The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 20

The Legislature

§4. On the whole it would seem that the permanent exclusion of any class of sane self-supporting adults, on account of poverty alone, from the share of the control over legislation which the representative system aims at giving to the citizens at large, is not easily defensible in face of a strong and steady demand for their admission. It is less difficult to maintain such an exclusion in the case of avoidable ignorance of an extreme kind: i.e. to refuse the suffrage to persons who have not attained a certain educational standard, provided that facilities for education are within the reach of all classes. Various other exclusions are permanently defensible on different grounds. Thus it seems reasonable to withhold the suffrage---partly as a deterrent, partly as a security against its perversion---from persons who have committed grave offences of any kind; also from all who have been convicted of buying or selling votes, or intimidating electors. In some cases, disgraceful conduct not amounting to crime seems a sufficient ground for exclusion--e.g. the keeping of a brothel, where this is tolerated. It also seems reasonable to disfranchise temporarily persons who without crime have so far failed to maintain their economic independence as to receive support as paupers from public funds; on the ground that their use of the vote as a protection of their political interests is specially unlikely to be advantageous to the public. Other temporary exclusions appear to be desirable for reasons that involve no sort of discredit. Thus, as we have seen, the ordinary objections to electoral restrictions do not apply in the case of exclusion on the ground of youth and inexperience; and it seems reasonable to impose, as a condition of the suffrage, an inferior limit of age somewhat higher than that of ordinary legal maturity; so that a man may not have a share in the control of public affairs until after some years of the experience gained by the independent management of his own affairs. Again, when we examine the possibilities of bringing the motive of private interest into illicit operation in political elections, we are led to distinguish a special class of persons in whose case this operation cannot effectually be excluded, except by a partial withdrawal of the right of voting. I mean persons employed by candidates or their friends for the work of an election: it is difficult to prevent the remuneration for such employment from practically operating like a bribe, if the employees are allowed to vote in the same election. A similar danger exists in some measure in the case of permanent employment, private or governmental: but not such as to justify a sweeping disfranchisement of employees, provided that the independence of the latter is tolerably secured by the protection of the ballot or otherwise. There is, however, a special ground for excluding from the exercise of the suffrage such employees of government as are charged with the function of physical coercion---policemen or soldiers on service---on the score of the peculiar importance of keeping them impartial in political conflicts.

Questions of wider importance are raised by exclusions on the ground of sex or race. I see no adequate reason for refusing the franchise to any sane self-supporting adult otherwise eligible, on the score of her sex alone; and there is a danger of material injustice resulting from such refusal, so long as the State leaves unmarried women and widows to struggle for a livelihood in the general industrial competition, without any special privileges or protection. The most important consideration on the other side is the inferiority of women in physical force and their unfitness for warfare. This may be used as an argument in two ways: it may be considered (1) that the franchise belongs as a right to those who will defend their country when attacked; or (2) that there is danger in allotting the franchise so that the preponderance of electoral power may diverge markedly from the preponderance of physical force, since this divergence may tempt a minority defeated at the polls to refuse obedience to the legislature. The two arguments are fundamentally distinct, as the first appeals to principles of Right, the second forecasts an appeal to Might. Accordingly the second argument will be more appropriately considered later, when I come to treat of the sanctions of political order. Here I will only remark that---admitting the danger it signalises---the principle of governmental construction to which it points would, if thoroughly carried out, lead to very novel and startling results: since the manifest superiority of trained soldiers in physical conflict would have to be admitted as constituting a claim for electoral power out of proportion to their numbers; whereas the contrary is the case in the leading West-European States, where soldiers on service are actually excluded from the exercise of the franchise.

The first argument, which claims the franchise for men exclusively, as a compensation for onerous public duties imposed solely on the male sex, requires different treatment. It seems, however, to have obviously little force in an orderly modern state in which military service is ordinarily voluntary; since, in such a community, men who are not soldiers or policemen are so rarely called upon to exercise physical force, that the indefinite duty of fighting if required can surely weigh little as compared with the duty of paying taxes, which is laid on both sexes alike. The case no doubt is somewhat different in a state in which the dangers of war are so pressing as to necessitate compulsory military service: here no doubt there is a substantial burden imposed on the male sex from which women are free. But I know no principle on which it could be argued with any show of reason that a monopoly of the franchise is the proper compensation for this peculiar masculine burden;---since no one would gravely urge the danger that women, not having to fight, may support by their votes a war to which the majority of men are adverse. Apart from this chimerical danger, the kind of compensation which the masculine burden of military service seems prima facie to demand is rather something which would balance the economic disadvantage at which this burden might be supposed to place men in industrial competition with women. But when the question is regarded from this point of view it becomes evident that the superior physical force possessed on the average by men---which is the reason why military service is imposed on them---constitutes a natural advantage in industrial competition, in comparison with which the burden that we are now considering seems insignificant.

So far we have been considering the case of women who are not economically protected by marriage. The arguments for extending the franchise to wives appear to me less strong, and the objections more serious. I admit a certain general presumption that any legislation in which the two sexes are treated differently will, so far as controlled by an electorate in which men largely preponderate, tend to postpone the interests of women unduly; and will be especially liable to be unfair to wives as such, if they are excluded from the franchise. On the other hand, if a husband is not abnormally wanting in domestic affection and the sense of domestic duty, the interests of his wife, at any rate in her relations to persons outside the family, are tolerably safe in his hands: while, if he is so wanting, he is likely to have little scruple in exercising on her a kind of intimidation which law is powerless to prevent. And even apart from intimidation, a wife's vote is likely to be biassed by the desire of domestic harmony, prompting her to avoid open political disagreement with her husband. Moreover, according to the necessary or customary division of labour between husbands and wives, the experience of the latter will, generally speaking, be of less value as a preparation for the wise exercise of the franchise: while at the same time this division of labour leads to a reduction in the number of men exercising the franchise---through the formal or practical exclusion of soldiers, sailors, etc.---which must tend to throw an inexpedient preponderance of electoral control into the hands of women, if wives generally are admitted to vote.

Exclusion on the ground of race alone may be expedient if the general intellectual or moral inferiority of the race excluded is sufficiently clear. But a political society in which such exclusion is an important question, will be necessarily different from that which has been generally contemplated in the discussions of the present treatise, and will be likely to require different laws in other matters besides the franchise.

The exclusions that we have been considering bring strongly before us the different meanings which may be attached to the word ``citizen''. In its widest sense it is simply opposed to ``alien'', and would include all members of a State in which slavery is not allowed: but in States in which the government or an important part of it is elected by a widely extended suffrage, it is not uncommon to mean by the ``citizens'' only those who have a right to vote in such elections---leaving out of sight the usually larger part of the community that has not this right. The word ``people'' is also used in the same restricted sense by those who speak of ``government by the people''. It is convenient to use both terms in this signification, and I shall allow myself to do so without further explanation where the context excludes ambiguity; when there is a danger of ambiguity, I shall speak of ``electors'' and ``electorate''.

So far we have considered compulsory exclusions from the exercise of electoral rights: it remains to ask whether voluntary abstention should be allowed, or whether every elector should be constrained to vote under penalties. Such constraint has often been proposed; but I think it unadvisable, for the following reasons:---(1) If the elector is really intimidated, and abstains from fear of giving offence, compulsory voting may simply aggravate the evil: what is needed is, if possible, to remove his alarms. (2) Ordinarily, in collective decisions, neutrality of individuals is allowed: it seems unreasonable to prevent it in electoral contests; and useless to drive a man to the poll to give a blank vote. (3) So far as abstinence is due to lack of public spirit, it is no doubt an evil, but an evil to be combated by moral censure and suasion rather than by legal penalties. For coercion will not generate public spirit, or secure that the coerced vote is given from right motives and after due consideration; and, just as the development of genuine public spirit in a community or class is the best protection against a misuse of the franchise, so by forcing persons devoid of it to vote we increase the danger of such misuse. (4) One of the reasons for extending the franchise is to prevent grave discontent with legislation or government: but the risk from the discontent of voluntary non-voters is hardly likely to be serious, as they will surely try what can be done by voting before they proceed to sedition; they are more likely to be discontented if they are compelled to vote, as all coercion annoys.

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