The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is obviously no student of Aquinas in matters of politics. ‘Man is not ordained to the body politic, according to all that he is and has,’ wrote the Angelic Doctor; ‘and so it does not follow that every action of his acquires merit or demerit in relation to the body politic’ (Summa Theologica, I-II, 21.4, ad 3).
In a report to be published in September, the IPPR advocates compulsory voting for teens - doubtless to complement the Labour party’s call for lowering the voting age to 16 - and assigns ‘demerits’ via fines for the indolent if they fail to comply.
As a policy recommendation from a left-wing think tank, this comes as no surprise. Social democrats view the state as an end unto itself, to which solemn observance must be paid. But there are two distinct problems with mandatory voting.
The instrumental viewpoint asks: Will compulsion work? Certainly fines will not incentivise the recalcitrant to inculcate civic habits, much less endear potential voters to partake in the political process. As Conservative Home’s Mark Wallace notes,
‘Faced with a problem by which young people in particular are not turned on by politics, and often feel voting does nothing for them ... making their first interaction with the electoral system one of compulsion, backed by a demand for money if they refuse to obey, will simply confirm and strengthen those opinions ... hardly a positive experience to inspire democratic participation.’
Yet the most obvious flaw is that compulsory voting blames citizens (of whatever age) for their lack of civic participation and absolves the egregious acts of government, politicians, and civil servants for repelling voters. The average constituent may have good reason for shunning the ballot box, as Gordon Tullock maintains in Government: Whose Obedient Servant? Getting up to speed on political matters entails an opportunity cost, and when there are no subjective issues to focus the mind (factoring in the diluting effect of casting one ballot among millions), citizens tune out. Only special-interest voters (e.g., pensioners and benefit recipients) with particular gains or losses entailed in electoral outcomes get engaged and are more likely to head for polling stations.
A subtler but more pressing problem with the IPPR proposal is that it blithely assumes that the state precedes the citizens, as if the latter owed their origins to the former. Why do politicos ignore the Locke-Jefferson formula based on natural law, that ‘Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it’?
Indeed, avoiding the ballot box may be the political act par excellence, as voters take civic responsibility into their own hands and act individually or through voluntary associations in pursuit of shared public goods. Arthur Seldon saw this ‘escape’ as the likely outcome of over-government, as he analysed the reaction in The Dilemma of Democracy:
‘The leading responsibility for the diminishing respect for democracy and observance of its governing processes is that of the politicians. [...] Political leaders have been interminably invited or incited to expand government, its powers, functions and services, beyond their necessity, beyond their innate low quality, and, not least for the lowest-income families [or youth-voter], beyond their sheer cost.’
Sadly, it is foreseeable that Westminster will see merit in mandatory provisions, sustained as it is by the political model which furnishes power and wealth. Compulsory voting, coupled with a lowered voting age, has definite advantages for some parties (read ‘Labour’) to the detriment of others (read ‘Tory’). ‘Some MPs believe such a move would make an alliance with the Liberal Democrats more likely in the event of another hung parliament in 2015,’ writes the Telegraph’s Tim Ross. ‘Nick Clegg is a keen advocate of electoral reform and many in his party would welcome extending the franchise to younger people.’ Tullock and Seldon well-knew when private benefits masquerade as civic goods in the public square.
‘There is a part of human existence which necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction,’ wrote Benjamin Constant in Principles of Politics.
‘Political society cannot exceed its jurisdiction without being usurpative, nor can the majority without becoming factious. The assent of the majority is not enough in all circumstances to render its actions lawful. There are acts which nothing can endow with that character.’ (II.i)
Compulsory voting crosses the line between individual liberty and political diktat. Much better to march this IPPR idea to the authoritarian ash-heap.