We have just seen what is probably yet another failure of universal suffrage, admittedly in Argentina, where such failures have been themselves universal. The reformist Javier Milei, who had a good handle on the pretty robust reforms Argentina desperately needs appears to have been defeated by the government Peronist, who assisted his campaign with massive government handouts (sending the country further bankrupt) and was swept to power by the shirtless and propertyless mob in Buenos Aires. One man, one vote does not work. One man, one vote with the left stealing all the close elections works even less well, but election security is a separate albeit important question.
To determine the optimal structure of government, we need to determine the functions government must perform. John Locke put it best, in his 1689 “Two Treatises of Government” — the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty and property.
To protect life, government must provide adequate defense forces, must avoid unnecessary foreign entanglements and must provide adequate policing, especially in the big cities. This suggests the franchise should avoid over-representing intellectuals, whether pacifists, belligerent neoconservatives or proponents of protecting the criminal classes over the safety of ordinary people. Those with an education in mathematics, medicine or the practical sciences may have valuable insights to add, but woolly-headed political theoreticians certainly do not.
To protect liberty, the most important criteria are those of the U.S. Bill of Rights. For that to be adequately enforced, an independent Supreme Court is necessary, whose judges must be appointed by the political structure or elected, not appointed by lawyers (otherwise the court becomes captured by the leftist fantasies of the legal profession, as has the U.K. Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights). Ideally, supermajority provisions in legislative bodies are also desirable, to limit the damage a temporary majority can do. In the modern world, there also needs to be protection against excessive regulation; we are not free if we are subjected to endless niggling regulations dreamed up by “woke” bureaucrats. Again, this need suggests avoiding over-representation of the intellectual classes, and perhaps for over-representing small businessmen, who are most damaged by market distortions caused by over-regulation.
As for securing property, it is the most difficult objective of the three, both in theory and in practice. Thomas Jefferson fatally compromised it in the “Declaration of Independence” when he deleted it in favor of French nonsense about “the pursuit of happiness.” As a result, property has never been properly secured in the U.S. system, as witness the far higher level of chicanery in U.S. business and financial markets than would be acceptable elsewhere. This problem has got much worse since the Progressive era – Progressives from Theodore Roosevelt on disregarded the property interests of ordinary working Americans, securing only those of the very rich and the largest corporations, who could be expected to provide political contributions.
Once again, the intellectuals are the worst problem here. Having spending habits like Thomas Jefferson, who overspent consistently and died bankrupt, forcing his slaves to be sold, they have little property and resent those who have more. The French philosopher Julien Benda in 1927 identified a phenomenon “La Trahison des clercs” (the treason of the intellectuals) by which intellectuals have a persistent tendency to betray the society in which they live, losing the ability to reason dispassionately and despising as they do the ordinary people who form the bulk of its adherents. This is as true today as it was in 1927, except that today’s betrayals tend to be those of the extreme left rather than of the warmongering racist Fascists about whom Benda was most concerned.
Since securing property rights is the most difficult of our three objectives, it makes sense to prioritize it in designing our franchise, without losing sight of our other two objectives. That can be accomplished by retaining one-man-one vote, but limiting it to the owners of freehold property, of any value above a low (but not trivial) minimum.
The pre-1830 British franchise had this feature in most constituencies, with franchise for “forty-shilling freeholds” i.e. ownership of a freehold property with an annual rent of £2 – equivalent to about $1,000 per annum today. This gave the vote to a socially broad range of male householders, including a sizeable percentage of the skilled working class. (This breadth was lost by the 1832 Reform Act, which although including the new industrial towns, gerrymandered constituencies towards the Whigs and raised the property qualification from £2 to £10.) With this franchise, as experience showed, property rights were sacrosanct (and indeed were quoted with approval by the era’s politicians) while Britain moved steadily towards freedoms of association, trade and belief (though today’s sexual freedoms would have seemed both unmentionable and unimaginable).
An equivalent property franchise today would achieve the same objectives. It would not give excessive power to the very rich, who would get only one vote however many properties they owned, and it would give more weight to older working men than it would to young intellectuals, who are less likely to own property rather than renting it. It would also downgrade the mostly-rentals big cities in favor of small towns and rural areas, a wholly benign bias for the health of the country.
There would be two advantages of a property-based franchise, as described above. The first, and less important, is that it would move the political spectrum somewhat to the right. Those with property tend to be older, and therefore more conservative, while this franchise would eliminate two problematic classes of voters: young intellectuals with no stake in the economy and the transient/homeless. The transient/homeless add little to the wisdom of the electorate; those few who are capable would soon get a job or start a small business and become non-transient and in due course with a small property (which might be their shop rather than their home). While they remain transient/homeless they are doubtless receiving welfare from the system and contributing nothing to it; their interests are thus antithetical to those of society as a whole. As for young intellectuals, until they have grown up, abandoned Marxism and settled down into home ownership (at which point, whatever their views, they become valuable, well-informed electors) they are a thorough electoral menace, consistently voting against the market, for government handouts and against social stability.
The second advantage of a property-based franchise would be political and economic stability. You can see how important this is by examining the case of Argentina, which after eighty years of successful government (the first fifty of which were elected on a property-based franchise, albeit a rather restrictive one) under the stresses of recession and war elected the leftist Juan Peron in 1945. Because Argentina was in 1945 artificially rich, having benefited as a food producer during a world war, Peron was able to spend money like a drunken General for the next decade before the money ran out and he was ejected.
That meant the vast number of rootless, propertyless welfare recipients in Argentina were convinced that only Peron or a follower thereof could bring prosperity. Meanwhile, as a result of Peron’s wreckage, the steps needed to repair Argentina’s economy and put it on the road to prosperity were more draconian and longer-term than could be achieved by a centrist or a short-lived government. Consequently, deterioration continued, with a succession of bankruptcies and a currency devaluation of 1032 between 1945 and 2023 – a military administration in 1976-81 was economically sensible, but they switched generals to a populist before recovery could be bedded in. The demand for more profligacy was always strong, so the better administrations such as that of Carlos Menem (1989-99) still overspent, while the worst administrations (Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, 2007-15) lasted achingly long. Worse still, profligate Argentine governments were propped up by outside agencies such as the IMF, whose loans to Argentina have been the unhappiest saga of all the misguided interventions over its 78-year life.
Argentina shows the greatest risk, which may also occur in the United States in coming years: a rotten administration is succeeded by something not much better, and soon the electorate has only to choose between multiple degrees of incompetence. When someone like Milei comes along, with genuine potential for improvement, the productive and unproductive sectors of the electorate are at best so closely balanced that even a mild scare campaign can cause the voters to wimp out (there is still some hope they will see sense and elect Milei on November 19, but the probability must be low).
A property franchise is not the solution to everything, but as 18th century Britain showed, it offers the possibility of genuinely fine government and at least it avoids the Argentine possibility of multiple decades of locked-in failure. The U.S. constitution contemplated it – one-man-one-vote democracy came in only in the 1820s and then notoriously not completely; there is thus no constitutional problem in returning to it.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)