Even in these times where the well-heeled and well-certified are happy to bemoan how the oiks vote, it is rare for somebody to openly advance new means of restricting the franchise. But it has happened.
Opponents of Brexit tend to retreat to the notion of a ‘representative democracy’, in which ‘representatives’ are free to vote against the express views of their constituents if they think they are stupid, bigoted or otherwise lacking.
Edmund Burke, an Irish born MP and key figure in British conservatism, is often cited: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
The context of the remark, made in a speech to the electors of Bristol, deserves wider reading. Prior to the much-used quote, Burke says a representative’s ‘unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience … are a trust from providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.’
I won’t be alone in my scepticism about divine guarantees. And indeed the full remarks seem widely out of kilter with our own times. During Burke’s era deference to class was the norm, and even newly-republican America brought in widespread protections against democracy, widely seen as mob rule.
The modern lines of deference are not, however, drawn upon breeding, at least directly. Education, or specifically qualifications, increasingly determines who gets the plum jobs, the best houses and nicest lives. And one economist, Dambisa Moyo, wants to use it to determine who can vote.
The context of her book Edge of Chaos are the votes for Brexit and president Donald Trump, which horrified certain elites around the world. As outlined in a Guardian piece, Moyo thinks that citizens should be tested before they can vote, setting ‘minimum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate.’ Accordingly: ‘The message this would send is that voting is not just a right, but one that has to be earned.’
Moyo claims this might not have stopped Brexit or Trump from winning their respective ballots, but given the ‘educated’ consensus on those two events it is tempting to interpret it as a means of safeguarding against such voter rebellions. At any rate, the fact that many in the comments below her article saw it that way belies her claim that testing would legitimise democracy.
But whatever Moyo’s motives, the other problems are numerous.
First, any testing will skew voting systems in favour of the rich, without question. Richer people have more access to education, people with more formal education make more money, and richer, more educated people will be more inclined to take and pass the tests. Those the system works for would get more say in its future.
Even that is assuming we could agree what you would test for. General knowledge of how our political system works is relevant, but beyond that it gets tricky. Important policy areas are frequently fought over by experts, and do not lend themselves to an easy-to-administer test.
Most fundamentally, I’m sceptical that people who have spent more time in formal education vote for ‘better’ policies, another hard to define concept. Many policy trade-offs are a matter of preference, affect different groups differently, and have unexpected effects once they are implemented.
Formal education already has plenty – probably too much – influence in British society. Politicians are mad keen on ‘meritocracy’, and qualifications act as barriers to wealth, influence and power in most areas of life.
Barring the uneducated from voting would further reduce the power of many of the most marginal people in Britain. It is a bad idea, and should be rejected.