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A Big Idea From Aspen: Ending Universal Suffrage

Thursday, 28 Jun 2012 | 4:23 PM ET

I was starting to get a bit worried about the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Aspen Ideas Festival
Photo by John Carney for CNBC.com
Aspen Ideas Festival

Aspen in summer is absolutely gorgeous. The people attending the festival are friendly and well-informed. The panels stocked with high-caliber people.

But when the festival began with a series of speakers talking about their "Big Idea" for two minutes I got nervous. The ideas were, for the most part, entirely sensible. The sort of thing the smartest guy at a dinner party might propose and soon having everyone nodding a long to. Good, decent and serious people would pretty much all agree.

I'm allergic to the consensus of the good, decent and serious. If Aspen was going to be four days of this sort of thing, I might have to consider turning this into a blog about fishing the mountain lakes instead of going to the festival.

Fortunately, one speaker shattered that fear when he presented his big idea: abandoning our enthusiasm for universal suffrage.

I'm sorry to report that I did not catch his name. I'll try to track him down for a proper interview later in the festival.

His argument had two parts. The first was that some people simply are not ready for democracy. They have no functional conception of the state in their minds, much less an understanding of representative, deliberative democracy. Some are so poor that they can be bribed to vote this way or that for "five dollars," he said. The application of the principle of universal suffrage was not a recipe for successful government in these circumstances, the speaker argued.

The second point of his argument was that the developed Western democracies did not start out with universal suffrage. Almost all allowed only a portion of their citizens to vote at first, only slowly expanding the right to participate in elections over the course of decades. Why force the developing world into instant universal suffrage?

This pretty much runs against the grain of everything decent and serious people think. In fact, in a place like Aspen — which is dominated by progressives of various sorts — it felt like he was standing athwart history yelling "Go back!"

So what should replace the model of universal suffrage? How do we decide who should get the franchise?

The anti-universal suffrage guy didn't have the answers to those questions. But just because an answer isn't at hand doesn't mean we shouldn't ask the question. Perhaps if people started taking them seriously, we'd be at the beginning of something truly new in world politics.

-By CNBC's John Carney
@Carney

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