Should people who don’t pay enough income tax be denied the right to vote?
One man who thinks so is Telegraph journalist Ian Cowie. In a comment piece published in September, Cowie argues that those who do not have enough ‘skin in the game’ should be excluded from the franchise. Allowing those who do not pay tax to vote in favour of rises in public spending has, Cowie suggests, saddled the state with unsustainable commitments and contributed in large part to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. Only by excluding from the franchise those who do not contribute to the system will it be possible to regain control over public spending.
This is not a new proposal. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty (published in three volumes in the 1970s) the neoliberal economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek suggested that those dependent on state benefits should be excluded from the electorate. Concerned by the continued expansion of the state, Hayek argued that it was folly to allow those who directly benefited from public largesse to vote in favour of its continuation. Those who were in receipt of benefits were never likely to vote for the reduction or abolition of those benefits, even if there was a powerful economic argument for doing so.
Hayek even took this argument one stage further by suggesting that public sector employees should also be denied the right to vote. Like welfare recipients, public sector employees had a vested interest in the continued expansion of the state. Just as welfare recipients were unlikely to vote for the withdrawal of their own benefits, public sector employees were unlikely to vote for the eradication of their own jobs. Taken together, welfare recipients and public sector employees meant that the electoral system contained an in-built majority in favour of the continued expansion of the state
Moreover, Hayek saw no reason why these exclusions should constitute a retreat from the democratic politics. Though he accepted that it would mean the withdrawal of the vote from millions of those who currently exercised it, he noted that ‘the limits of suffrage are large determined by considerations of expediency’ rather than by pure principle. Many individuals were already excluded from the electorate on the grounds of their age or their nationality – so why not exclude benefits claimants or public sector workers as well?
Though both Hayek and Cowie stress that their proposals are conceived as means of economic safeguarding, it is hard to escape the suspicion that they actually constitute attempts to produce a specific kind of (low tax, free market) state by ensuring that certain claims on the public purse remain muffled. As the political scientist Andrew Gamble put it in his influential study of Hayek, these restrictions on the franchise would ‘preserve democracy as a method of choosing governments while emptying it of any substantive content’.
Matthew Francis was recently awarded a PhD for his thesis on the influence of neo-liberalism on Britain’s political parties, which he studied at the School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham.