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John Stuart Mill on one-man-one-vote

SEATTLE, Washington - If we can't get rid of democracy in favor of a better way of each of us getting the government we want, at least we can look at addressing some of the flaws of democracy. I mentioned in this book review that I find the one-man-one-vote principle to be flawed in that it gives my vote the same weight as that of a less competent or deserving person.

I've thought briefly about different ways to weigh votes (e.g. proportional to taxes paid). Turns out, none other than John Stuart Mill was on the case way back in the 1850s. His essay Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform 1859 proposed a weighted voting scheme.

The first half or so of the essay is a discussion of districting schemes in Britain in the 1850s, dry even by my standards (and I enjoy reading learned 19th century English). He then steers the discussion to his thoughts about what would be "the ideal conception of a perfect representative government, however distant, not to say doubtful, may be the hope of actually obtaining it."

When most people hear you question the one-man-one-vote scheme, they automatically assume that you want to deny the vote to some people. Mill makes it clear that this is not where he stands, and enumerates several reasons why all governed people should have a vote:

First, then, in every system of representation which can be conceived as perfect, every adult human being, it appears to me, would have the means of exercising, through the electoral suffrage, a portion of influence on the management of public affairs...

It is important that every one of the governed should have a voice in the government, because it can hardly be expected that those who have no voice will not be unjustly postponed to those who have. It is still more important as one of the means of national education. A person who is excluded from all participation in political business is not a citizen. He has not the feelings of a citizen. To take an active interest in politics is, in modern times, the first thing which elevates the mind to large interests and contemplations; the first step out of the narrow bounds of individual and family selfishness, the first opening in the contracted round of daily occupations...

Whoever is capable of feeling any common interest with his kind, or with his country, or with his city, is interested in politics; and to be interested in them, and not wish for a voice in them, is an impossibility. The possession and the exercise of political, and among others of electoral, rights, is one of the chief instruments both of moral and of intellectual training for the popular mind; and all governments must be regarded as extremely imperfect, until every one who is required to obey the laws, has a voice, or the prospect of a voice, in their enactment and administration.

He then starts to question whether everyone's vote should count equally. He goes after the notion (repeated over and over at election time, or voter registration time) that your vote primarily gives you a say in your government. What it really does, in practice, is give you a say in everyone else's government:
But ought every one to have an equal voice? This is a totally different proposition; and in my judgment as palpably false, as the other is true and important... [Supporters of one-man-one-vote] say that every one has an equal interest in being well governed, and that every one, therefore, has an equal claim to control over his own government. I might agree to this, if control over his own government were really the thing in question; but what I am asked to assent to is, that every individual has an equal claim to control over the government of other people. The power which the suffrage gives is not over himself alone; it is power over others also: whatever control the voter is enabled to exercise over his own concerns, he exercises the same degree of it over those of every one else.

Given the power that your vote has over others, Mill forwards the idea (which would not make him popular today) that all people are not equally qualified to exercise such power:
If it is asserted that all persons ought to be equal in every description of right recognised by society, I answer, not until all are equal in worth as human beings. It is the fact, that one person is not as good as another; and it is reversing all the rules of rational conduct, to attempt to raise a political fabric on a supposition which is at variance with fact. Putting aside for the present the consideration of moral worth, of which, though more important even than intellectual, it is not so easy to find an available test; a person who cannot read, is not as good, for the purpose of human life, as one who can. A person who can read, but cannot write or calculate, is not as good as a person who can do both... A person who has not, either by reading or conversation, made himself acquainted with the wisest thoughts of the wisest men, and with the great examples of a beneficent and virtuous life, is not so good as one who is familiar with these. A person who has even filled himself with this various knowledge, but has not digested it—who could give no clear and coherent account of it, and has never exercised his own mind, or derived an original thought from his own observation, experience, or reasoning, is not so good, for any human purpose, as one who has. There is no one who, in any matter which concerns himself, would not rather have his affairs managed by a person of greater knowledge and intelligence, than by one of less. There is no one who, if he was obliged to confide his interest jointly to both, would not desire to give a more potential voice to the more educated and more cultivated of the two.

Mill then outlines a sample vote weighting scheme, assigning relative value to farmers, skilled and unskilled laborers, surgeons, members of "learned societies", etc. Mill seems to draw a direct correlation between education and competence as a voter, which is one possible scheme of many, and not really one that I agree with.

Interestingly, Mill's fall-back position (what to do in the absence of the stated ideal system) is to implement a rigorous minimal educational qualification for voting. If you can't make the vote of the smart guys count more than the vote of the dumb guys then yes, we do need to stop the dummies from voting.

found at EconLog


Christine said...

Of course, if the government required people to take and pass a test to vote, or something that was even more restrictive that weeded the common idiots out, there would probably be better picked government officials. But do you really think that is what the founding fathers hand in mind, and do you really think that is fair?

Stupid people are breeding like crazy and will believe anything they are told. We are just screwed in the end anyway, as they rule and destroy the world thinking they are saving it.

SnowMonster said...

Personally, I think we should be like Australia. There, everyone of age, who is able, are compelled to vote. This will tamp down the protest voters.

Also, there should be multiple elections for Presidential candidates in that there would be run-off elections, dropping lowest voted for, until someone garnered more than 50% of the vote. This would break the duopoly of Republican and Democratic parties. That way, some who might want to vote for a Ron Paul, Ralph Nader or Ross Perot type candidate could do so on the first round without fear of 'giving' their vote away to their 3rd favored candidate (i.e. Perot takes from Republicans, Nader from Dems).

John said...

The Canadian Federal Election of May 2nd, 2011 reminded my of Mill's concern about the "one man one vote" concept. In one Riding a candidate was elected who had never visited the Riding, spent part of the short campaign in Las Vegas, and won by almost 5000 votes. Unbelieveable you say? Only in Canada.