By William Markiewicz

The shortest definition of alchemy I can come up with is, the act of reaching an often unpredictable goal by obscure means. So, the alchemists looking for the philosopher's stone, for gold, etc., found many other useful things by trial and error.

The democratic voting process and alchemy are alike in that their true meaning is more elusive than appears at first sight. It seems that the first goal of the voting process is to give the voters a chance to show their political maturity by selecting the best politicians and the best program. This simplistic view is slow to die because it is so logical, and in the end, so deceiving. Deceiving it is and simplistic, precisely because it contains the remains of the old principle that "power belongs to the best." If this elitist view has died over time it is because the decision makers remained above the law. In such conditions even the best become corrupted.

In the evolution of the electoral process, the first voters were the rich and powerful. Later on the vote became a more general privilege. Even later women gained the right to vote. Now, as a further step in the same direction, voting rights for children, mental patients and prisoners are beginning to be debated.

In my view, the most extraordinary achievement of democracy, even if not the most evident, is that the notion of "quality" has been replaced by the notion of "focus." The true goal of voters is not to display their political abilities by choosing the best politicians and the best programme, but precisely to focus attention on themselves.

What ensures the stability of democracies, at least in the West, is that we do not have to decide on crucial life and death issues at short notice. In situations where decisions must be quick and drastic, democracies simply do not work. For long term problems the reasonable solutions - like the law of gravity - always triumph. The heralds of the wrong approach lose their jobs, it's only a matter of time.

In this light, the idea of according voting rights to children and mental patients doesn't seem so outrageous. The "focus" is more important that the "quality" so they don't have to know exactly what is in their best interests and their choice may not always be perfectly free. Still, the most essential is that they will be focused on, that they will be able to express themselves publicly and that somebody will hear them and speak to them. Besides, wouldn't it add a bit of spice to the elections if the politicians had to speak to the institutionalized and the high school crowd and we could see them challenged by a totally new audience. Mental patients, including the retarded, are not necessarily stupid, and among the children some precocious speakers might tell us things we should know about children's conditions and desires.

Sweden accorded rights to animals. So why not give rights to humans who can express themselves, and shed some light on their often secret universe for the benefit of us all?

As for prisoners, it may be another story. Since they belong to the punished population, depriving them of the vote may be part of their deprivation of freedom.

In sum the true importance in democracy is not so much who holds the power, but how much knowledge society possesses about each of its segments. Isn't this a true step toward the "philosopher's stone?"

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