Give Kids the Vote!

The great Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry returns to TAS with a stirring, persuasive call for lowering the voting age. You’d be a fool not to read it.

For as long as I remember (yes, even before that West Wing episode), I’ve supported abolishing – not lowering – the voting age barrier. Kids should have the vote. I believed so vehemently as a child, of course, but since I’ve had the vote I’ve only grown more adamant in my conviction.

I know it may seem kooky, but it’s not. Hear me out.

First, let’s dispatch the most common argument against my little obsession: that kids are not reasonable enough to understand the issues and make an informed vote. I disagree.

You’ll remember that the same argument was used time and again to prevent giving women the vote and, in the United States, to certain minorities. It wasn’t valid then and it’s not valid now.

Adults constantly underestimate children. Kids are much smarter than we give them credit for, to know children well is to know this. They are also far from innocent, and often quite cruel, a trait that can be necessary for making difficult political choices (note also that I am not idealizing kids). Are kids more unreasonable than the average voter? I honestly don’t think so.

Indeed, if reasonableness and information is the test we use when deciding to give people the vote, the average voter wouldn’t pass it, nor would the average Harvard professor. We all vote on irrational grounds (nothing is more irrational than voting on “the issues,” given the disconnect between politicians’ platforms and what they actually do once in office (this isn’t intended as a dig at politicians’ honesty, but rather as a recognition of the difficult necessities of government)), and this is a good thing, because we vote for people who are irrational themselves, to undertake that most irrational of human endeavors: the political art. Either we live in an aristocracy, or we don’t. If we give Joe Sixpack the vote, then we should give little Jimmy Sunny D the vote.

Furthermore, if I had to sum up why I think we should give kids the vote, I would say because kids are the future, and we should vote for the future. A platitude, I know, but it’s true, isn’t it? Winning elections is about pandering to particular groups, and the groups who vote are the groups who decide elections. Can we trust parents to vote in their kids’ interest and not their own? In my experience, it’s pretty obvious the answer is no.

Take issues such as pensioners or the public debt (all democracies have them). For the first time in Germany’s history, in the country’s next election the majority of voters will be over 50. No doubt with this fact in mind, the normally responsible Angela Merkel has thrown overboard her country’s impressive and long-standing pensions reform effort to give pensioners an unjustified handout.

In most democracies, old people enjoy an enormous amount of government attention and support. They get to retire very early and they suck up an ever growing share of healthcare spending. We should support the weak and the elderly, of course, but the reason why old people have such advantages in contemporary societies is not because we as a civilization respect our elders (ha!) but simply because politicians fear old people, who represent a disproportionate share of voters.

Public debt is the same thing. Unless the government is borrowing to invest, structural spending deficits, such as they exist in most Western countries, basically mean that today’s adults are giving themselves a tax cut at their children’s expense. In the West and Japan, the boomers, riding the wave of demography-boosted growth and heady with a belief of their own importance, gave themselves the most generous system of government cajoling in history, sticking their grandchildren with the tab but still ensuring that their pensions will be paid as they ride into the sunset thanks to their enduring chokehold on the voting system. This is as blatantly unsustainable as it is hushed by the political narrative, and this is because our voting population is skewed against the future. We allow citizens to decide things whose consequences they won’t have to face while those who will face the consequences have no say.

In developing countries, there is an equally compelling case for giving children the vote, given that in most of these countries young people are a majority or a near-majority — and yet, in most are run as gerontocracies. The political culture of most developing countries is marked by inertia and frilosity while most young people I know from developing countries are entrepreneurial and forward-looking.

I could go on. The fact is that the way issues are debated in our national political debates very rarely actually takes the future into account. What’s better, to protect teachers’ jobs or to give kids a good education? What’s better, to avoid a recession today or to avoid inflation tomorrow? We seem to prefer instant to delayed gratification – how, well, childish, ain’t it? This situation exists largely because those who have the biggest stake in the future have no say.

Now that we agree on principle (don’t we?), let’s think through the practical consequences.

First of all, crazy as I may seem by now, I do understand that some children are too young to read the ballot or to perform the actual physical act of voting, and that those kids shouldn’t vote directly. I believe that for very small children, their parents should vote in their stead. However, as soon as they can vote, kids should be able to. What age? 16? 15? 14? 7? Actually, I think another age barrier would be just as senseless as the one we have now. Kids should be able to get the vote when they decide they want the vote. A child who is old enough to vote (and who is a better judge of that than himself?) should be able to walk into his friendly neighborhood voting registration office and register for himself.

(There is also the matter of which parent gets the vote. This is a false debate: each country’s law has rules to decide who has parental authority in cases of divorce, etc. Whoever has parental authority should vote for the kids.)

In practice, this would strengthen the influence of families with lots of children. This would probably skew politics to the right a little, because conservative voters tend to have more kids than liberals. As a conservative, obviously, I tend to think this is a feature and not a bug. But more profoundly, everyday politics aside, is there a better metric of somebody’s trust in the future than how many kids they have? To decide to have a large family is to take a big stake in your country, to make a bet on its future.

Besides, each electoral system is skewed a certain way. Britain’s first past the post system under-represents many groups, and of course much has been said about the American Electoral College (note that I support both first past the post and the Electoral College); proportional party list voting, supposed to be most representative, gives disproportionate influence to small, niche parties (Israel, anyone?). Today’s system essentially amounts to a vote subsidy (which then turns into a cash subsidy) to the old. Giving kids the vote would correct skewed voting, not introduce it.

With all these practicalities also taken into account, the final (and best) argument I can think of for giving kids the vote is simply one person one vote. It’s as simple as that. In a democracy, each person should have a vote. Children are persons. They should get the vote. The principle is straightforward enough, and I see no way to escape it.

That said, I’m aware that my proposal is far outside the mainstream (mostly because most people don’t think about the issue until you bring it up, and because we adults like to treat children with more than a little condescension), and this post isn’t a “modest proposal” type tongue-in-cheek thing: I genuinely believe in giving kids the vote. I believe it would focus our politics a little bit more on the future and a little bit less on the past, I believe it would reinvigorate our democracy, I believe it would teach kids citizenship better than any civics class, and finally I just believe it would be just. I honestly don’t see a valid reason why we should deprive kids of the vote, any more than we should women or minorities. Children are citizens, and if democracy is giving each citizen a say in government, then children should have the vote.

Clearly, my limpid arguments (ahem) should have produced unanimous agreement (ahem-ahem). If not, I’m looking forward to your responses. Even if you’re over 18.