Voting Rights and the Anna Karenina Principle

Democracies are subject to the Anna Karenina principle, and voting rights are one factor where, for a democracy to remain viable, every possible deficiency must be avoided

John Stuart Mill, British philosopher and economist. (Foto: Flickr)

The Anna Karenina principle derives from the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In essence, there are more ways for a family to be unhappy than happy. The principle, popularized in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, asserts that, a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms an endeavor to failure.

Thus, a successful endeavor, subject to the Anna Karenina principle, needs to avoid every possible deficiency. Democracies are subject to the Anna Karenina principle, and voting rights are one factor where, for a democracy to remain viable, every possible deficiency must be avoided.

Our modern understanding of voting rights relies, to a great extent, on the ideas of British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill contributed extensively to social and political theory, and is one of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism. In his essay On Liberty, which is the basis of much contemporary political thought, he addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be exercised by society over the individual. As a member of the British Parliament, Mill was among the first to call for women’s suffrage.

In his work on political democracy, Considerations on Representative Government, he presents an eloquent exposition for the value of democratic participation by all citizens. Mill thought it hurtful that “…the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge.” Still, he believed that democracy could overcome even the incompetent participation of uninformed citizens. But, here is where democratic theory gets thorny and controversial.

Mill, although obviously unaware of the modern Anna Karenina principle, sought to protect democracy by denying the right to vote to those receiving government welfare payments for as long as they received such tax-based financial support. Mill reasoned that welfare payments create a conflict of interest which compromises the objectivity of someone to vote on the government funds that provide for their own livelihood.

In Chapter 8, titled “Of the Extension of the Suffrage,” Mill writes: “It is also important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economise.”

As Mill saw it, “As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government… It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people’s pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one. I regard it as required by first principles, that receipt of [government] relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the [voting] franchise.”

Mill’s peremptory voter disqualification is unthinkable today. In our times, the definition of “public assistance” includes, not just welfare payments, but programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. Yet, Mill’s arguments are not without intellectual merit. It can be argued that, allowing those who pay no taxes, or those who live off the government, to vote on taxation issues is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government. Such voters are a “fifth column” that undermines democracy from within. In this view, invoking the Anna Karenina principle, such voting rights are a democratic deficiency that must be avoided in order to save democracy from itself.

However, Mill’s arguments begin to fail when we consider some logical extensions. Should government employees also be excluded from voting? After all, government employees are directly being paid with tax receipts. This is certainly a conflict of interests. How about private government contractors that derive most of their income from government jobs? Should they also be excluded for conflict of interest reasons?

Democracy is messy, and we cannot avoid every possible deficiency. We need to decide who may govern, but in such a way that we will not be misgoverned. For this we need widespread voting rights.

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