Saturday, August 28, 2010


Grim is hosting a discussion on “reasonably talk[ing] through the idea of limiting the franchise.” I won’t be participating - I explain why below - but I want to address a couple of points he made about my writing.

First, I was apparently unclear on principles and pragmatism. To me, a principle is something you stand by regardless of whether it benefits you or your “side”. If you truly believe women are temperamentally unfit to vote and you stand by that even if allowing them to vote would benefit you or your side, you are acting in a principled fashion. You’re a jerk but you’re a principled jerk. If, however, you believe women are temperamentally unfit to vote when their voting disadvantages you or your side but believe the opposite when their voting advantages you or your side, you are not acting on principle. “Pragmatic” was John Derbyshire’s word for his stance; I would have done better to use “opportunistic”. So a Democrat who states that he absolutely supports women’s suffrage because they lean Democratic is no more principled than a Republican who opposes women’s suffrage because they lean Democratic. To extend this to its logical conclusion, it will be interesting to see if anyone in Grim’s discussion comes up with principles for limiting the franchise that would eliminate him or herself from the pool of acceptable voters.

I do not, in fact, oppose any and all limits to the franchise. For example, I specifically referred to “non-felonious Americans” in one of my diatribes. The franchise is already limited by excluding - to greater or lesser degree - those who have committed a felony and I agree with that limitation (although I am not firmly decided on whether felons who have served their time should be able to vote).

It is this very agreement on my part that creates the danger for me in participating in this type of discussion. It would be remarkably easy for me to start with the premise that preventing felons from voting is reasonable and move to the argument that if I am content to take the vote away from those who chose not to obey our laws, why should I not go further and take the vote away from those who choose to engage in other activities I find objectionable? And, beyond that, to grant the vote only to those who engage in activities I find desirable? And to slide into what seems the only possible answer: “Well, okay, I guess it’s pretty much the same thing. So why not?”

Logic, especially logic that walks me from one innocuous step to another, is hard for me to resist even if my ultimate destination is no place I would have gone if I’d seen my destination beforehand. My beliefs about right and wrong don’t stand a chance against it.

Before the evening was half over, Jo felt so completely disillusioned, that she sat down in a corner to recover herself. Mr. Bhaer soon joined her, looking rather out of his element, and presently several of the philosophers, each mounted on his hobby, came ambling up to hold an intellectual tournament in the recess. The conversations were miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms, and the only thing `evolved from her inner consciousness' was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before, that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. Jo knew nothing about philosophy or metaphysics of any sort, but a curious excitement, half pleasurable, half painful, came over her as she listened with a sense of being turned adrift into time and space, like a young balloon out on a holiday.

She looked round to see how the Professor liked it, and found him looking at her with the grimest expression she had ever seen him wear. He shook his head and beckoned her to come away, but she was fascinated just then by the freedom of Speculative Philosophy, and kept her seat, trying to find out what the wise gentlemen intended to rely upon after they had annihilated all the old beliefs.

Now, Mr. Bhaer was a diffident man and slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken. As he glanced from Jo to several other young people, attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics, he knit his brows and longed to speak, fearing that some inflammable young soul would be led astray by the rockets, to find when the display was over that they had only an empty stick or a scorched hand.

He bore it as long as he could, but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth--an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn't know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo. The old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new. God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again, and when Mr. Bhaer paused, outtalked but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him.

(From Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)


Grim said...

I take this as something of a compliment, Elise: an undeserved one, as I doubt both my ability to be as persuasive as you say you fear I will be, and think far more highly of your own abilities than you credit. Nevertheless, you mistake my intentions! I don't want to persuade you of anything, let alone carry you somewhere you have no wish to go.

Now, it appears to me that there are two principles here that are in conflict:

1) The idea that public virtue is important to the health of the state, and,

2) The idea that voting rights are meant to be (almost) universal.

You're right that the felony exemption is one that interests me, because it's the one concession we normally make in (2) to (1). All I want to do is explore whether it is wide enough, given the apparent corruption and mismanagement of the government. I don't mean to persuade you of that idea, but to explore it; and as a foil, who could explain to me why this idea of (nearly) universal suffrage is so important, you would be a valued companion in that exploration.

However, I certainly would not be so rude as to attempt to force you to do so in despite of your wishes. I will only express my regrets that we will be denied of your formidable intellect, and the insight of your careful reason.

I would add, as I depart, that I am an ally of the old man in your tale; and of religion; and of the old ways, especially the ones that are nearly forgotten, and left to us only in old poems and forgotten manuscripts, or songs from long ago. If I have a role, it is to be the defender of those things that the old man could not be: because they need a defender, and because they deserve one.

Eric said...

Hmmmm.....I suspect Elise thinks the argument foolish, and if so I certainly agree with her.

Elise said...

It is not that I fear you persuading me, Grim, so much as it is I fear me persuading myself. (No offense intended to your powers of persuasion which are often quite formidable.) I have lived much of my life quite happy to indulge my taste for mental gymnastics independent of moral grounding and have recently resolved to make a concerted effort to cease doing so. Perhaps once I have practiced that discipline for some time I will feel ready to indulge myself in a situation which tempts me to backslide.

As for what foil I could provide, the sum total of my argument - as opposed to my moral conviction - in favor of universal suffrage is that I personally am neither wise enough nor unself-interested enough to decide who should and should not vote. To use an extremely simple example, if we were entertaining the notion of allowing only those who scored at or above a certain number on an intelligence test, I could quite probably be persuaded that was a good idea - and even present arguments of my own as to why it would be. As I said, mental gymnastics are an old habit for me. My only concern would be that the number at or above which voters must score be no higher than my own IQ score.

So, no, Eric, I do not think the argument foolish; rather I think it dangerous, at least for me. I haven’t kept up with it since Saturday but based on what I remember reading then, I do agree with what I took your position to be: the necessity of identifying exactly what the problem is with the current rules for the franchise before designing new ones. In other words, identifying the illness before seeking a cure.

Grim said...

As for foolishness, Eric, I've never been afraid of it; but I can only hope that it's foolish. The first major revisions of the franchise came out of the last civil war. The kind of instability that the government appears to be creating with its current policies suggests that we may yet see another one.

I'd like to see a political solution instead, but I think the problems are adequately systemic that we'd need a constitutional convention -- state-led -- to manage such a solution. In such a case, 75% of states have to ratify changes, so significant alterations are not likely; it'll be high-level stuff that the states can pretty much all agree upon. (Lots of useful things may be possible there, though, in terms of limiting Federal interference in state matters -- after all, the ratifying legislatures have a vested interest there.)

In the event that this either does not occur or fails to be adequate, we may very well find ourselves in the position of having to rethink the foundations. It doesn't hurt to have a plan in place -- just in case it comes up, and just in case we don't survive, and those who do haven't had time to think it through themselves.

Grim said...

I don't think I could be persuaded on the point of IQ, for this cause: people of different levels of intelligence see things in different ways. That doesn't mean that the more intelligent person sees things in a better way. Their different viewpoint provides more information to 'the wisdom of crowds.'

For the same reason, I don't think I could be persuaded to adopt a position that liberals/leftists shouldn't vote. That seems to be linked to a fundamentally different way of viewing the world -- a way which has its own problems (false negatives instead of false positives), but which provides a necessary balance and additional insight unavailable to me. My brain isn't adequate to the task by itself.

But if you do want to reconsider, which you certainly do not have to do, I tried to explore why the universal franchise is important -- to provide my own foil, so to speak. If you'd like to add to that part of the discussion, without being drawn into the debate about whether to walk away from the principle, you certainly could do so. I would be more than happy to help you draw the line of saying that you are there only to explain what you believe in, and not to entertain arguments against it.

Grim said...
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