Thinking an Unthinkable: No Voting Right for Those Living at the Taxpayer's Expense
Thinking an Unthinkable: No Voting Right for Those Living at the Taxpayer's Expense
By Richard Ebeling


Dr. Richard Ebeling

One of the most sacred ideas in our democratic era is the belief in the universal and equal right of all citizens to have the voting franchise. Yet some have argued against this "right." But their challenge to an unlimited right to vote has not been based on grounds of gender, age, or property ownership.

One such critic was the famous British social philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill. In his 1859 book, Reflections on Representative Government, (Chapter 8, 'Of the Extension of the Suffrage'), Mill argued that those who received "public relief" (government welfare) should be denied the voting franchise for as long as they receive such tax-based financial support and livelihood.

Simply put, Mill reasoned that this creates an inescapable conflict of interest, in the ability of some to vote for the very government funds that are taxed away from others for their own benefit. Or as Mill expresses it:

"It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people's money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize.

"As far as money matters are concerned, any power of voting possessed by them is a violation of the fundamental principle of free government . . . It amounts to allowing them to put their hands into other people's pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one."

Mill went on to explain why he considered this to be especially true for those relying upon tax-based, redistributed welfare dependency, which in 19th century Great Britain was dispersed by the local parishes of the Church of England. Said Mill:

"I regard it as required by first principles, that the receipt of parish relief should be a peremptory disqualification for the [voting] franchise. He who cannot by his labor suffice for his own support has no claim to the privilege of helping himself to the money of others . . .

"Those to whom he is indebted for the continuance of his very existence may justly claim the exclusive management of those common concerns, to which he now brings nothing, or less than he takes away.

"As a condition of the franchise, a term should be fixed, say five years previous to the registry, during which the applicant's name has not been on the parish books as a recipient of relief."

I would suggest that the same argument could be extended to all those who work for the government, for as long as they are employed by the government they are directly living off the taxed income and wealth of others.

And if it is said that government employees pay taxes, too, the reply should be that if you receive a $100 salary from the government and pay in taxes, say, $30, you remain the net recipient of $70 of other people's money and are not a contributor to the costs of government.

Extending this logic a little further, I think that the same case could be made that all those who live off government expenditures in the form of government contracts or subsidies should likewise be excluded from voting for the same conflict of interest reasons.

Such individuals and their private enterprises may not be totally dependent upon government expenditures for their livelihood. A rule might be implemented that to be eligible for the right to vote: no individual or the private enterprise from which he draws an income should receive (just for purpose of example), say, more than 10 percent of his or her gross income from government spending of any sort.

If such a voting restriction had been in effect 100 year ago, it is difficult to see how the government could ever have grown to the size and cost that it now has in society.

In turn, if there were any way to implement such a vote-restricting rule, it is equally hard to see how the current, gigantic interventionist-welfare state could long remain in existence. Government, no doubt, would soon be cut down to a far more limited and less intrusive size.

Our dilemma, today, is that, to use John Stuart Mill's phrase, we have a political system in which many who have the right to vote use it "to put their hands into other people's pockets for any purpose which they think fit to call a public one."

Unless some way is found to escape from our current political situation, to use Frederic Bastiat's words, in which the State has become the "great fiction" through which everyone tries to live at everyone else's expense, we are facing a fiscal and general social crisis that may truly be destructive of society in the coming years.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is professor of Economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education, was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Ha! All so true! Add to all that Social Security (remember the employer kicks in 50%), Medicare, Unemployment benefits, Discounted Fast Pass, free handicapped parking -- does rent control and all the tax credits count? Looks like if such a plan were to be implemented, there would be like 3 or 4 people voting.


I draw a sharp distinction between people who are truly on the dole (welfare, food stamps, free or subsidized housing and the like) and people who are collecting benefits for which they PAID premiums.

Social security: This was promoted as a mandatory prepaid retirement savings account. By the time most people collect they and their employers have paid premiums for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. In most cases they would have been better off investing those premiums themselves, would have collected more.

Medicare: Ditto. Beneficiaries paid the medicare tax for YEARS before collecting.

Unemployment: Ditto. Beneficiaries paid an unemployment INSURANCE premium with every paycheck.

Now, I understand perfectly well that these programs are underfunded and mismanaged, mostly because the government stole the trust funds and used them for other purposes like invading other countries and creating enemies in nearly every corner of the world, but that does not do away with the fact that those are benefits for which people paid and had a fair and reasonable expectation of collecting in accordance with the terms that were promised. Those ARE rights, contract-like rights.

There is no "right" to have such a system at all, but once it is created and taxpayers are forced to pay into it, it would not be fair to take away their voting rights for collecting the promised benefits after paying the mandatory premiums. The article below was talking about welfare benefits (something for nothing), not paid for entitlements.


"Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing."
--Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791

You are in the majority in drawing that distinction; I am definitely in the minority. I will concede that SS and Medicare are mandatory, which distinguishes these programs from "voluntary" benefits. However, the fundamental reason the systems are nearly bankrupt is that increasingly the number of recipients outpaces the number of payers, hardly a contract; the same with SDI, the California disability program. Unemployment "insurance" falls in a similar category; however the employer, not the employee contributes to the fund.

But my reason for insisting in lumping all government payouts together, although I am aware of the distinctions, is to point out the insidious dependence on government we the people have created. You and I might hate Social Security for instance, and given a choice would have stayed away from it; but, as we have seen in the last few years, Social Security has proven sacred, untouchable, resistant to reform. Too many recipients and future recipients are beholden to the program.



Yes, all you say is true. My only point is that if, in theory, we are going to take voting rights away from people on the dole (remember, this is a hypothetical) I don't think recipients of SS, Medicare or UI benefits should be included in that bunch. They should not be punished for participating in mandatory savings/insurance systems and for accepting the benefits for which they paid the required amounts.


"Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing."
--Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791

Mostly I would side with Marcy. The government itself does NOT treat Social Security and Medicare as self financing funds. All previous surpluses were simply spent on other things. All Soc Sec and Meidcare deficits must be paid out of the general fund There is no real difference between Soc Sec taxes and regular income taxes. The government just wants you to think so. The trust funds are pure fiction as the only investment in them is non transferable general obligation bonds.

Morally I do NOT believe that "right" to social security benefits or any other government benefits is anything remotely like legitimate voluntary contracted rights. Liberals and big government proponents like to confuse people by equating the two.

My own solution would be to hunt down all the politicians who made the promises as if they were rabid rats and force them to pay for the programs they voted for. If they don't have enough money, maybe they can earn it by stamping out license plates in the nearest prison.

Les Mangus

I agree that stamping license plates would be perfect retribution! But, I am wondering if it is only liberals and big government proponents who conflate programs such as Social Security and Medicare with contractual obligations; perhaps it is a lot more people!

I also agree with Nina that if we are to "punish" government benefit recipients by removing their right to vote (hypothetical), some distinction should be made between mandatory benefits (such as SS, Medicare, and California SDI; but not Unemployment, which the employee does not pay for nor is required to receive) and voluntary benefits (such as food stamps). But my suggestion for a distinction would be difficult to implement and expensive -- calculate how much an individual contributed vs. how much was charged to that Social Security number. That would include widows/widowers whether they ever worked or not receiving benefits under their spouses number, minor children of parents who are over a certain age (did you know about that rule?), handicapped receiving early benefits, immigrants who might have worked in their country but not here, etc. etc.

And should we count Supplemental Social Security in the mix? That is the program you sign up for if you have a bad back, for instance, and you get benefits before you are Social Security age, or additional money if you are SS age.

The human mind has a funny way of forgiving what we believe in, including my mind.


I hope we stop talking about the conceivable benefits from denying anyone the right to vote. This is poisonous stuff. No one can be expected to obey laws if they were not given a voice in electing the people who pass the laws. I would be embarrassed to have this thread leak out into the outer world.

Richard Winger


PO Box 470296, San Francisco Ca 94147

May I point out that the citizens believe they have a right to Social Security? If the government has let them believe that, then it is true; the citizens really do have such a right. The basis of any contract is the agreement of the parties. Voters only agree to SS because they expect to get their retirement from it.

If retirees have no right to Social Security, it means that the program is nothing but a strange kind of tax. Would anybody believe that Congress passed such a tax if it did not include the retirement system? This is the SS tax:

* Only lower incomes are taxed. After earning about $110K, the tax stops
* Only earned income is taxed; interest, rents, profits etc are not taxed
* There are no adjustments for the number of people supported by the income
* Some government employees are exempt because they have a retirement plan
* Some religious sects are exempt because they provide for retirees
* Clergy who take a vow of poverty can choose to pay if they want (form 2031)
* A special calculation option lets the taxpayer increase the tax, if desired
* Some citizens working abroad are exempt because of SS treaties
* Aliens running businesses in the US may be exempt depending on SS treaties
* Taxpayers in bankruptcy, and not actually receiving their profit, still pay

It makes no sense and would be an immensely unpopular tax, if the promise of retirement income were not included.

Harland Harrison
LP of San Mateo County CA

The really poisonous stuff is allowing people to vote themselves benefits at someone else's expense. Democracy becomes a kleptocracy when benefit receivers outnumber payers.

Les Mangus

You do understand, Richard, that this was originally posted and continues to be a hypothetical situation? Might it not be even more embarrassing if anyone on this libertarian list felt they were being censored?

BTW, this Discussion List is public; anyone can see it on-line. No need for anyone to leak anything.


I would put allowing people to vote themselves aesthetic comfort at someone else's expense (anti-poverty laws, anti-youth laws, etc.) in the same poisonous category. This makes democracy a machine for enforcing bourgeoisie norms and criminalizing people with unpopular lifestyles.

  Like Richard however I'm generally uninterested in *shrinking* democracy, and would not favor disenfranchising NIMBYs even if it were politically possible. Too dangerous a precedent. On the contrary, I think we should be *expanding* grassroots political participation so that ordinary people have *more* of a say in running government, not less. The taxation without representation of peaceful immigrants living and working here without government permission, for instance, is an affront to a longstanding American principle. I'm less worried about the benefits that ordinary people sometimes tend to vote themselves, when given the opportunity, than I am about those in government acting for *their* own benefit, and for the benefit of big business, big labor, and other institutional special interests, while taking us down the road to serfdom (a police state and economic collapse).

  To put it in more concrete terms, I'd rather see 100 people selected at random from the streets of the Tenderloin in charge of Bay Area housing and transportation planning than I would the group of politicians and shadowy bureaucrats behind Plan Bay Area now. I would however like to see term limits not just on elected office, but on government employment in general. Just like we need "citizen legislators", we also need "citizen bureaucrats" who occupy government posts for, say, no more than the 6 year term of a U.S. Senator's term (and are paid no more than the average income in their jurisdiction, including the unemployed when calculating those numbers), and then go back to the voluntary sector. Under such a system of comprehensive term limits, I guess I would be okay with denying the vote to government employees for the short time they are in government. But it's not a high priority for me. Much more beneficial I think would be to ban government agencies from lobbying on their own behalf on an institutional level, and eliminate all government spending on public relations.

Love & Liberty,
                                ((( starchild )))

I can't imagine that 100 people selected at random in the Tenderloin would be any less rapacious and greedy than the politicians, bureaucrats and shadowy interests than make up government now. We have the kind of government we do because people have voted for politician who promise them lots of goodies which can only be paid by plundering someone else's wealth.


This topic reminded me of the following sardonic quote:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   – Anatole France (Le Lys Rouge)

  Leaving off the technically non-libertarian part about stealing bread, here's my updated version:

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to panhandle on median strips, and to sleep in their cars, just as it is scrupulously fair in criminalizing not only young people but senior citizens as well for riding skateboards, taking Ecstasy, and holding all night DJ dance parties."

Love & Liberty,
                                  ((( starchild )))


  Perhaps, though for every Tenderloin resident ready to vote for higher welfare checks there's probably somebody on the West side ready to vote for more government spending on middle class pork like money for parks and schools and so on. But I think 100 random people from any neighborhood would probably be less arrogant and have less of an attitude of "we the planners know best." Not to mention less experience at cloaking their plans in all kinds of secrecy and bureaucratic obfuscation. Being unaccustomed to receiving inflated salaries, those who were inclined to be rapacious might also set their sites a bit lower.

Love & Liberty,
                                 ((( starchild )))