Friday 5 February 2016

An immodest proposal

One might generously suppose that Bill Jamieson's aim was to emulate the satirical hyperbole of Jonanthan Swift's "Modest Proposal" that the children of the poor be processed as food for the rich. But it would, I suspect, be a mistake to credit Jamieson with anything remotely resembling Swiftian wit and wisdom.

One might instead dismiss Jamieson's little offering as nothing more than the ineffectual grumblings of a 'Grumpy Old Man'. And one would surely be closer to the mark. It could readily be argued that his elitist rant is no more to be taken seriously than... well... pretty much anything Jeremy Clarkson says on any subject at all.

But this would be to overlook the fact that, for all the offensive fallaciousness of his anti-democratic proposal may be obvious to most of us, he doubtless speaks for a certain constituency. It is a constituency which is to closely associated with established power to be ignored. It is a constituency which may not be as dismissive of his multiple-votes idea as the rest of us. Because it is a constituency which jealously guards such power and influence as it has with little regard for inconvenient principle. A constituency for whom the niceties of ethics and morality are readily overwhelmed by the rationalisations of entitlement.

Bill Jamieson speaks to/for the lower-to-middle echelons of the British ruling elite.

Distil his argument in this article to its essentials and what do you find? Only the assertion that the capacity to determine the criteria by which power is justified lies entirely with those who have power. Power serves Power.

To illuminate the fallacy in Jamieson's argument that electoral power should be so distributed as to disproportionately favour those who are 'older, wiser and wealthier', we have to understand what he is arguing against - the fundamental democratic principle of 'one person, one vote'.

Democracy is defined as 'a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives'. The key terms in that definition are 'whole population'; 'eligible members'; and 'representatives'. The starting point, and default assumption, is that the 'whole population' is involved. All the governed govern. Everybody has a vote so that government is truly representative.

We then move to the matter of eligibility. Or, more precisely, ineligibility. Because if our default position is, as it must be, that everyone should have a vote, then any process or procedure which qualifies this is, by definition, removing eligibility. Denying eligibility to vote is a very serious matter for a truly democratic society. It is not something that can ever be undertaken lightly. If the right to vote is to be denied to any individual or group, then a clear and very persuasive case must be made.

The most obvious criterion for denying eligibility to vote is age. It is trivial to make the case that infants should be denied the right to vote. As the individual matures, however, it grows increasingly difficult to justify withholding this fundamental right. What is easy to argue in the case of a two-year old is less easy to argue in the case of a twelve-year old, and seriously problematic in the case of a sixteen-year old who is deemed to have most if not all the other significant capacities of an adult as these are defined by the society within which the individual is immersed.

Other criteria may be used to justify denial of voting rights - such as incarceration for crime - but all are, to a greater or lesser extent, controversial because the default assumption is that everybody should have a vote.

Why? Why should this be the default assumption? We must ask this question because rationality requires that all assumptions must be open to challenge.

There is, of course, an argument from principle. Democracy means everyone. Therefore, everyone must be included - or we lose the right to claim democratic status. But there is also a pragmatic argument for maximising the franchise. and, incidentally, maximising participation in the democratic process. That argument stems from the fact that a universal franchise (conditional on high levels of engagement) serves to disempower narrow interests and the extremes by ensuring that they are never a significantly higher proportion of the electorate than of the population as a whole.

Bill Jamieson might argue that his 'modest proposal' does not deny anybody the right to vote. He even concedes that those aged sixteen and seventeen should cease to be denied this right. But this is to ignore the fact that power is relative. He may not be proposing to deny the right to vote to a massive swathe of society, but he is suggesting that the power of their vote be reduced relative to his chosen elite. In effect, he would deny a fraction of the voting rights of large numbers of citizens.

And he would do so on the basis of arbitrary criteria. If we must have secure grounds for denying someone the right to vote, then it stands to reason that we must stipulate an equally secure basis for creating a differential in the power of that vote. The justification for removing half of the right to vote must be no less than the justification for removing all of it because the right to vote is absolute and, therefore, indivisible.

Jamieson's criteria are arbitrary because they do not specify something unique to either the group he would elevate to the status of an elite, or the group he would relegate to an inferior status.

There is nothing that can be true of a person at age 64 which cannot also be true of someone age 16, other than that numerical difference. A 64-year old who has never travelled furth of their village is, in this regard, less experienced than a 16-year old who has been on a few school trips to different European countries.

Why is the experience of being young any less to be regarded than the experience of being old? They are merely alternative experiences. Why should we not adopt youth as our criterion for advantage in terms of voting power?

In all too many instances age brings only prejudice and a set of rigid assumptions about the world and people. In what way does this make an individual better qualified to make policy judgements?

If wealth were a reliable indicator of valuable human qualities then we'd have an insurmountable problem explaining the charcters of some of the world's richest people. Besides which, young people can also achieve considerable wealth by their own efforts. It is hardly unknown for them to do so.

Since most people are relatively poor, how might those with no experience of poverty be better qualified to chose how the poor are governed than those who do have the experience? After all, Jamieson's argument is very largely founded on the value of relevant experience.

We could go on. But I think the pernicious nonsense of Jamieson's proposal is sufficiently evident.

This will not prevent some supporting his call to partially disenfranchise the sections of society which  already tend to be disadvantaged in variety of ways. This support will come from those who see true democracy as a threat to their status and influence. We should heed them. If only because it is useful to be aware of who they are.

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