Eric Schliesser has quoted Jason Brennan to the effect that denying the franchise to certain people merits consideration. I think that to take such a proposal seriously exhibits either naïveté or ignorance—of a history not safely past but still with us. The philosopher wants to say something like: “If only we could bring it about that only well-informed, reasonable people voted, elections would yield much better results”. Yes, indeed, perhaps—if only. And if only despots were reliably benevolent, we could do away with all the messiness of democratic institutions…
Intellectual capital tends to track social and economic capital. Enfranchising only well-informed voters would have the effect of cementing into place existing inequalities. To show that I am not merely drawing on “intuitions”, let me quote a few passages from the suffrage debates. The quotations come from Selected Articles on Woman Suffrage (Minneapolis: H. W. Wilson, 1910). It is perhaps worth noting for those who don’t know the history of the women’s suffrage movement that after half a century of “agitation”, women in the US received the franchise in Federal elections in 1920; at the time the volume was published, whether women should have the vote was therefore very much a live issue. The authors I cite are against giving the franchise to women, and one of their arguments concerns women’s relative ignorance, on the basis of which the franchise ought to be withheld from them.
The first is from Charles Worcester Clark, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1890:
Women have, on the whole, less information on political subjects than have men. As their powers are of the domestic rather than the political sort, so their ordinary course of life is not such as to give them much knowledge of public questions or of the character of public men. They need special preparation in order to vote intelligently. So, it made be said, do men. Nevertheless, very few men do make a study of politics. The great majority, except for the questionable information furnished by the partisan press, go to the polls with only such knowledge of the issues and the candidates as comes to them in their everyday life. But, fortunately, this is considerable. It is much more than women have. The average man understands the difference in functions of national and state governments, and knows what part the candidate for whom he votes will have to play if elected. The average woman knows nothing of this. Neither has she any idea what the tariff is, though she may applaud or denounce it with all the vehemence of the party newspaper she occasionally reads. This ignorance is not discreditable to her, ‖ for she has enough to do already, but it exists. There is, of course, a large number of women of high education and comparative leisure, who are well informed on public questions; better informed, perhaps, than any corresponding number of men, except it be those whose profession is politics, and in impartiality women must be much superior to these. There is, however, no possible way of making selections from the mass. Some one has contended that all women ought to be allowed to vote, because Mrs. Julia Ward Howe is far better fitted for citizenship than is the average male voter. This sort of argument proves too much, for by the same token we would all gladly submit to a despotism—if only Mrs. Howe were to be the despot. There is no reason for believing that the average woman would take any more pains to fit herself for the duties of a voter than the average man takes; and the information which comes to her without special effort is certainly less, as is consequently her interest in public affairs, unconnected as they are with her daily life. It is very likely that on their first enfranchisement only the best qualified women would vote, as is said to be the case in Kansas [where women had had a partial franchise since 1861]; but the exigencies of party politics would never permit such a state of things to continue long. Thus, to enfranchise women would be, in the end, to diminish, if not the average sound judgment of the body of voters, at least the average information and the average interest in public affairs (209–210).
The second is from Mrs. Humphrey (Mary Augusta) Ward, one of the most famous novelists of her time, writing in Nineteenth Century (1908):
Women are ‘not undeveloped men but diverse,’ and the more complex the development of any state, the more diverse. Difference, not inferiority—it is on that we take our stand. The modern state depends for its very existence—and no juggling with facts can get rid of the truth—on the physical force of men, combined with the trained and specialized knowledge which men alone are able to get, because women, on whom the child-bearing and child-rearing of the world rest, have no time and no opportunity to get it. The difference in these respects between even the educated man and the educated woman—exceptions apart—is evident to us all. Speaking generally, the man’s mere daily life as breadwinner, as merchant, engineer, official, or manufacturer, gives him a practical training that is not open to women. The pursuit of advanced science, the constantly developing applications of sciences to industry and life, the great system of the world’s commerce and finance, the fundamental activities of railways and shipping, the hard physical drudgery, in fact, of the world, day by day—not to speak of naval and military affairs, and of that diplomacy which protects us and our children from war—these are male, conceived and executed by men. The work of Parliament turns upon them, assumes them at every turn. That so many ignorant male voters have to be called into the nation’s councils upon them, is the penalty we pay for what on the whole are the great goods of democracy. But this ignorance-vote is large enough in all conscience, when one considers the risks of the modern state; and to add to it yet another, where the ignorance is imposed by nature and irreparable—the vote of women who in the vast majority of cases are debarred by their mere sex from that practical political experience which is at least always open to men—could any proceeding be more dangerous, more unreasonable? The women who ask it—able, honorable, noble women though they be—are not surely true patriots, in so far as they ask it. There is a greatness in self-restraint as well as in self-assertion; and to embarrass the difficult work of men, in matters where men’s experience alone provides the materials for judgment, is not to help women. On the contrary. We are mothers, wives, and sisters of men, and we know that our interests are bound up with the best interests of men, and that to claim to do their work as well as our own is to injure both (259).
The argument is straightforward. It is presumed that ignorance among voters diminishes the “sound judgment of the body of voters”, and thus (by implication) the likelihood of good results from elections. Even if some men are ignorant too, nevertheless the situation of women, taken by both authors to be natural, tends to prevent their acquiring the “practical training” requisite to a wise exercise of the franchise. It is therefore reasonable to deny women the franchise.
Needless to say, in a system where males only have the vote the perpetuation of inequality—in particular the confinement of women to the domestic sphere, and thus the condition of ignorance on the basis of which they are held to be incompetent to vote—is likely.
How then, you might ask, did the women’s suffrage movement eventually achieve its aims? The answer is in part that men were eventually persuaded to some degree that (i) the relegation of women to the domestic sphere was not natural; (ii) the relative ignorance of women with respect to political matters was not inevitable. The rest of the answer concerns the social conditions under which the well-entrenched opinions to which those claims are opposed began to seem less obvious than before, e.g. the entry of more and more women into the work force. Eventually, I should add, means fifty to eighty years, or in some countries not yet. In France women did not receive the franchise until 1944, in Switzerland not until 1971.
The moral is that you cannot in fairness merely observe existing conditions of relative ignorance and decide on that basis who is to be granted the franchise. Those conditions are almost certainly not natural, and thus not inevitable; and to grant the franchise only to the relatively knowledgeable under such conditions will perpetuate the inequalities that have generated some, and perhaps a great deal, of the variation in knowledgeability. It seems to me that rather than return to notions whose history is checkered, to say the least, the better answer to the problem of ignorance is to agitate to improve education, the quality of news media, and so forth.