Policy and Procedure

Kevin Drum on the three rights which he believes define a decent liberal society, and why that means convicted felons should be allowed to vote:

I figure that if a country guarantees the following three rights, it's probably a pretty decent place:

  1. The right to free speech
  2. The right to a fair trial
  3. The right to vote

...There are plenty of other highly desirable rights, but these are the three cornerstones that define a decent liberal society. So here's a question: Do you think convicted felons who have served their time should be prohibited from speaking freely? Do you think they should lose the right to a fair trial? No? Then why do they lose the right to vote in 20 states?

The problem with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge the distinction between policy and procedure. Policy is the set of laws and regulations in force in a society. Things like the tax code, the welfare system, whether and for what crimes we impose the death penalty, and whether marijuana may be used for medical purposes, for recreational purposes, or not at all, are all aspects of policy.

Procedure is the method we use to create policy. Direct democracy, republicanism, constitutional monarchy, and dictatorship are all examples of different types of procedure.

Ultimately, only policy matters. Procedure is important only insofar as certain types tend to produce more desirable policy outcomes. A corollary of this is that there is no right to vote. There's nothing sacred about universal suffrage, or democracy in any form. We don't hold elections to allow people to exercise their god-given right to vote. We hold elections because democracy allegedly produces better policy than dictatorship.

Considered critically, the idea of a right to vote is positively absurd. In casting a ballot, a voter helps to determine policy that affects not only himself, but also every other citizen of his country, and to a lesser extent everyone in the rest of the world. With a ratio of external to internal costs and benefits on the order of hundreds of millions to one, the effects of voting are almost entirely external. No one has a right to inflict bad policy on his neighbors, and there's nothing liberal about putting this responsibility in the hands of people who can't be trusted to use it responsibly.

Given that they've already shown disrespect for the rights and welfare of others, I see no reason to trust convicted felons with the responsibility of voting. The analogy with free speech and fair trial is bogus. In exercising these rights, convicted felons pose no threat to the rest of us, and to deprive them of these rights would burden them unduly. These are genuine rights, and must be recognized as such in the policy of any decent society.

But suffrage is a mere procedural detail. As long as disenfranchising convicted felons does not negatively affect policy outcomes, it's unlikely to burden them in any significant way, and there's no reason we should not deny them the vote if we believe that this will lead to superior policy outcomes.

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