Sunday, February 16, 2014

Weighted Voting (Money for Votes)

Extremely wealthy old man Tom Perkins recently proposed that the votes of those who make more money and so pay more taxes should in effect count for more than those of ordinary folk, here in our Great Republic.  Mr. Perkins had, previously, compared those with less than respectful views of the exceedingly wealthy to Nazis, and compared the exceedingly wealthy to Jews persecuted by Nazis.  It's unclear whether he is merely an eccentric old rich man we may treat as a figure of fun, like Thurston Howell III or Mr. Maggoo in his unforgettable role as Scrooge, or perhaps Montgomery Burns, or whether he actually takes himself seriously and expects others to do so.

It seems incomprehensible that those who come within what is now called the 1% should feel put upon by anyone.  They are in fact very well off, and it is delusional to suggest otherwise.  It takes a special kind of self-righteousness to take such a position.  One has to wonder, in fact, whether when they make these kinds of complaints they are feeling defensive, as if they know in their hearts that they should not be as enormously wealthy as they are.

He's not the first to propose a weighted system of votes, though.  Among those who have are J.S. Mill, normally considered to be a progressive sort for his times.  He and like-minded others once made up a band called the Philosophical Radicals, a group of mildly annoyed if not angry young men who involved themselves in politics by advocating for the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832 among other things.  Mill was eventually elected a member of the House of Commons, though he remained a member of Parliament for a short time only.

It amazes me that Mill could even function after the bizarre childhood he experienced thanks to the machinations of his father James, who sought to turn him into a kind of paragon by forcing him to learn a very large number of things by a very early age.  James' efforts resulted in only one nervous breakdown that we know of, and his son remained quite loyal to him, though the son departed from the simple quantitative utilitarianism espoused by his father in various respects.

Mill was also progressive in that he was an advocate of women's rights, a particularly radical position for his time.  It's unclear whether he wrote The Subjection of Women himself or with Harriet Taylor, who eventually became Harriet Taylor Mill (Mr. Taylor having been it seems more or less resigned to their romance, and having obligingly died after a time).  It's even possible Harriet wrote this essay herself, and that it was published under Mill's name because he had a name, and a well known one.

What Mill proposed, in his Representative Government, differed from the scheme proposed by angry old man Perkins in that it was not so obviously based on wealth.  It was more in the nature of a system based on education and experience.  So, professionals, professors and such would have a vote worth, say, 4 of the votes of a mere artisan or merchant.  It happens that only those with wealth could have obtained the kind of education Mill thought merited a vote worth more than others, so it may have worked out to be a similar proposal.

It isn't entirely surprising that philosophers even in the 19th century took a rather dim view of the common people.  There has always been a tendency among philosophers to believe that the common herd must be led, for its own good, by the wise, dating back to Plato.  And Mill after his breakdown became close to such as Coleridge and others, and may have held the view that the best form of government would be that of a benign despot or elite until ordinary people could be trusted with their own affairs.

What Perkins proposes though (seriously or not) seems to be based merely on relative wealth.  Of course, even "ordinary" people are well educated in comparison to those of the past, and it would be difficult to identify a group of people as wise in these United States.  It is easy enough, though, to identify the very rich.  The question is, why should the very rich have greater voting power?  In what sense does the possession of money and assets establish that one should have a greater voice in determining things government does?

Perkins seems to be drawing a comparison with the way corporations are run.  I'm not sure this works, however.  Those with more money may buy more shares in a corporation, certainly, and so have more shares to vote.  But we must give Mr. Perkins some credit and assume that he is not proposing an equivalent system for our government, in which some people would in effect buy more votes than others. 

Is it rather that this system has appeal to him because the wealthy pay more tax?  Perhaps he imagines that (assuming they do, proportionately, pay more tax) they thereby make a greater investment in the government, and so should have a greater voice than lesser investors.

But imagining the government is a for-profit corporation or proposing that it be treated as one has its dangers, and one would think the wealthy should be aware of this.  Majority shareholders have certain duties to minority shareholders under the law, and officers and directors have duties to shareholders under the law as well.  So majority shareholders would be subject to legal action, as would the officers and directors their votes would elect, and surely Mr. Perkins would not want to draw the analogy between corporations and the government that far.

There's also the fact that it seems rather silly to propose that the government should be run like an entity that exists solely for the purpose of making money.  We expect our government to do other things, as I think Mr. Perkins would realize if he paused to think for a moment or two.  At the least, we want it to maintain a police force to protect ourselves and our property, particularly against the progressives and the common people, that irritating 99% that the 1% think they require protection against.

I suspect the 1% have very little to worry about.  While they may be deprived of the right to buy votes outright, money makes our Republic, like the world, go 'round, and in a political system so dependent on money the very rich may buy politicians more easily than they could votes simply by giving them money they require, thereby making them obligated to them in various ways.  It isn't likely this system will change anytime soon.

At the end of the day, those like Mr. Perkins who seem to feel offended that they are not well respected or liked by others less fortunate than they are must resign themselves to the fact that they are not sympathetic or heroic figures.  There simply is no reason why they should be admired or cossetted merely because they have lots of money, far more than they need, and want to have even more.  They may be envied, of course, for their wealth, but that wealth provides them with no status beyond that of being wealthy.  That they should feel sorry for themselves or feel they should be pitied is laughable, and renders them absurd. 

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