Tonight We’re Going to Party Like It’s 1699

By every objective measure, this is a good time to be really rich in America. The federal tax burden is at one of its lowest levels in history. The Supreme Court has invalidated nearly all limits on political contributions. And the wealthiest 1% of the people in America have managed to capture 93% of all of the wealth generated since the recession of 2008. And then there is the fact that you are really rich.

But to hear billionaire Tom Perkins tell the story, things have never been worse. America’s super rich. They are like the Jews in Nazi Germany—the subjects of so much hatred and ridicule that they have to fear for their lives in the coming  “Progressive Kristallnacht.” And continuing to tax their wealth, Perkins believes, will lead to the complete economic disappearance of the top 1%—something that cannot even happen under the laws that currently govern mathematics.

Fortunately for the imperiled super rich, Perkins has a solution: “The Tom Perkins system is: You don’t get the vote if you don’t pay a dollar in taxes. But what I really think is it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars, you get a million votes. How’s that?”

To answer Mr. Perkins’ question, “that” is, to a close approximation, the governing philosophy of an aristocracy: that some people are better than others, that they have a greater stake in the world and therefore a greater interest in the workings of the government. When England first extended the franchise to non-aristocrats, they did so with property requirements (forty shillings in 1430) designed to prevent peasants from voting. Property restrictions remained in place well into the 20th century.

Until the early 19th century, some American states had British-style property restrictions on the franchise, but these were swept away by the democratic reforms of the Jackson administration. After the civil war, the 14th Amendment made it unconstitutional to deny the franchise to any male citizen over the age of 21. The “male” requirement fell in 1920, and 21 was changed to 18 in 1971.

To remain the country that America was founded to be, we must reject the logic that equates a civil society with a corporation. A society is not the same thing as an economy, and a citizen is not the same thing as a shareholder. One of the great narratives in American history has been the march towards universal suffrage that has always been encoded in our Founding documents. To do as Perkins suggests, we would have to learn how to march backwards.

The great flaw in Tom Perkins thinking (aside from his downright hostility to both history and math) is that he cannot conceive of any non-economic reasons to have a government. People have financial interests, and they vote to protect those interests; therefore, those who have the greater financial interest should have the greater vote. This makes sense as long as you conclude that the only thing that matters in the world is money.