Labor Day questions: Who is ‘productive’? Who gets to decide?
I am writing to follow up on Eli’s excellent post about democracy being ‘un-American’. He and the commenters bring out the connections between Matthew Vadum’s rant and the Republican efforts to shackle actual human voters and unleash corporate power in elections. But I thought there were a few other points worth drawing out.
Blowing the Script
To start with the author: Matthew Vadum reminds me of a third-stringer in the chorus line who rushes to center stage for their star turn, only to plant face big time. Blunderer that he is, he can’t stick to the script.
According to the script, vote suppression is necessary to protect our elections. It exists to safeguard the sanctity of our political process from the insidious menace of voter fraud. It is the ultimate in good government, wrapped in noble terms like ‘ballot integrity’ and appealing to us to save our democracy. For Vadum to blurt out the true class motives is unforgivably stupid. Alex Pareene at Salon’ War Room draws this out quite well.
Vadum drags the half-forgotten slur of ‘un-American’ from Joseph McCarthy’s crypt. But he reaches a lot further back for most of his ideas. His article resurrects a vast array of decayed bigotries from the age of pompous squires, flint-hearted masters, and dark satanic mills: The poor are “criminals”. They are credulous fools, open to demagoguery and bribery. They are “non-productive” and will “destroy the country” by “helping themselves to other people’s money.” Most fundamental of all is the idea that the ‘wrong’ people should not be allowed to vote.
This idea has a distinguished pedigree, unfortunately. Economist Ha-Joon Chiang recently wrote an excellent book called 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. It is a brilliantly-organized and highly readable takedown of the deluded economics being practiced nowadays. In one of this chapters, entitled “Making rich people richer doesn’t make the rest of us richer” Chiang reminds us of the beliefs of the founding thinkers of economics:
The nineteenth-century liberals believed that abstinence was the key to wealth accumulation and thus economic development. Having acquired the fruits of their labor, people needed to abstain from instant gratification and invest it, if they were to accumulate wealth. In this world view, the poor were poor because they did not have the character to exercise such abstinence. Therefore, if you gave the poor voting rights, they would want to maximize their current consumption, rather than investment, by imposing taxes on the rich and spending them. This might make the poor better off in the short run, but it would make them worse off in the long run by reducing investment and thus growth.
In principle, according to David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and the other big thinkers of capitalist economics, the vote is not a right. It is a privilege. You get the vote if you can be trusted to use it ‘responsibly’, that is, in the interests of those who control society. David Ricardo argued against the universal franchise when it was proposed in the 1820s:
So essential does it appear to me, to the cause of good government, that the rights of property should be held sacred, that I would agree to deprive those of the elective franchise against whom it could justly be alleged that they considered it their interest to invade them…If the objection made against reform were an honest one, the objectors would say how low in the scale of society they thought the rights of property were held sacred, and there they would make their stand. That class, and all above it, they would say, may fairly and advantageously be entrusted with the power which is wished to be given them, but the presumption of mistaken views of interest in all below that class would render it hazardous to entrust a similar power with them—it could not at least be safely done until we had more reason to be satisfied that, in their opinion, the interest of the community and that of themselves were identified on this important subject.
Opposed to this principle, of course, is the principle we hold today, that voting is a right, a natural right that only tyrants and despots would seek to deny. This principle has won the day, thanks to decades – centuries, in fact – of determined and sometimes bloody struggle. Those sacrifices and victories have given our principle its strength, which is why our modern squires can’t afford to state their real aims as baldly as Vadum does. That’s why he’s a moron for giving their game away.
So Who is Productive?
I think it’s also worth remarking on Vadum’s slur that the poor are ‘unproductive’. This trope – that the rich and the corporations are the producers, the job creators, the veritable gods of prosperity on whom the rest of us must dance attendance – is a favorite teabagger applause line and Randroid rant. But if we look at the record, it’s the exact opposite of the truth. The rich are the ones who have spent many years sending jobs overseas by the millions, undermining our economy, destroying our industrial base and the skill set of our working population. They and their anti-tax sock puppets in Congress and state legislatures are the ones who have undermined and destroyed our educational systems, our communities, our jobs and our physical infrastructure. This class, Vadum’s alleged ‘producers’, the ones who paid themselves more than they paid the nation, who spend more on lobbying than on taxes, are the biggest destroyers of wealth on the planet. ‘Productive’, indeed!
Take Back the Power
I have been a little tough on Mr. Vadum, but I’ll give him credit for one sentiment:
It is profoundly antisocial … to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country…
Does that mean I think the rich shouldn’t vote? Of course not (I don’t think their money should vote, of course).
It does mean I don’t think they should “be empowered” to wreck the economy, let alone to take the vote away from the rest of us. Let’s not forget that Vadum’s rant is not just his own opinion, and perhaps not even his own idea. The right’s agenda has been obvious for months, and the fight against it is still just shaping up. It’s going to be tough. For more information about vote suppression, or to help defend the people’s right to vote, see the following:
Vote suppression and voter ID requirements: data, journalism and activism
ACLU Voting Rights
Election Defense Alliance
Election Law Blog
League of Women Voters: Registration and Election Administration
NCSL Voter ID Map
TPM’s Voter ID page
Uncounted: The Movie
Verified Voting (blog located here)