In a classroom discussion about the fall of democracy and the institution of a system of government where only those who volunteered to serve were granted citizenship, Robert Heinlein gives us a powerful lesson in why the franchise of democracy must be limited. Why the concept of universal suffrage is truly universal suffering.
Nobody can describe accurately how the Federation came about; it just grew. With national governments in collapse at the end of the XXth century, something had to fill the vacuum, and in many cases, it was returned veterans.
They had lost a war, most of them had no jobs, many were sore as could be over the terms of the Treaty of New Delhi, especially the P.O.W. foul-up—and they knew how to fight. But it wasn’t revolution; it was more like what happened in Russia in 1917—the system collapsed; somebody else moved in.
The first known case, in Aberdeen, Scotland, was typical. Some veterans got together as vigilantes to stop rioting and looting, hanged a few people (including two veterans) and decided not to let anyone but veterans on their committee. Just arbitrary at first—they trusted each other a bit, they didn’t trust anyone else. What started as an emergency measure became constitutional practice . . . in a generation or two.
Probably those Scottish veterans, since they were finding it necessary to hang some veterans, decided that, if they had to do this, they weren’t going to let any “bleedin’, profiteering, black-market, double-time-for-overtime, army-dodging, unprintable” civilians have any say about it. They’d do what they were told, see?—while us apes straightened things out! That’s my guess because I might feel the same way . . . and historians agree that antagonism between civilians and returned soldiers was more intense than we can imagine today.
Sally didn’t tell it by the book. Finally, Major Reid cut him off. “Bring a summary to class tomorrow, three thousand words. Mr. Salomon, can you give me a reason—not historical nor theoretical but practical—why the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans?”
“Uh, because they are picked men, sir. Smarter.”
“Is the word too long for you? I said it was a silly notion. Servicemen are not brighter than civilians. In many cases, civilians are much more intelligent. That was the sliver of justification underlying the attempted coup d’état just before the Treaty of New Delhi, the so-called ‘Revolt of the Scientists’: let the intelligent elite run things and you’ll have Utopia. It fell flat on its foolish face of course. Because the pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility. I’ve given you a hint, Mister; can you pick it up?”
Sally answered, “Uh, servicemen are disciplined, sir.”
Major Reid was gentle with him. “Sorry. An appealing theory not backed up by facts. You and I are not permitted to vote as long as we remain in the Service, nor is it verifiable that military discipline makes a man self-disciplined once he is out; the crime rate of veterans is much like that of civilians. And you have forgotten that in peacetime most veterans come from non-combatant auxiliary services and have not been subjected to the full rigors of military discipline; they have merely been harried, overworked, and endangered—yet their votes count.”
Major Reid smiled. “Mr. Salomon, I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.
“Nevertheless, it is instructive to observe the details. Throughout history men have labored to place the sovereign franchise in hands that would guard it well and use it wisely, for the benefit of all. An early attempt was absolute monarchy, passionately defended as the ‘divine right of kings.’
“Sometimes attempts were made to select a wise monarch, rather than leave it up to God, as when the Swedes picked a Frenchman, General Bernadotte, to rule them. The objection to this is that the supply of Bernadottes is limited.
“Historic examples ranged from absolute monarch to utter anarchy; mankind has tried thousands of ways and many more have been proposed, some weird in the extreme such as the antlike communism urged by Plato under the misleading title The Republic. But the intent has always been moralistic: to provide stable and benevolent government.
“All systems seek to achieve this by limiting the franchise to those who are believed to have the wisdom to use it justly. I repeat ‘all systems’; even the so-called ‘unlimited democracies’ excluded from franchise not less than one-quarter of their populations by age, birth, poll tax, criminal record, or other.”
Major Reid smiled cynically. “I have never been able to see how a thirty-year-old moron can vote more wisely than a fifteen-year-old genius . . . but that was the age of the ‘divine right of the common man.’ Never mind, they paid for their folly.
“The sovereign franchise has been bestowed by all sorts of rules— place of birth, family of birth, race, sex, property, education, age, religion, et cetera. All these systems worked and none of them well. All were regarded as tyrannical by many, all eventually collapsed or were overthrown.
“Now here are we with still another system . . . and our system works quite well. Many complain but none rebel; personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. Why? Not because our voters are smarter than other people; we’ve disposed of that argument. Mr. Tammany—can you tell us why our system works better than any used by our ancestors?”
I don’t know where Clyde Tammany got his name; I’d take him for a Hindu. He answered, “Uh, I’d venture to guess that it’s because the electors are a small group who know that the decisions are up to them . . . so they study the issues.”
“No guessing, please; this is an exact science. And your guess is wrong. The ruling nobles of many another system were a small group fully aware of their grave power. Furthermore, our franchised citizens are not everywhere a small fraction; you know or should know that the percentage of citizens among adults ranges from over eighty percent on Iskander to less than three percent in some Terran nations—yet government is much the same everywhere. Nor are the voters picked men; they bring no special wisdom, talent, or training to their sovereign tasks. So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of the franchise in the past? We have had enough guesses; I’ll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.
“And that is the one practical difference.
“He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history.”