Monday, March 22, 2010

Ex-Offenders and the Vote

New York Times editorial "Ex-Offenders and the Vote" (March 21, 2010) displays ignorance of political theory as well. While Corrections attempts to eschew "ought" for "is" at times it becomes necessary to delve into, and correct in, other fields. In this case, the words of John Locke are echoed in an attempt to give force to an argument in the Times.

Millions of ex-offenders who have been released from prison are denied the right to vote. That undercuts efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into mainstream society. And it goes against one of democracy’s most fundamental principles: that governments should rule with the consent of the governed. [Emphasis added].

John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (Chapter VIII), wrote "MEN being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent." This was the phrase the Times echoed.

However, Locke had also written (Chapter I), "Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good." So long as a law is providing for the common good (e.g. not impoverishing everyone, not taking their property, and so forth), it is within the capacity of the legislature.

Yet we might continue further, because our subjects are former criminals. When an individual enters society, in the Lockeian concept, he gives it the power to make laws. When he then breaks those laws, he forfeits his power to manage those same laws by re-entering a state of nature (temporarily, and if he uses force)--by breaking them.

The use of Lockeian phrasing deserves the same. It is unimaginable that an ingenuous mind, reading John Locke, could come to the conclusion that disenfranchisement of someone who broke the social compact was out of the scope of a state's power.

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