Monday, September 5, 2011

Assessing Universal Suffrage

In his series on the various basic theories of ethics, Professor Massimo Pigliucci, while writing on egalitarianism, wrote the following:
"The first obvious question about egalitarianism is: equality of what? For instance, in most modern democratic societies it is uncontroversial that citizens have an equal right to vote, or an equal right to justice. I doubt anyone would reasonably disagree with that sort of egalitarianism, except for despots, many men in a large part of the world (wherever women don’t have equal legal rights), and incurable aristocrats."
In response, I wrote the following:
"Universal justice is hardly objectionable. I find universal suffrage to be much less unassailable. For example, Daniel Okrent in "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" argues that women's suffrage was a decisive, cooperating cause of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the distribution of alcohol. If this is true, it, in my mind, should have been weighed against the benefits of women's suffrage at the time. I should add that William Lecky in 'Liberty and Democracy' made the following claim: "Universal suffrage, which to-day excludes free trade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning-jenny and the power-loom.'"
In response to my response, Pigliucci wrote the following:

"[Y]ou can't be serious abut universal suffrage. Or maybe you are, unfortunately. That [Lecky's quote] sounds like nonsense to me. And at any rate, I agree with Rawls that civil rights come before economic advantages, so there..."

This hardly qualifies as a cogent objection. But given that Pigliucci has objected, I may conclude that he rejects my appeal to consequences. Here's why I find this troubling.

Assume that a religious or political minority within a nation has been disenfranchised for however long. Now assume that considerable political transformations have led to the establishment of universal suffrage whereby adult members of this minority will now retain the right to vote and participate in the electoral process. Furthermore, this minority has sinister political intentions (the establishment of religious laws prohibiting all kinds of activities and voluntary transactions among consenting adults) and is sufficiently large to influence the staffing of the legislature and the executive and, thereby, influence the content of enacted laws.

Given the above developments, would Pigliucci remain an advocate of universal suffrage? It would seem so, given his flippant rejoinder. Thus, a right to vote, according to this devotion to universal suffrage, should not be accompanied by a right to a competent electorate. Pigliucci regards himself as an exponent of reason and of skepticism. Why then would he spare the irrational voter?

The right to vote is but one element within an amalgam of political phenomena that go curiously unexamined. Why do we champion such a right to begin with if we're willing to tolerate the irresponsible exercising thereof?


  1. I read a good article on this at Forbes awhile ago. It sure generated some heated responses. Here's the link:

  2. I'm not sure I understand your argument. Universal suffrage is objectionable in the case of women being given the right to vote because you object to the outcome of an election result you attribute to women voters? That's your argument? That universal suffrage can lead to results you disagree with or, in the case of the election of a National Socialist plurality in Weimar Germany, an extremely bad result. It seems that your argument is not with universal suffrage, but with popular sovereignty. If citizens agree to a form of government that provides for popular sovereignty than the right to vote should be a universal right, and not based on class, race or gender distinctions.