Universal Suffrage: Not Always A Good Idea



Universal suffrage is something we take for granted in western countries. That every man and women above a certain age (in the US 18) can vote is seen as maybe the most important rights of all, and most Americans believe the US should work to spread this right to countries where people don’t currently have it.

I agree – to a certain extent.

I believe we that there are two things we need to recognize:

1) Of the fundamental rights – the right to vote, the freedom of speech, religion and press etc – the right to vote is the least important. Free speech occured long before universal suffrage, as did freedom of press and religion. You can have them without having the right to vote. Everyone – exactly everyone – in the US has freedom of speech, even a five year old. But the right to vote is limited to those above 18, because only those above 18 can be trusted to have developed a good enough understanding of the world to vote (that is of course just one reason, but it pretty much sums it up). Which brings us to my second point:

2) In other countries, the right to vote may have to be limited not by age, but by other requirements such as literacy.

It is the second point that I’m going to discuss in greater detail.

In some countries, illiteracy rates are as high as 90 %. This includes most african and some asian countries. I believe that universal suffrage in those countries is undesirable, as people who cannot read doesn’t make for good voters. How can you be an informed voter when you can’t read a party manifesto? How do you factcheck candidates’ claims when you can’t read? The answer is you don’t. And that is why universal suffrage so often ends in disaster when tried in developing countries.

Look at Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, the massmurderer dictator, was once democratically elected. How did that ever happen? He was just really good at fooling clueless naive Zimbabweans who had no way of factchecking his claims (and who had never heard of the disastrous results communism had brought in the Soviet Union). Ridiculous pie in the sky promises that voters here would have recognized as such were believed by the gullible Zimbabwean people.

I’m not against suffrage in African countries – but looking back, maybe it would have been a good idea to limit the suffrage to the 10 % of Zimbabweans who actually know how to read and write?

This isn’t the only time this has happened. Whenever suffrage is given to people who don’t know how to read and write, disastrous consequences follow. Often, illiterate people don’t even know who or what they’re voting for. Someone told them to write down some funny signs on a piece of paper, and that if they did so, manna would fall from heaven. That’s essentially how illiterate people vote.

I’ve already discussed the problems of the “dumb vote” as I call it in a previous post. Now imagine if the “dumb vote” consisted of 90 % of the population. Not a good platform for democracy, right? In particular as politicians in Africa effectively have an incentive to keep their people uneducated; if they were educated they’d vote for someone else. Of course you can’t tell voters that you’re going to keep their kids away from school, but once elected, you can invent excuses as for why those investments in education that you promised hasn’t happened (most likely this will mean blaming everything on the white man)

The risk is also very great when illiteracy is high that a leader will be elected who will make sure that no more elections are held – he will make himself a dictator. Of course this could happen anyway, but the risk is certainly higher in countries where illiteracy is the norm. A democracy where people who can’t read or write are allowed to vote is bound to be shortlived.

Iraq and Iran are both countries with low illiteracy rates, and so universal suffrage could – notice, COULD – work in those countries. But certainly not in the majority of African countries.

So what is the solution then? Should we just sit down and do nothing? Of course not.

We should insist on freedom of speech for every human on this planet. We should promote freedom of religion and press as well, and the right to assembly. We should work to educate people in developing countries, through (private) foreign aid investments.

But we should not insist on universal suffrage in countries that aren’t ready for it.

Some may say that universal suffrage is the only way the oppressed and impoverished africans can get a say. I understand that point of view, but the facts are truly stubborn: Without literacy, universal suffrage cannot work. Does anyone seriously believe that the leaders elected by said impoverished africans have made anything better for them?

If we want democracy all over the world, and I for one do, we need to understand that it has to happen step by step. As conservatives, we do not believe in revolution; we believe in reform and realism.

It is time we apply realism to the issue of global universal suffrage as well. Thanks for reading.

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