How Stupid Are the Voters?

Gary North (, November 14, 2014

Why should the intelligence of the voters be an issue with respect to political sovereignty? Democracy has never been based on the concept of an intelligent voter. Neither has traditional Republican theory.

The framers of the Constitution were concerned about the moral virtue of voters. This was the correct approach. They did not talk about intelligence, because they did not have any way to measure intelligence. They assumed that people who would serve in public office would be intelligent people, because it would take literacy and an understanding of the operations of civil government and the legal system in order to become a successful politician. That, at least, was the assumption. There is not much today to indicate that assumption was incorrect. The problem that still remains is what the problem was in 1788: a lack of virtue.

The representatives of the people in Congress are not unintelligent. Most of them have college degrees. Some of them have made a lot of money. A lot of them have law degrees. These are not unintelligent people. But they are surely people who, because of the nature of the job that they hold, are always ready to trim their sails to the way the wind is blowing. In other words, they are not noted for their commitment to virtue. Virtue is not discovered by sticking your finger in the wind to see which way it is blowing.

There is nothing new about this in the history of politics. Intelligent people have always been in charge of political systems. These people have always been subject to the lures of money, fame, power, sex, and all of the other inducements to trim one’s sails to the political winds of the day.

The framers of the Constitution hoped against hope that they could devise a formal system of civil government that would put restraints on political evil. They really believed that the Constitution would serve as a kind of restraining factor in people’s pursuit of their own political self-interest. The classic essay on this is Federalist 51, which was written by Madison. He hoped that it was possible to have a republic in a large society, and he placed his hope on factions. He thought that political factions would cancel each other out. He hoped that this would leave a purified law which the Congress, a president, and the Supreme Court could jointly produce. It would be neutral law, because the influence of factions would cancel each other out. It was a great theory; but on the whole, it has not worked. Peace has been maintained, but not political virtue.

The idea that everybody should vote is based on the idea that everybody has a right to determine what kinds of negative sanctions are going to be imposed on him, by whom, and under what conditions. This is the idea of the voter’s exercising a veto on the expansion of civil government. There’s nothing wrong with that idea. I am in full agreement with William F. Buckley’s statement, that he would rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard. That was a great quip. It made good sense then, and it still makes good sense. He was well aware of the fact that the faculty at Harvard was more intelligent, per capita, than the first 200 people in the Boston telephone directory. He just did not trust them.

If you took a survey of American voters, and you asked them if they thought that millions of voters are stupid, even the most stupid of them would say yes. They probably think it’s the other guy who is stupid, but from the point of view of somebody with a higher IQ, all of them are stupid.

The issue is ethics. The issue is virtue. The issue is whether or not people are going to approve of legislators who use coercion to favour special-interest groups at the expense of the general public. For as long as Americans restrained their appetites for using federal power to line their own pockets, the American Republic stumbled along pretty well. But after 1913, the federal government had the income tax and the Federal Reserve System to bankroll its expansion. Progressives captured the country.

From that point on, the intelligent elite began to use the federal government to feather its own nests. The elite has appealed repeatedly to the common man, or the middle class, but this is all political rhetoric. The bottom line has always been the same: the expansion of federal power, which favors those special-interest groups that know how to game the political system. That is not Joe Lunchbucket. That is the Council on Foreign Relations.

The main problem has always been this: the public’s right to veto illegitimate negative sanctions has always been accompanied by the public’s right to inaugurate illegitimate negative sanctions. The idea of democracy as a means of removing negative civil sanctions, meaning a restraint on the expansion of government power, is a good idea. But it has not been able to defend itself against the lure of political salvation.

The right to vote has been seen as the right to seek personal income. That is the heart of the matter, and intelligent people, middle-class people, poor people, and high school dropouts have all agreed, at one point or another, to accept the expansion of civil government as a means of healing the society: the messianic state. The problem is ethics, not IQ scores.

When people use the ballot box to get other people out of their wallets, it is being used well. But when they use it to get into other people’s wallets, the system breaks down.

It takes self-restraint to say this: “I will not use the state to feather my nest.” It is not a matter of IQ. It is a matter of ethics.