Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Property Requirements for Voting and Other Misguided Ideas

Over at a dogmatically libertarian blog, a commenter had this to say in regards to voting in American democratic society:

The Founders did not hand the voting franchise to every citizen. Each state set rules for voting—but a consensus included: Literate, Free Man, Property Owner were the common requirements.
Literate – presumes the voter will be apprised of the issues of the day. Today’s media transmits information in several forms. Literacy is not required to view videos. Testing to verify intellect -a one time test (the one given to new citizens) as a prerequisite to vote.
Free Man – presumes the voter acts on his free will; not under the control, or obligation to another person/group. Government dependents are disqualified.
Property Owner – presumes the voter holds a vested interest in the free market and comprehends property rights. State residents who rent are disqualified.
These simple policies would assure a cogent, responsible citizen who holds a vested interest in property rights defines the voter.

Here is my response:

I have to disagree. These policies would assure a cogent voter more in tune with their own property rights and their own conceptions of justice and legitimate holdings. As made clear by Christiano, Dahl, and many many others, there is pervasive disagreement as to what “justice” and property rights requires. In collective decision-making, the principle of justice requires us to weigh and compare the interests of other persons who are very different. However, we are morally fallible and likely to be mistaken about what those interests are and how to compare them. In addition, the principles by which one is to bring together these complex interests are difficult to discern and asses, and these difficulties are exacerbated when we try to assess the interests of others.

Furthermore, we all suffer from cognitive biases that skew our judgments regarding questions of justice and the common good, thus resulting in our undervaluing the interests of those from different communities with different worldviews. Individuals’ judgments of justice are more sensitive to their own interests than to the interests of others, and we are more sensitive to our own harms, downplaying the harms of others. Thus, even good-faith controversies over principles of justice often reflect conflict of interest: we necessarily understand our own interests better, inducing us to interpret the interests of others in a way that assimilates our own. Therefore, “no citizen wants to be treated in accordance with someone else’s conception of [justice]” because such a conception is likely to skew her interests and downplay her burdens; rather, she wants to be treated in a way that she can agree that she is being treated as an equal and fairly.  [Thomas Christiano, The Authority of Democracy, 3 J.Political Philosophy 266, 272-73 (2004)].

As such, we cannot place blind trust in others to “vote responsibly” when those others are in fundamentally different positions in the social environment. I grew up in a middle class home, started working at 16 on the docks, I am a renter, an attorney, and recently returned to school as a philosophy graduate student. As such, I am extremely distrustful of the conception of justice and property rights held by, e.g., those who grew up in affluent Massachusetts home, first home bought by their parents, the recipient of a trust fund, etc. (I probably value hard work and responsibility a little more than they, with a different understanding what it truly means). Without poisoning the well, but without knowing these people and what their actual views are, it is likely that they hold moral intuitions, conceptions of the good/justice very different from my own.

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