Saturday, September 3, 2011

Conservative Candor

Hats off to Matthew Vadum, who posted an article on American Thinker arguing that it is un-American to help register poor people to vote. It's not that I agree with his post, but I think it's refreshing to read an intellectually honest argument against expanding the franchise. (On TPM, where I saw a post about this article, they seemed to take a similarly appreciative view. The comments, however, are not so friendly.) But I would much rather debate Vadum's position than debate those who make the intellectually dishonest argument that we need to make it harder to vote in order to prevent fraud. Voter fraud is not a significant problem in this country. You do not find squads of homeless people or undocumented immigrants seeking to vote repeatedly or illegally. Nobody need bother to round up such people since there is an abundance of legally eligible voters out there who aren't motivated enough to vote even if you offer to drive them to the polls and buy them a latte on the way. Low voter turnout is a real problem in this country; voter fraud is not. Anyone who is talking about preventing fraud is advocating spending resources on an insignificant problem, and is ignoring the real problem.

But back to Matthew Vadum. He has the sense to stay out of the phony argument about voter fraud, and instead argues that the real problem with our republic is that empowering poor people allows them to steal from more productive members of society. This is a respectable argument against too much democracy that has been made for hundreds of years. I don't agree with it, but at least it is intellectually respectable.  If we give the have-nots the franchise, we would naturally expect them to favor free medical care and free education and all kinds of other benefits that taxpayers must pay for. And we would expect politicians to promise such benefits in order to obtain the votes of people who favor them. And when the have-nots outnumber the haves, and demand more than we can produce, that can create an unsustainable problem for the economy. The sad thing about Mr. Vadum's argument is that it reflects just how far the disparities in wealth have extended in this country. Politicians used to appeal to middle class resentment against supposed welfare freeloaders, and that kept social programs in check. They didn't have to worry so much about the numbers of poor people voting. Now the defenders of the status quo seem afraid that the ranks of the dispossessed are growing so large that they are going to demand a major redistribution of wealth. They might think the only way to prevent that is to discourage poor people from voting.

Instead of advocating less democracy, what we should all be working on is expanding the size of the middle class in this country. Right now we have the super-rich, the well-off, and everybody else struggling to get by. If we can change the shape of that curve a bit, conservatives might not have to worry so much about a poor people's revolt at the ballot box, or plot ways to disenfranchise the poor.

Also, while I have to applaud Vadum's honesty, his solution lacks coherence. Once we have decided to extend the franchise to everyone, regardless of sex, race or property qualifications, it doesn't make sense to advocate backhanded ways of discouraging poor people from voting. That is cheating. If you're really going to be honest about taking power away from poor people, you would have to advocate a return of the poll tax, or some constitutional changes that would limit the majority's ability to tax the wealthy. We have provisions like that enshrined in California's constitution, however, since Proposition 13, and what I would tell Vadum is that they are making our state ungovernable. I see no real alternative to full democracy, and the best ways to make our democracy work better are to get everyone better educated, get everyone better off, and get everyone to the polls to vote!

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