dealing of the “monopolies” bred by state legislatures.
As they saw it, the limited franchise had not lived up to its theorized promise. Crony capitalism had metastazied in the young republic. It had not taken long. The “men of property” had not resisted the siren song of “cronyism.” And the LocoFocos fought the insider “monopolies” — as part of the Jacksonian and other reform movements.
Of course, it came to pass that today’s full franchise took time to flower — women only got the right to vote throughout the union in 1920. But as the franchise was widened, so, too, did government grow, as more and more was demanded of the State by voters. And, of course, many of those male and female voters had scant holdings. As one would expect.
Not all that slowly, corruption grew and grew in American life, as the number of laws and the number of wealth transfers through government increased.
Would limiting the franchise, today, help?
Well, we could require that voters consist of net taxpayers, not net tax consumers. This kind of a rule would dampen the incentives of democratic voting to usher in legal plunder.
Or, we could require voters to take out a bond to vote. Basically, make potential voters show the wherewith to gain mercantile confidence to fund defense in a legal case, or weather financial tragedy.
Other schemes could be developed. The whole idea is that we should stack the deck against popular government’s tendency to grow government.
The articles I read on Bannon’s limited franchise idea note that a property requirement would favor whites over blacks, suggesting that the whole issue is at base racial: “The groups most likely to own homes are whites and older people.”
But the factor I suggested at the beginning is not a racist one, unless you think non-whites and younger people are necessarily more irresponsible than today’s typical homeowner. (A racist thought in and of itself, no?) If you look at the exact reasons the founders gave for limiting the franchise, you will see why the idea was indeed all about incentivizing responsible citizenship and good governance. In Aristotelian terms, the limited franchise idea is a timocratic idea, not a democratic one. And democracies, Aristotle wrote, were the corrup form of timocracies.
So, I would not say Bannon’s past flirting with limiting the franchise indicates either unpatriotic or necessarily hateful attitudes. I suspect he considered the notion as a way to rein in today’s unaccountable, irresponsible government. A misguided attempt, sure. It does not quite pass history’s smell test. But at a time when federal debt is increasing at alarming rates, and expanding to insolvent proportions, I say give the man some latitude.
Still, I understand the incredulity that most people would greet the idea. Most folks look at voting as a right of liberty — quite basic — and not as a wild-card factor in good governance.
I, on the other hand, suspect that if we must have a State, it might very well be better were it run on timocratic, not democratic, principles.
The real question would be: how? Limiting it to just “men” (or, more expansively, “people”) of property seems to fly in the face of what we know.