Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Grassroots Founders, on voting: Thomas Jefferson

" The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption. "

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14: Laws

[emphasis added]

This passage is a continuation of the quote from yesterday’s post. Founders’ quotes can be tricky -we may not be sure what all the words meant to them... may be why people usually quote short oracular ones to prove all sorts of stuff. What does ‘all the people’ mean, or ‘mass’? For voting, ‘all the people’ meant white guys in Virginia back then. Maybe Jefferson meant just the rich, or educated white guys, too. But reading further, it's clear that Jefferson meant the poor as well as the rich.

We think of Jefferson as a visionary, who give thick inspirational shtick for his beliefs. But here he's almost cynical, or being more practical than usual. He fears that if only a relative few vote, they'll be easier to corrupt. Some crooks in government, or some wealthy, powerful group outside the government, could buy the whole shebang pretty cheap by bribing (or demagoging, or scaring, or lying to, etc.) them. He implies that the wealthy can be corrupted just as the poor can. Put cynically, is he saying that if some one is going to buy the country and corrupt the whole thing, including the government, why let them get it cheap? Less cynically, he is saying that if everyone votes, it will be impossible to buy, and impossible to corrupt.

Nincompated pedagoguery, being quite the thing these days, might point out that in a democracy with majority rule you only have to buy half plus one of everybody. Or you just need the ‘marginal voter.’ But usually there are more than one of those, and they can be hard to spot. So I think Jefferson’s point stands -probably easier to buy the country on the cheap if a smaller number of people vote than a larger.

The next and last passage of the chapter is very inspiring, though: 'Lastly, it is proposed, by a bill in this revisal, to begin a public library and gallery, by laying out a certain sum annually in books, paintings, and statues.'

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