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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Democracy and Voting Power (S522a: 1896)

Editor Charles H. Smith’s Note: A letter to Clarion columnist "Nunquam" (pseudn. of Editor Robert Blatchford) printed on page 4 of the 29 February 1896 issue of that title. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S522A.htm

    "Dear Nunquam,--While agreeing generally with your excellent reply to a "Conservative Working Man" as to the definition and purport of Democracy, I wish to call attention to a point which is almost invariably ignored, but which has a most important bearing on the problem of how to get wise rulers. This point is, the proper age-limit of both voters and rulers. It is an admitted fact that, as a rule, with increasing years men (and women) become wiser; sometimes not much wiser, sometimes, perhaps, not at all; but, on the average, age gives us wider experience of men and things, more knowledge of the results of our own and of others' actions, and more real interest in and comprehension of the methods and objects of government. In the complex societies of our day this is more than ever the case. The average man or woman under forty knows hardly anything of the laws to which he is subject, or of the highly complex organisation by which the country is governed. Yet, strange to say, while simpler forms of society and lower civilisations have almost invariably recognised the wisdom and experience that comes with age as being a qualification for the legislator or the ruler, we who have infinitely more need of such a qualification have adopted the legal age of 21, before which a man is not responsible for a simple debt and can perform hardly any legal act, as the age which qualifies for both voting and legislating. In most savage and semi-civilised tribes the Elders are the rulers, and in many savage languages the words for 'Chief' and 'Old Man' are synonymous; and in early patriarchal times the head of the family, often the grandfather or great-grandfather of many of its members, was the undisputed Chieftain. With us a boy just out of school or college who is absolutely ignorant of almost everything relating to the social condition of the people; whose political opinions, if he has any, are mere prejudices; and whose whole body and mind may be engaged either in amusement or in working for a living, is yet, if he has a lodging of his own, allowed to vote both for municipal officers and for members of Parliament.

    "My contention is that, as a whole, persons who are above 40 are, both by experience, knowledge, and that quality of cautious judgment which may be termed wisdom, much better fitted to be intelligent voters for our legislators and rulers than those who are between 21 and 40; and if none had votes till they reached their fortieth year we should have a much better chance of having good and honest representatives. And if every man and woman of that age had a vote, excluding only criminals and lunatics, the system of government would be as absolutely democratic as it would be if all above 20 had the vote. Democracy depends upon all classes of the people having equal voting power irrespective of rank, wealth, or occupation, not upon the age limit which may be determined on for all. The census returns show that the two groups into which I have divided the population are about equal in numbers, so that if there is, as I think few will deny, a decided inferiority in the younger group as regards the choice of the best representatives, we are deliberately giving up the great advantage of an improved class of representatives on account of the old thoughtless custom of considering that the age of legal responsibility for a debt was also sufficient to qualify as a voter. We must also remember that the voters under 40 are in a considerable majority, because so very large a proportion of the old are now inhabitants of workhouses and hospitals, or, through infirmity, are unable to vote. The young are therefore in a majority, and by giving them the vote we are really suffering ourselves to be governed by the ignorance and inexperience of youth, rather than by the experience and wisdom of those of maturer years. Although it is not probable that this principle will be adopted by any of our modern political parties, it seems to me to be of the greatest importance to Socialists that it should be recognised by them as the only principle on which the governing bodies in a co-operative commonwealth can be chosen in order to insure order, stability, and success. One of the wisest and at the same time most original suggestions in Bellamy's 'Looking Backward,' is his description of the managing or governing bodies of every workshop, manufactory, or community, which were to consist of men and women between the ages of forty-five and fifty, who had all spent the preceding twenty-four years at work in the same community, but who retired at the age of forty-five. Every foreman, manager, or other officer would be appointed by them, and all necessary alterations or improvements in the buildings, machinery, or general arrangements would be decided on by them. The enormous advantages of government by such a body is obvious. Every member would have the fullest personal knowledge of the whole system of work, while the abilities and character of every workman would be known to many of them. Having retired from work themselves, they could have no interests other than the success of the community and the real well-being of all its members: while it would be almost impossible to bring any undue influence to bear on such a body. It is largely owing to the absence of this system, and in place of it adopting the false principle of the government of a community or workshop by the vote of all its members who are 21 or upwards, that the constant failure of almost all really co-operative associations is due. When the foremen and managers are chosen by the whole body of workers, including the most ignorant and inexperienced, it almost certainly follows that the best men are not chosen, and that those who are chosen do not receive the implicit obedience without which no great organisation of workers can permanently succeed. When men choose their own masters and are able to choose fresh ones whenever they please, the masters will have no real authority, and will inevitably have to wink at many irregularities in a voter who may next year vote against them. Of course, the exact system described by Bellamy could not be applied to small or newly-formed co-operative communities; but the principle that only those who have years and experience are to form the governing body is so obviously essential to success that it ought to be fully recognised by Socialists, and the best mode of applying the principle in each case be very carefully considered.

"Alfred R. Wallace."

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