If we tolerate this, our children’s votes will be next
The decision by the Daily Telegraph to publish this article by its personal finance expert, Iain Cowie, on election day was an interesting one, to say the least.
Cowie’s core proposal, padded out with a few hundred words of distinctly bizarre, very 1980′s retro-game theory about blokes in a pub, is as follows:
Why don’t we restrict votes to people who actually pay something into the system? No, I am not suggesting a return to property-based eligibility; although that system worked quite well when Parliament administered not just Britain but most of the world. Today, income would be a much better test, setting the bar as low as possible; perhaps including everyone who pays at least £100 of income tax each year.
The initial reaction of most people who saw the article will surely have been a mix of amusement and bemusement, and perhaps a little horror, that the Telegraph should be providing a platform for someone advocating, presumably seriously, the termination of universal suffrage.
But perhaps it’s better not to be too complacent about this being some kind of off-the-wall self-parody, because the broad idea that votes for everyone is a bad idea appears to be gaining ground.
Cowie’s article is in fact not much more than a badly mangled version of an essay by Dominic Hobson published on Hobson’s Global Custodian company blog in 2010. Indeed, it is likely that Cowie knows Hobson from London’s financial journalism circles, and it is intriguing to wonder to what extent the question of how to disenfranchise the poor has been a subject of polite dinner party debate, or whether it’s one of those subjects which still only comes up when the lads have moved from the wine bar champers to the pub and are one over the eight.
Hobson therefore arrives at the same conclusion as Cowie, though he expresses it somewhat more fundamentally:
The only lasting solution to the plague of unlimited democracy is to attack democracy at its moral foundation: the political equality of the citizen.
The logic by which he gets to this conclusion is deeply flawed of course. For Hobson, the key cause of the crisis of capitalism (2007-11) was “the wilful misconduct of monetary policy” by “politicians, public officials and central bankers”. Bankers (the non-central ones) are simply “scapegoats”, in Hobson’s version of the world.
From this insight, Hobson then feels able to establish that capitalist growth is always and iredeemably disrupted by having too much democracy, rather than by, say, any flaws inherent to the capitalist system. Too much democracy, Hobson argues, leads us to:
predatory public sector coalitions of government employees, trade unionists and socialist politicians, which prey on their private sector counterparts to the point where substantial tax rebellions are in train already.
In Hobsonworld, those people generally known as “tax avoiders” really are noble “rebels” standing up for liberty in the face of the onslaught of the socialist horde.
Yet the fact that you can drive a socialist tank through the holes in Hobson’s logic is less important than the fact that he is now out there, loud and proud making what he claims is an intellectually valid case for terminating the voting rights of large numbers of people.
For Hobson is not a foam-mouthed American nutjob, though his essay has been picked up with glee by some such nutjobs, and some of the language he adopts in his essay seems designed for that market.
Hobson is a well-respected financial journalist and commentator, whose wider reputation rests largely on his magisterial ‘National Wealth: Who Gets What in Britain’ written in the late 1990s. His style and (at least hitherto) keen intellect thus make for an essay which will convince many on the Right, who largely lack the acumen and/or desire to see through the holes in his logic.
In Hobson’s apparent trajectory from normal enough right-wing financial analyst of the early 21st century (1), to proto-fascist of 2010, we should perhaps see broader warning signals that the core of our democratic rights may come under threat in a way which is currently difficult to imagine, but which may surprise us all the more because it is currently so unthinkable.
Certainly, if we dig a little below the surface, the signs are there that those libertarian who self-project themselves as moral custodians of individual freedoms are starting to talk explicitly of who qualifies for such freedom, and to make the case against those who do not meet their criteria. Thus, one such libertarian constructs his anti-tax case on the basis of two different ‘classes’ of people:
I resent taxation. It is the method by which the political classes rob the productive class to buy the votes of the less productive classes. As a member of the productive class, what’s to like ?
This notion that only those making a net contribution to society should have rights is of course linked to the conditionality of rights espoused in New Labour’s dalliance with communitarianism, but has become more explicit under the new Conservative government. Thus it comes as no surprise, in hindsight, to note that the Conservative manifesto made an explicit
ambition of every adult citizen being a member of an active neighbourhood group (p.37).
There is, I suggest, a political and philosophical link between the responsibilities imposed on citizens by the Big Society agenda and the potential for the withdrawal of what have hitherto been seen as fundamental rights from those whom the state decides are not meeting their responsibilities.
Maybe, in this context, we should be dusting off our old copies (or the pdfs) of Robert Michels’ seminal Political Parties (published 1911), and starting to pay heed to the ‘iron law of oligarchy’, under which Conservative regimes are driven ineluctably towards political authoritarianism, and – as an adjunct – the kind of politicised thought-policing we have seen in recent weeks (Unsurprisingly, those “rebelling” against tax on petrol, were able to go about their protest, and make their threats to close down a major source of the country’s energy, without so much as a second glance from the police).
Of course I’m not suggesting that the Conservative government is currently drafting up a bill to remove the right of “non-taxpayers” to vote in the next election. Any attempt to restrict voting rights would be more likely to come initially in the form of, let us say, the localism agenda, where already people are to be granted the right to a referendum AGAINST taxes, but not for them, and where quite conceivably Big Society logic might in time determine that only those who ‘put into’ their local community get a say in how it is run.
But these may be philosophical bridgeheads to a wider argument, more openly pursued by right-wing politicians at the behest of opinion-formers like Dominic Hobson, that restricting democracy to those who make the “correct” choices is an idea whose time has come (back).
On the Left, we need to be aware that, in the UK and elsewhere, the Right is quite content to use the “specious democratic mask” (Michels, p.11) to develop its authoritarian control in the name of the popular will, and that this may include changing the face of what democracy is – from a human right to a property right. In the UK, we now have plenty of evidence that the ruling upper-class elite in the UK, though not in itself fascistic, is – by dint of its resource dependency - open to influence from a far right, which IS now dallying with fascism, to a much greater extent than they would have us know.
It is for the Left to ensure that our government is not, in time, confronted by Hobson’s choice.
(1) In the preface to The National Wealth: Who Gets What in Britain Hobson says this of his own political leanings:
My preferences are obvious, but not I hope intrusive. They lie with shoppers rather than votes; taxpayers, not tax-eaters; entrepreneurs over professionals; and with market rather than institutions, especially of the political kind.