Many of you will know that John Stuart Mill advocates a scheme whereby college graduates, and the more educated more generally, would get more votes. Like some universities, he even accepts work experience in leiu of formal education:
If every ordinary unskilled labourer had one vote, a skilled labourer, whose occupation requires an exercised mind and a knowledge of some of the laws of external nature, ought to have two. A foreman, or superintendent of labour, whose occupation requires something more of general culture, and some moral as well as intellectual qualities, should perhaps have three. A farmer, manufacturer, or trader, who requires a still larger range of ideas and knowledge, and the power of guiding and attending to a great number of various operations at once, should have three or four. A member of any profession requiring a long, accurate, and systematic mental cultivation—a lawyer, a physician or surgeon, a clergyman of any denomination, a literary man, an artist, a public functionary (or, at all events, a member of every intellectual profession at the threshold of which there is a satisfactory examination test) ought to have five or six. A graduate of any university, or a person freely elected a member of any learned society, is entitled to at least as many ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform").
Virtually everyone today agrees that this is a terrible idea. But why?
Some elaboration and clarification about Mill's thinking: Remember that he's writing in a context in which a largely uneducated working class is on the verge of being enfranchised. In the essay that I quoted above, he presents plural voting as necessary if there is to be universal suffrage. His aim to prevent it from being the case that working class candidates win in every district, so that only one point of view is represented in Parliament. In the slightly later Considerations on Representative Government he backs away from the claim that it is a necessary condition of universal suffrage, although he continues to endorse it in principle. (What happened in between is that he discovered proportional representation, and became convinced that universal suffrage would be tolerable as long as the intelligensia could band together and elect at least a few of their number.)
Mill is not especially attached to the numbers in the passage above; he doesn't even repeat them in Considerations on Representative Government. He is clear that those who get extra votes shouldn't get enough additional ballots to allow them outvote the "one-voters" if the one-voters stick together. In addition to accepting "work experience," he also calls for national examinations that would let anyone prove herself worth of additional votes regardless of formal education or profession. (The feminine pronoun here isn't ahistorical; Mill was the first to propose in Parliament that women be given the vote on equal terms with men.)
Mill offers three main lines of argument for plural voting. In short, these are that:
- Government will be more effective if those whose opinons are worth more have more political power, and he's very explicit that more and better education make a person's opinion worth more. Moral superiority does, too, but as he says for this "“it is not so easy to find an available test" ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform").
- This institutional endorsement of the value of education will itself contribute to the "national education": "I should still contend for assigning plurality of votes to authenticated superiority of education, were it only to give the tone to public feeling, irrespective of any direct political consequences" (Representative Government).
- It is patently unjust that, in a matter that must be decided jointly, to give people of unequal competence an equal say:
When all have votes, it will be both just in principle and necessary in fact, that some mode be adopted of giving greater weight to the suffrage of the more educated voter; some means by which the more intrinsically valuable member of society, the one who is more capable, more competent for the general affairs of life, and possesses more of the knowledge applicable to the management of the affairs of the community, should, as far as practicable, be singled out, and allowed a superiority of influence proportioned to his higher qualifications ("Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform").
An obvious question to have here is whether Mill believes that plural voting would still be justified in a polity in which virtually everyone has a decent education. While I seem to be in the minority of his interpreters here, I take his answer to be that he would, and indeed that he would even consider it to remain justified if people were so equally well educated that virtually everyone got the same number of votes; see the passage that I quoted above under point #2 (in connection with the "education" argument), in which he says that he would remain in favor even if plural voting lacked any "direct political consequences."
Everyone with whom I've ever discussed plural voting agrees that this is one of Mill's worst ideas. Indeed, it's so universally regarded as absurd that I seldom hear people offer actual arguments against it; arguments seem unnecessary. Nor have I ever really articulated why I think it's a clunker of an idea, although I am quite sure that it is; when it comes up in class I just tell students that no one who has been to a faculty senate meeting could be in favor. For a project that I'm working on now, though, it would be useful to hear from others precisely why they oppose it (as I assume that you all do). Is it merely impractible or wrong on principle? Do Mill's arguments not convince, and if so why not?