Voting: A vested interest in what?

By Bruce Walker
web posted November 6, 2000

Election season: When self-appointed advocates of good government instruct us about our duty to vote. There is, of course, no moral or civic duty to vote. Although pundits nowadays insist that this group or that group should vote to protect its interests, the whole notion of voting in order to grab some benefit from the rest of society by controlling government is antipathetical to the very purpose of the vote.

Government was never intended to be a grab bag for people to satisfy their needs in life. Family, work, society, religion, community, and other consensual relationships are the marketplaces of money, ideas, companionship, and belief. The purpose of government is to keep public peace (through police forces, armed forces, and diplomacy); to provide a non-violent vehicle for redresses private disputes (through courts and the legal system and mediation of disputes); and to undertake those activities that can be broadly described as the "general welfare" (roads, weights & measurements, honest monetary values, schools, and public utilities when private vendors have not filled that role).

Democracy is the least imperfect vehicle for achieving these modest goals because it provides uncertainty about who will wield power. It is, as Winston Churchill so aptly described it: "The worst form of government in the world, except for all the rest." Political scientists who view democracy as interest theory miss the boat. The interests of people in a free society work themselves out quite nicely without democratic government. Giving the governed a chance to pick their governors creates uncertainty about who will govern.

Democracies that do not make the men who run government uncertain about their tenure in power invite conditions worse than undemocratic government. Hitler, after all, was popular. The Democrat Party, backed by the Ku Klux Klan, held a monopoly of power in the post-bellum South. Congressmen from most districts are so assured by mutually self-interested gerrymandering and the vast power of incumbency that they have no real fear of losing an election. Democracy, in these cases, actually makes government worse because the nebulous "will of the people" grants victors a legitimacy that should come only from honesty, prudence, and disinterest.

We all intuitively understand the irrelevance of direct democracy. The United States Senate is utterly undemocratic - California senators and Wyoming senators each have one vote - and yet it was the House of Representatives, not the Senate, that had the House Banking Office Scandal, the most egregious example of mass corruption in the history of our national legislature (Dan Rostenkowski is one of many other examples of rotten apples in the House). This sleaziness is the consequence of House incumbents always winning re-election and Democrats always running the House.

On the foundation of government as interest politics, liberal Democrats have succeeded in creating a network of groups with needs, wants, and cravings that tax dollars and police power along can satisfy. Pandering to these interest groups has become the rationale for re-electing liberal Democrats. Pandering, however, is quite different from helping. Pimps, pushers, and pornographers pander, as do demagogues. Those who have power, wealth, prestige, and pride only because others are need government have a vested interest in chronic problems and general despair. Happy and successful people involved in wholesome activities do not want to stand in that long, de-humanizing line that ends at a condescending bureaucrat's desk. Stated bluntly, liberals have a vested interest in wretched and desperate lives.

What about those Main Street Republicans with middle class values which liberals so disparage? These upstanding men and women want children to learn ethical behavior and self-confidence; they want elderly people to enjoy pleasant retirements in peaceful communities; and they want other adults to be active, healthy, content and productive. The sneers of Hollywood and Washington types towards these modest targets reflect deep seated resentment by those who have a psychic need for adulation towards those who have self-respect.

What does the middle class want from government? Average Americans want well-adjusted ladies like Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Lynne Cheney as mothers, wives, and daughters, not bitter and frightened feminists. We also prefer courteous people who agree to disagree to loud, intolerant boors. The middle class people want good workers, sensible parents, close families, solid role models, citizens who respect the rights of others and pay taxes - in other words, people who contribute to the well-being of society by the lives they lead - and not the political issues they crusade.

Government helps the middle class reach these goals by being disinterested in helping or hurting particular segments of society, and by focusing attention on honor and equality in government operations. One way to see how far we have descended in the other direction is to look at that microcosm of democratic government, the jury. The original intention of the jury system was not to line up voting blocs to determine guilt or innocence by electoral politics, but exactly the opposite: To provide a group of citizens who have no interest in the outcome of the case at all. Excluded from juries are friends, family members, people who have had similar problems as a party, or any other causes which might make the juror - the voter in the little democratic process - look for anything beyond the objective truth. We want jurors with a vested interest in justice because each of us is subject to the courts, as plaintiffs or defendants, and we want the process fair. This is not because as individuals we know that we will not do wrong, but because the process of resolving disputes by means generally perceived as reasonable makes society more peaceful, risk-taking more likely, and equality of opportunity more genuine.

Can we restore that single but vital purpose of democracy - genuine disinterest? Yes, but only by beginning the process of separating individual voters from group interests in government. Flat and simple taxes, untargeted programs like libraries and parks, and the decentralization of authority to states and communities will all help.

Some happy day in the future, voter participation will drop down to about five percent. The only political issues will be which candidate is the most honorable (not the least corrupt) and which party has promoted the general welfare, than the interests of groups of voters, best. Then we will all view the American government just like that greatest of all presidents, George Washington, who did not seek office, who did not want lifetime tenure, and who understood that the highest service that any American could give to the Presidency was to treat the office with dignity and integrity. The Father of Our Country was not elected by a huge voter mob of fierce partisans - indeed, he was not elected by the people at all. Rather he was asked by that group of sensible, wise, and patriotic citizens, who asked nothing about ideology or programs or party, but only: "Who is the most honorable and disinterested leader we know?" That is how democracy works, when it works well.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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