Oct 30, 2008

a lukewarm defense of democracy

The Nov/Dec LD resolution forces debaters to consider the value of voting. In an otherwise unrelated blog post, Jason Kuznicki, who has a knack for clearly explaining complex ideas, provides a connection between the social contract and the right to vote.
Voting is a tricky thing, since it’s a positive, or government-created right; you don’t have a right to vote in the state of nature. The social contract creates voting.

By entering into society, you surrender a distinctly limited number of your natural rights, for instance the right to extract restitution forcibly from those who have wronged you. In compensation for giving these up, the state gives you some other rights (like voting, and trial by jury). All the other rights not clearly mentioned in the deal are yours to keep, at least in theory. And there’s no sense in saying you’ve given up more than you really have.
Negatives who are running the social contract analysis need to frame the distinction between natural rights and positive rights; it's essential to establishing the government's warrant for taking away the right to vote when a felon is convicted.

I like Kuznicki's answer to the objection that the social contract is a mere construct (call this the "I didn't sign any social contract" objection). Kuznicki writes,
The real question is not whether there was a discrete moment in which you entered into society. Clearly there was no such moment.

We tell ourselves the story of the social contract as a way of comparing real life to a situation that is obviously just. The more that real-life outcomes approximate the obviously just situation of the social contract, the more confident we can be in the justice of the actual situation. Likewise, the less they resemble an obviously just case, the more we can doubt their justice. Thus, although you never entered into society as you would enter into a contract, we still evaluate society as if you did — and when we find things that you would never accept in a contract, there is a plausible case to be made that these things are unjust.
Later on, in the comments, we get a social contract-esque defense of democracy.
I see the greatest value to democracy as follows: It ensures, better than any other system we know, a peaceful and orderly transition of power. Peace and order are still worth keeping, even if I disagree with the policies of the candidates running.
Kuznicki calls this "lukewarm." Still, from a realistic perspective, lukewarm might be the hottest water we can get.

Added: Oh, and if you need them, here are Kuznicki's bona fides.


Sexy Beast said...


Can you provide us with evidence that proves that felons are still citizens, even during prison?!?


Jim Anderson said...

Jeffrey Reiman, in "Liberal and Republican Arguments Against the Disenfranchisement of Felons," writes:

"In the United States today, 4.7 million citizens--more than two percent of the adult population--are deprived of the right to vote because they have been convicted of a felony. Of these, 1.7 million have completed their sentences and are no longer under any form of criminal justice supervision."

That makes it abundantly clear: 3 million incarcerated, probationary, or paroled felons are still citizens.

Sexy Beast said...

Thank you!

John said...

Hey Jim,
I'm farily new and i just wanted to bounce some ideas off of you.
Is it possible to use the social contract on the affirmative if i say that by removing my right to vote you are taking away one of the rights that i get in return. like the article explains i give up certain rights so that im able to vote. if i lose the voting right then my entry into the social contract is actually revoked by the government, right?

Reginald Cartier, Esq. said...

I partly disagree with this anyalsis. To me, the idea of democratic citizenry boiled down to two things: "legal" citizens and "philosophical" citizens, as they will be called. A "legal" citizen is one who is a legal member of a society; he has all the documents to prove it and all that other good stuff. A "philosophical" citizen is one who abides by the social contract and maintains a just demeanor in society. Now, that dichotomy becomes problematic in the case of felon disenfranchisement: when does one, in a democratic society, lose the right to vote? Is it when they are no longer a "philosophical" citizen? No longer a "legal" citizen? Or does it have to be when one is no longer both? While a felon is technically no longer a "philosophical" citizen, a felon is still a "legal" citizen of said democratic society; if they weren't a legal citizen, then the society couldn't punish them. A particularly troubling burden for either side is to determine from which source does the right to vote stem from: does the right to vote come from "legal" citizenship or "philosophical" citizenship? The former seems more logical given the prototypical framework of democracy, although the latter makes sense as well.

Jim Anderson said...

John, but then, it's only revoked by the government because you volunteered it away by breaking the rules you had (whether expressly, implicitly or tacitly) agreed to follow.

Reginald, you cut right to the quick. I do have one slight problem with your wording, though, when you write, "...if they weren't a legal citizen, then the society couldn't punish them." Aliens, illegal or no, still have to follow the law, and can be incarcerated or deported. They still have basic rights under domestic and international law. (The really murky area, as we all know, is when they are "enemy combatants.")

An interesting argument I haven't seen is whether we ought to promote a universal, cosmopolitan democratic society, where human and civil or legal rights are essentially coextensive, since international boundaries are meaningless.