Kant’s great dodge

At one point in Theory and Practice, Kant sets out to establish who should have voting rights. In one very fascinating paragraph, he concludes thusly:

Anyone who has the right to vote on this legislation is a citizen (citoyen, i.e. citizen of a state, not bourgeois or citizen of a town). The only qualification required by a citizen (apart, of course, from being an adult male) is that he must be his own master (sui iuris), and must have some property (which can include any skill, trade, fine art or science) to support himself. In cases where he must earn his living from others, he must earn it only by selling that which is his, and not by allowing others to make use of him; for he must in the true sense of the word serve no-one but the commonwealth. In this respect, artisans and large or small landowners are all equal, and each entitled to one vote only. As for landowners, we leave aside the question of how anyone can have rightfully acquired more land than he can cultivate with his own hands (for acquisition by military seizure is not primary acquisition), and how it came about that numerous people who might otherwise have acquired permanent property were thereby reduced to serving someone else in order to live at all.

Three things. First, obviously, is the “of course” about being an adult male. Kant regards the notion that only men should participate in governing society as such a given that he doesn’t even see it as necessary to provide an argument! That’s standard of course for the time period, but always jarring when you come across it again.

Second, notice the interesting way in which he talks about, in effect, wage laborers. Like many socialists, Kant regards wage labor as being used by others, like a tool. It is different from, say, making your own goods and then selling them. In that case — the case of an artisan — you serve yourself. In the wage labor case, you serve others and lack true independence. Kant does not say that is inherently problematic as socialists generally do, but he obviously regards it as somewhat diminishing. If wage laborers cannot vote because their station in life involves being dominated and told what to do, then it’s only a short jaunt from there to the conclusion that wage labor should be done away with altogether.

Finally, check out the colossal dodge at the very end of the quote. An obvious problem with using landowning as a way to determine voting rights is that land holdings have not originated in any sort of just way. This is true no matter what your political persuasion is. Even libertarians have to concede the historical point. This unjust origin of land holdings creates problems in both directions for Kant: it enfranchises those who have unjustly come to own land and disenfranchises those who are forced to serve those landowners. This is a serious problem. If land holdings are themselves unjust, how can they be used to determine who gets to vote? If you are going to attach political significance to landowning, you have to account for the landowning that exists, and at least have some theory as to why it should be respected. Does Kant provide that here? No, “we leave aside” that question.

I don’t know that there is any modern-day significance to this (except perhaps point two), but it always cracked me up.