A Critique of Universal Suffrage

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to take on the generally unquestioned view that, with certain exceptions (felons, children, etc.) it is good to give every citizen an equal share in the vote and wrong to do otherwise. I will instead make the counter-intuitive argument that it is not only harmful to give every citizen an equal share in the vote, but that universal suffrage makes us less free and less equal. I acknowledge that this is a rather radical view to have, and while I don’t expect the reader to agree, I hope I’ll nonetheless get a fair hearing.

So why do we have universal suffrage in the first place? The principle is that by giving every citizen an equal share in the vote, we ensure that every citizen has an equal input in the way government operates.  It seems instinctively unfair and unequal to deny the vote to some people or to give the votes of some more weight than that of others. If every citizen has the same opportunity to contribute input into the government, it’s presumed that governmental policies (or “outputs”) will treat all citizens as equally valuable and consequently be considered legitimate by all.

That said, we know that universal suffrage does not by itself guarantee equal political outputs. We have concerns about the possibility of tyrannies of the majority, in which a subgroup (historically usually white people) uses numerical superiority in order to systematically oppress minority groups. For this reason, we have a variety of constitutional protections for the rights and interests of minority groups. Having put those protections into place, most of us consider our system broadly fair. Inputs are equal, therefore outputs should be equal, and in the event that outputs are unequal in a racist, fascist, or otherwise bigoted way, the courts will correct the imbalance.

However, the fact that we have had gross inequalities in which minorities and subgroups have been oppressed via the ballot box should indicate to us a flaw, at least in principle–it is possible for a system in which inputs are equal to produce unequal outputs. Indeed, the oppression arises precisely because the inputs are equal. If say, blacks were awarded disproportionately powerful votes, it would be impossible to oppress them through democratic means.

Indeed, there are two big problems with this voting system:

  1. Equal voting input does not guarantee equal political input.
  2. Even if we had equal political input, this would not guarantee equal political output and in all actuality would likely push us further away from it.

Naturally, I’ve got to argue for each of these points.

Equal Voting Input does not Guarantee Equal Political Input:

The first big problem is that the vote is not the only means by which citizens can contribute political input. In most modern democratic states, citizens also contribute input in a variety of other ways:

  • Donations/Lobbying
  • Protests
  • Petitions
  • Publishing (like this blog!)
  • Rioting/Violence

There are likely many others. While any one of us can sign a petition about as easily as anyone else, the rest of these all introduce input inequalities. Some of us have more time available for protesting than others, and some of us are more physically capable of using violence or more willing to do so than others. However, it’s publishing, donations, and lobbying where the biggest distinction can be drawn.

Publishing in such a way that one reaches a wide audience is expensive. While almost anyone can at this point blog or comment online at low cost, it’s very difficult for blogs to gain large audiences. This very blog is a case in point–while I might believe that the content of this blog is more intellectually valuable than the content of say, the FOX News Channel, I do not have access to the financial resources that FOX has, nor to the various individuals and technologies that help FOX to convey its message in a way that is highly entertaining to viewers. FOX has exponentially more influence on public opinion and on governance than I do, and consequently the individuals who choose what will be said on FOX have much more political input in this area than I have.

Donations and lobbying present an even more obvious inequity. Politicians need money in order to wage successful election campaigns. Consequently, they will embrace the policies that those who donate money to political campaigns wish for them to embrace. The more money one donates, the more influence one has. For an example, there could be ten times as many environmental activists as there are natural gas lobbyists, but if the gas lobby can offer politicians much larger sums in donations, it may nonetheless be more electorally prudent for the politician in question to side with the gas lobby, because activists represent a very small slice of the population. It is more important for politicians to target the masses than it is for them to please interest groups, so interest group size is much less relevant than the depth of interest group pockets. Some individuals donate millions in the United States to Super PACs, which are functionally propaganda outfits for the views supported by the financially well-endowed. The overwhelming majority of us can never have comparable influence through donations or lobbying.

So the presumption of equal input is itself false. Ironically, we would have more input equality if we were to give poor voters disproportionately powerful votes so as to offset their financial disadvantage. Universal suffrage is an obstacle to such a policy. That said, we could also do a lot to reduce this problem through campaign finance reform. A strong critique of universal suffrage requires my second claim:

Even with Equal Political Input, Equal Political Output Would be Illusory:

There is an interesting tendency in our societies for populations to vote for policies that make themselves less free and less equal. It is by no means obvious that this would be different even if money played a drastically reduced role in our politics. This claim I will substantiate with quantitative data. Here’s US inequality via the Gini Index:

We can easily see that outcome inequalities have widened since roughly the late 60’s. It is now at a level not seen since WWII. We are not merely experiencing changes in outcome inequality–a gulf in educational opportunities is also opening up between the children of the rich and the children of the poor:

Here we can see how, since 1970, a substantial gap has opened up in the amount of educational resources made available to the children of poor parents in comparison with the children of rich parents. Presumably no one believes that whether a child is born to rich or poor parents ought to have a bearing on his life chances. Yet, when it comes time for people to vote, they have consistently elected governments whose policies have contributed to the widening of this gulf, even though the victims tend to be their own children. Most interestingly, it is not the affluent in general who have benefited, but only the very wealth, according to a Piketty-Saez study:

Looking at this data, fully half the gains made by the top 10% have gone to the top 0.1%, and half of the top 0.1%’s gains have gone to the 0.01%. The equality implications from all of this are obvious, but we should also remember the liberty implications–if I do not have the resources necessary to pursue life goals of my choosing, I am being coerced into living a life other than the one I desire. Needless to say, none of us lives a life entirely of our choosing, and the economy demands that people fill many jobs we widely consider undesirable. Some number of us will inevitably fail. But the deck is stacked against the children of the poor and in favor of the children of the rich, giving rich children more freedom to pursue lives of their choosing than the children of the poor have. In this way, poor children are not merely unequal to rich children, they are less free.

When we look at this problem, the most important thing to note is that we got to this place through a system of universal suffrage. I routinely see people on the internet upset over these statistics agitating for some variant of “democracy now!”, implying that if we are not free or equal, we must not be democratic. Here they conflate the vote with the purposes the vote was intended to achieve but has failed to achieve. We already have democracy, and democracy has given us these issues. By changing the voting system, so as to exclude voters who are likely to vote against their own freedom and equity or to empower those more likely to vote for it, we would create a society that is more free and more equal. Here we highlight an interesting paradox–the universal suffrage system, which gives everyone an equal vote, in actuality makes citizens less free and less equal than a voting system in which the vote is restricted or voting power is otherwise unequal. In this way, universal suffrage defeats its own ends.