Table of Contents


Enfranchisement and Disenfranchisement

We have just seen some examples of how Prisoner’s Dilemma and Stone Age thinking about fairness can influence prices and market rules. Next let’s look at a different powerful influencer of human thinking and action: Enfranchisement and disenfranchisement.


To enfranchise someone means to give them the rights of a citizen. “The franchise” is often used as a synonym for the specific right to vote. Disenfranchisement means taking one or more such rights away, or in an extended sense, reducing someone’s freedom.

In this book, I use these and related words in a specific sense.

Two things must happen to someone for them to feel disenfranchised: a) They feel their wishes aren’t considered when the community makes laws and policies and b) they don’t feel responsible to the community for their actions. So even if they physically live in a community, they feel like a social outsider.

Enfranchisement is the converse: a) The person believes their actions matter to the community and b) they feel the community pays attention to their wishes and has their best interests at heart.

Virtually all laws and regulations outlaw behaviors that some members of the community dislike having happen but that other members would like to do. They reduce all people’s freedoms but don’t necessarily disenfranchise them.

Nearly all of us are restricted in many ways just by living in society. Some feel this more greatly and in more ways than others. Exactly what chafes depends on our activities and our desires.

Your next door neighbor may not drive as fast as she’d like on the freeway because of speed limit laws, while your neighbor across the street isn’t allowed to drive as slowly there as would make him comfortable.

Your 15-year-old third cousin may not have his ears pierced without parental permission (which he can’t get), go naked in public, or run a dog-breeding business. He chafes under laws that don’t even come onto your radar because you already have all the piercings you want, shun public nudity, and are old enough to get a dog-breeding license.

And those who would like to support themselves by mugging the weaker and/or less wary are forbidden from doing so.

In return for various benefits (e.g., protection against mugging), most people are willing to accept other restrictions and happily stay in the community. They are enfranchised. But when someone doesn’t want to stop doing an outlawed behavior, they’re partly disenfranchised. And since the community won’t support them, there’s a good chance the person won’t support the community on some other issue, such as reporting people doing some different outlawed behavior.

Enfranchisement and disenfranchisement are continuums—shades of gray—not black and white conditions. A person can feel very enfranchised on, say, traffic safety laws, but upset that they can’t bungee jump off a freeway bridge.

So we shouldn’t enfranchise the muggers by permitting mugging. But if we outlaw kissing in public, we should expect some happy lovers to become less happy with the community. And we risk turning them into criminals, disenfranchised people who flout the legal system.

Enfranchisement, Disenfranchisement, and Crime

Let me tell you more about the time I was pickpocketed in Turkey. The attack happened on one of Istanbul’s most famous and busy shopping streets, Istiklal Caddesi (in English, Independence Avenue). I discovered the theft only seconds after it happened, so I gave chase and the student friend I had made earlier that day looked for police.

The bad news was that I was old at the time of the attack and could no longer move faster than a brisk walk. So although I could see my attackers, I couldn’t catch up with them. The good news was that my friend quickly found two strong young policemen and they came running up to me.

Amazing! I had a cop when I needed one!

The bad news was that the pickpockets were now headed into a different neighborhood, and the policemen would not chase them into that neighborhood. “They may have friends over there,” said the cops.

At the time I was flabbergasted! The pickpockets were there … you could see them! But the authorities refused to catch them.

I thought about this a lot … and out of it came my understanding of the linkage between enfranchisement and crime.

When a cop left the Avenue and went into the other neighborhood—we’ll call it the Rookery, after similar districts in old London—he became disenfranchised. He figured if he tried to arrest someone over there, instead of supporting him the neighbors might attack him.

And the pickpockets’ neighbors didn’t care what happened to tourists on the Avenue; the Rookery was disenfranchised from Istiklal Caddesi.

Disenfranchisement makes crime possible. Enfranchisement, the feeling that what a person does matters to the community, and that the community cares about what a person thinks, makes crime-fighting possible. In fact, it fights crime in itself: If every one of their neighbors treated pickpockets as pariahs, they wouldn’t be pickpockets any more.

Enfranchisement in Action

Here’s a real-life example of enfranchisement.

From the late 1970s through the mid-’90s, a terrorist that the media called the Unabomber sent bombs to universities, airlines, and other targets, killing 3 and wounding 23. The FBI looked hard for him in their most expensive investigation up to that time.

In the end, Ted Kaczynski was caught not by FBI investigative brilliance or diligence, but because when in 1995 his manifesto was published in the New York Times, his brother and his sister-in-law recognized his style and beliefs.

The David Kaczynskis were enfranchised. They felt it was their duty to turn in Ted for his crimes against the community. If David and his wife had felt disenfranchised, if they had thought, “Ah well … so what. I know, but I don’t care,” then the Unabomber’s reign of terror would have gone on, even if he never mailed another bomb.

Disenfranchisement in Action

The opposite situation, disenfranchisement, explains why many criminals endure. It is the root of much crime and violence not only in big-city rookeries around the world but in places such as Palestine and Iraq.

I discuss real life examples extensively in the rest of Book Two. But first let’s consider an unpleasant fable about the tyranny of the majority, how disenfranchising laws of any sort bring apathy, corrosion, and crime to the community.

Three men, Abel, Brian, and Charley, are sitting in a room at the Hotel Sartre. Suppose Abel lights up a cigarette. Suppose Brian hates smelling the smoke and Charley’s eyes start to water.

Brian and Charley agree it’s time for action. “There ought to be a law,” they say to each other, and they make one. Then they destroy Abel’s cigarettes. “This is for your own good,” they say. “We’re going to cure you of your bad habit.”

But their law hasn’t changed Abel’s wants and needs. Abel still wants to smoke, and if he can’t smoke, he gets irritable, then jittery, and generally unhappy with his situation. He can’t help it.

Being disenfranchised, Abel now thinks, “My buddies don’t care about me, so I won’t care about them.” So when the radiator stops working and they all start shivering, he just turns up his collar and listens as the other men phone the creepy desk clerk to come fix it. Abel knows they could just bang on the pipes and the clerk would fix it without ever showing his disquieting face, but he lets them go to the extra trouble and discomfort.

However, the community corrosion doesn’t stop with Abel’s apathy.

He still wants to smoke, so he tells the clerk, “Put a pack under my pillow each day. Charge it to my rent. In fact, you can charge me double and keep half.” When he can’t make the higher rent money, he steals from the others’ unattended wallets. When that money runs out, Abel tries offering sex to the creepy clerk. (I told you this fable would be unpleasant!)

Apathy, bribery, smuggling, theft, and prostitution … just because of a disenfranchising law that looked quite reasonable and obvious to Brian and Charley!

This is the cancer of disenfranchisement. It gets nasty and expensive and it is easy to slip into.