Venture capitalist Tom Perkins is on his own personal version of the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang tour: an aging star getting his kicks one last time with a barnstorming tour across the states. First he said that discussing income inequality is just like Kristallnacht. Then he sorta-kinda-not-really apologized.
"The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes. But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?"
This anecdote is being reported fairly uncritically, but it's clear that Perkins seems to have been, at least partly, joking. After leaving the stage at the San Francisco event where he put forth the plan, he told a reporter, "I intended to be outrageous, and it was."
So let's not pretend that Perkins really sees this plan going anywhere. But given his recent comments, it's probably fair to assume that Perkins really does believe that the wealthier ought to have more political power, and probably on some sort of graduated scale.
It's important to realize just how radical that is. It's not often that anyone willingly comes out as an honest-to-God plutocrat. Restricting the vote on a de facto class basis has a rich history in democracies, at least as far back as Athens. And as everyone who went through middle-school and high-school history classes will tell you, American suffrage was once extended almost exclusively to white, property-owning males. Re-limiting the vote only to property owners is an idea that's enjoyed a recent resurgence among certain elements of the fringe right.
But having actual graduated voting based on income?
The more you think about it, the more interesting and radical it is.* Often, political power is allocated based on class, but class is an idea that doesn't correlate directly with money—as any refined and genteel impoverished aristocrat will tell you. Perkins offers us a crasser and more egalitarian form of class: It's just about the number you report on your W-2.
It's a peculiarly American form of classism—one that (in theory, at least) rejects Old World concepts of class based on gentility, inheritance, or race in favor of an American Dream-fueled vision where with a little hard work you can become a literal oligarch. Under Perkins's pipe-dream system someone could, theoretically, turn 18 without a vote and die at 88 as the most powerful elector in America. A voter's political power could vary widely from cycle to cycle, depending on how her investments did in the intervening years.
Of course, that's the limit of the egalitarianism. It's often said that less fortunate Americans oppose taxing the rich because we all imagine that someday we will join them. Even so, it's hard to imagine most Americans consenting to a system that would be so wildly unfair—there's no plainer way to put it—to most voters. Perhaps such a system could garner more support in a world where Americans were extremely socially mobile—but of course American mobility has stagnated for the last 50 years and trails many other industrialized countries.
It's also important to note that, pace Perkins, there are no Americans who don't pay taxes. As you'll recall from Mitt Romney's 47 percent fracas, plenty of people who pay no income tax still pay sales taxes, payroll taxes, and more.
Would the Perkins plan be legal? Barring non-taxpayers from voting would clearly be unconstitutional under the 24th Amendment (my emphasis):
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
But what about graduated votes for the wealthier? Clearly this would be in conflict with the "one man, one vote" spirit of the American project and with the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution guarantees that people can't be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex, race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It also sets the voting age at 18. But there doesn't appear to be any constitutional limitation here.**
Perkins isn't the first person to float such a plan, even if he's getting the most attention. (Unfortunate lesson: If you want people to listen to your policy ideas, start out by calling your opponents Nazis.) As Mother Jones's Dave Gilson noted in November, Texas oilman H.L. Hunt had the same idea in 1960. Or basically the same idea. He imagined that citizens between 18 and 22 or older than 65 would get one vote; those between 22 and 65 would get two; and then there would be seven of what we might call "vote brackets," based on decile of taxpayers, so that some citizens would have as many as nine votes.
Gilson ran these numbers on the 2012 election, tallying how the vote would have happened with Hunt's scheme. His conclusion: Mitt Romney would have beaten Barack Obama, but not in a landslide—he would have ended up with about 52 percent of the vote. And interestingly, it would have been the wealthy but not superwealthy voters—ones in the $100,000-$500,000 range—who would have pushed him over the top.
Perkins's plan lacks the nuance of Hunt's system—impressive, given that Hunt was (in William F. Buckley's words) a man of "of eccentric understanding of public affairs, of yahoo bigotry, and of appallingly bad manners." As a result, the superwealthy would probably end up with a much greater voice. But really, does anyone feel the need for Perkins to be any louder?
* Update: Ben Jacobs points out that between 1848 and 1918, elections for the lower house of the Prussian parliament ran with a three-class system: The population was divided into three classes by income, and each bracket got an equal weight in voting, even though the middle was smaller than the lowest, and the wealthiest smaller still.
** Update 2: Reader Michael Bridge writes to argue that I'm wrong about this and that, in fact, giving richer voters a greater share of the vote would violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.