Sapience, not Sentience
In the modest and unassuming manner natural to this column, I advance a small proposal for the emendation of such tatters of the Constitution as can be found: For voting in federal elections, we should employ a literacy test to disenfranchise the majority of the population, to the infinite betterment of the country. This wise move should be accompanied by an increase in the voting age to twenty-five.
The necessity cannot be denied. Consider the following:
Forty-three percent of Americans think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11.
Sixty-four percent cannot name the three branches of the federal government.
Fourteen percent are illiterate.
Twenty-six percent think the sun goes around the earth.
These numbers may be understood in various ways. To a curmudgeon, who obtains a sour satisfaction from the endless repetition of human folly, they provide the satisfactions of confirmation. We all enjoy being right. In practical terms, they mean that democracy, or our mild approximation thereto, is a sham, a fraud, an impossibility, and a bad idea. No one so blankly ignorant, so mentally without furniture, so muddle-headed, limited, and barren, should be allowed within hailing range of a voting booth.
Such people cannot possibly know anything of national questions. Those who live in a featureless tundra of the mind usually do so from stupidity. It is unreasonable to blame them for a genetic condition over which they have no control, but it is equally unreasonable to allow them to vote. As for the fairly intelligent who through intellectual shiftlessness learn nothing, I have no patience with them. What possible cause is there for thinking the willfully dull, the deliberately ignorant, or the dull and ignorant, are ompetent to influence policy on matters that they cannot spell? Given that everyone today has access to virtually every book ever written and to the internet, there is little excuse for living in Oprah fog and Eminem darkness.
If fourteen percent are illiterate, a larger number must be nearly so. People who can barely read don´t. People so little engaged as to think Iraq attacked New York –forty-six percent!—vote almost at random, or in the direction in which they are shooed by cunning electoral mechanics and fixers.
The educated and thoughtful may have no idea of the night in which the rest live. We tend to associate with people like ourselves. Consequently if you know where Iran is, you probably don’t know anyone who doesn’t. But—a pre-Copernican quarter of the population believes that the sun moves around the earth? As we said in the Sixties, that’s a whole nuther head-space.
Thus a test of literacy, or more correctly of competence to vote. It might involve reading a paragraph of prose at the level of college, or of what used to be the level of college, and answering questions about it. There might be questions such as how many Congressmen are there, name a country bordering of Iraq, list three rights guaranteed (ha!) by the First Amendment, and when did World War Two take place.
This laudable proposal would transform politics. The basalt principle of current American governance is that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time. The smart can safely be ignored. People with capacious and well-stocked mental larders are statistically insignificant. Thus candidates campaign by grinning and smirking, hiding whatever intelligence they may have, and professing sympathy for orphans and the downtrodden. In France, a candidate with the mind of a lawn chair would be held in contempt, but in America he is thought to be of the people, and authentic. Unfortunately, he is.
The current fourth-grade posturing of politicians would last microseconds with an electorate well on the right side of the bell curve. We would have far fewer dolts and poltroons. I’m sure you can think of several of these.
I suspect people would be surprised to learn how little the members of the House of Representatives know. A Congressman of my acquaintance told me of going with a colleague on a junket to Thailand. His fellow legislator repeatedly referred to the country as “Taiwan.” Thus are we ruled. Allowing the foolish to vote makes likely the election of the equally fatuous, or of a wily confidence man.
Objectors to my splendid idea will assert that a government and electorate of the highly intelligent will exploit the rest. The franchise is said to protect the majority from the unscrupulous. But it does not. IQs on Wall Street are said to begin at 145. Has the franchise protected anyone from them? Allowing the dim and untutored to vote simply provides the bright and unscrupulous with gullible vote-fodder. It does not prevent but makes possible the exploitation.
A voting age of twenty-five would ensure some degree of maturity, or might, even in an age of mall rats. It is ludicrous to think that teenagers can vote sensibly. They haven’t lived long enough. Like so much of American life, the adolescent vote sprang from the unrealistic idea that we are all equal in everything. Girls can be SEALs, everyone should go to college, that sort of thing. During Vietnam, the argument was that if the young were old enough to die in Asia, they were old enough to vote. And if six-year-olds are old enough to die in car accidents, they are old enough to drive.
While we are at it, we might as a minimum require candidates for federal office to have scored in the ninetieth percentile on the GREs. Again, It is curious that while in France intelligence and cultivation are regarded as good things, in America the use of words of more than one syllable is regarded as evidence of elitism, both being mortal sins. The only offense worse than being superior is knowing that you are.
But why not do yet better? If I may soar even higher into wild and uncontrolled supposition, suppose that candidates for high national office–Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidency–were required to have an IQ of 145 or better. This is the beginning of real intelligence, perhaps aproaching the entry level for Silicon Valley (though intelligence at the level of a valley may not be the image I am looking for). Such men—at this level, almost all are—can keep in mind the various pipelines proposed for Caspian hydrocarbons, the effects of shifting exchange rates, and so on. They are precious hard to con. When they travel, they usually know where they are.Intelligent government: What a concept.
So much for ineffable wisdom and preternatural insight. The implementation of my splendid system is left to the student as an exercise.
Book of the week if you haven’t read it: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, a wonderfully funny in a dismal way about the absurdity of the American “reconstruction” of Iraq, by a State Department guy who saw it.