Monday, May 30, 2011

Kids Vote

I have a new column up at TNR making the case for vote-from-birth, something I've discussed here a few times.

In the column, I basically make the argument that if the justification for democracy has to do with aggregating interests, then the case for vote-from-birth (by proxy at first, of course) is surprisingly strong.

Is the case for vote-from-birth really a winner?

I think it depends on what one consider the reason for democracy. The column depends on what is basically a liberal argument for democracy. However, consider a justification based more on republican thought: Political action is inherently important and democracy is the means of extending meaningful political participation to the largest number of people. That view is less concerned with democracy’s outcomes than with the process of democracy itself. Humans have the capacity for self-government, but they can only achieve it if inclusive, participatory institutions are established. Voting, in this case, can best be seen as a gateway activity: It’s not quite “action” the way that republican thinkers might conceptualize it, but it is an important first step in full, robust citizenship.

Under this conception of democracy, one could imagine a case for teenage or older children voting as a sort of training wheels approach to doing politics. After all, we allow and even encourage teenagers to start becoming involved in politics in other ways, and it makes little sense to be more restrictive with the franchise than we are with lobbying, electioneering, and other forms of political action. But voting, under this justification, would be inappropriate for children too young to do much but ape their parents, and it would make no sense at all for parents to exercise the vote on behalf of younger kids or infants. If the point of democracy is participation, then what matters is citizen action, and action, as Hannah Arendt asserted, can’t be represented.

In my view, the best of the framers (fine -- I mean Madison) thought of democracy as a blend of liberal and republican thinking. and the system they invented basically incorporates both (and, yes, I know they didn't call it "democracy," but I don't think that matters much for the argument at this point). So while I find the argument for teenage voting very strong, I can only say that I find the case for vote-from-birth very intriguing. I will repeat, however, one conclusion I came to in the column: if for whatever reason things had worked out slightly differently and vote-from-birth was the status quo, people would find it normal and natural, and no one would dare to suggest robbing infants of their vote.


  1. I think this is an interesting concept that will never happen.
    I agree that promoting participation at a young age is important. In too many families volunteering for a campaign or at a local charity is sometimes shunned. Mainly because it is not considered to be a goal of the American dream anymore. But, as you state, it is an important part of the way this country was supposed to work, and getting kids involved early could lead them to do more of this work in the future.

  2. I think this is a tremendously interesting topic. Lowering the age might be a good idea, but it is difficult to argue that 15 is better than 18.

    The main issue is to find an objective criterion("objective" is the important word) that is not discriminatory. I think that if you have a mandatory(until 16 y.o.) and free school system such as in France, you can have a mandatory civics class, and people would have the right to vote once they've completed the class. Obviously, some students will not care about the content of the class, but that is not the point. The nice thing about this is that we would associate the granting of the right to vote to a weak change in knowledge of institutions and what is actually voted upon. What is primordial is that everybody takes the class, there is no notion of "competence" or such things as Will Wilkinson and Brian Caplan mention. Because the class would be inserted in a mandatory and free curriculum, there should be no discrimination.

    One important thing with the 18-year-old threshold is that it marks also a change in your official status. 17 y.o. and 18y.o. are treated differently by the justice and fiscal system, and that is, in my opinion, the main issue with changing the rules. If you believe in lowering the age, or in the solution I mentioned above, I am afraid you cannot think about it without changing some laws on the rights and responsibilities of those new voters.

  3. Great job Jonathan, this is a view I have long advocated and yes, I agree with rose it'll never happen. Too bad; children are far more governed than anyone else yet there is zero incentive to make government responsive to their needs.

    " If you believe in lowering the age, or in the solution I mentioned above, I am afraid you cannot think about it without changing some laws on the rights and responsibilities of those new voters."

    Why? Talk of rights and responsibilities is misplaced here. The purpose of democracy is better government, not an abstract concept of rights. Vote-from-birth isn't primarily about rights, it's about how to make government better, by ensuring it's more responsive to the needs and preferences of the governed.

  4. Here's what I'm thinking -- what is the justification for being allowed to get a driver's license at 16, despite not being a legal adult? I think it's set early, in part, precisely so that teenager's have time to get used to the responsibilities driving before also taking on all that becoming a legally free and independent person entails.

    I can see voting being extended for this very reason.

  5. Tybalt, I think Jonathan’s point is that every citizen, regardless of age, has interests that need to be represented through voting rights. I agree with PtitSeb -- an individual can’t have voting rights without the other rights and responsibilities of adulthood.

    As to parents being entrusted with the responsibility of voting for their child, it’s not the same as other decisions the parent makes on behalf of a child. Voting doesn’t affect only the child, but it imposes the power of government on other people. In liberal theory, this is a necessary evil of all voting (and government in general), but it’s tempered by the fact that every person has only one vote. Giving additional votes to parents violates this social compact and would reasonably be considered an injustice.

    The question of adolescents voting comes down to this -- do we want people making decisions for society when they have no experience living in that society as free and responsible adults? And even more to the point, what society allows itself to be ruled by people who are not at an age when they can even rule themselves?

    Jonathan, you make provocative case, and it’s at least an interesting thought experiment. But vote-from-birth will strike most people as an obviously bad idea, for good reason.

  6. I think you're mangling two different things together. One is group representation. If you put children and their parents in a group called "young families", then your proposal can help in giving young families a representation according to its number of members.

    The other issue is free voting. It's always easy to say "I'm doing this just for you", and people may even believe it. But here's an example why it just doesn't work:

    Let's say there are two parties, the American Party and the National Party. The parent consistently votes for the American Party. Now the election comes up. Now most children and teens under 18 can identify which candidate belongs to which party, more so if party symbols (say, a bird and a fish) are used. The instructions are usually also clear: choose one.

    Now there are only two basic outcomes: The child has decided for the same party or a different one as the adult (it may have changed its opinion during the time of the campaign, but so do many adults). Now does the child get to vote, or does the parent get the ability to change the child's vote? And if the latter, why would the parent deserve to do that, if it had previously been unable to convince the child that "American Party" would be the better choice?

    Those are basically my reasons for my position: Lowering the voting age is fine with me - especially for local election directly affecting the children themselves, eg school matters - but not if these votes for under-18-year-olds end up in other hands, either by outright transfer to parents or by coercion by whoever.

  7. Well, if you're talking about extending the current age down a few years or not, I do think it's mostly going to be arbitrary...there are plenty of life markers from, oh, 14 through 21, and choosing any of them will wind up arbitrary. But of course I'm not mainly doing that in this piece; I'm thinking about vote-from-birth, and once you have that then you have to think a bit differently, I think, about vote-for-yourself age.


    Mostly agree, but I'm not sure I'd say that more responsive is "better" unless you define it that way. And "responsive" is a bit of an odd way to think about infant voting, anyway. I'm more comfortable just talking about interests.

  8. AV,

    I don't think so. I'm talking about individual representation, not group representation. The people who currently are not represented are children. As I said, if we're just thinking about aggregating interests, then I see no reason to believe that kids, even infants, are less in possession of interests, or that they are any less deserving of having those interests represented.

    I really don't think that the logistical issues of when the responsibility passes from parent to kid are obstacles if you're thinking about democracy that way. I don't see how your example undermines that. Surely there are lots of times when parents act on behalf of their kids, but then later when kids do things for themselves they make other choices. We mostly aren't bothered by that; why should this be different?

  9. PS When I read your proposal first, I assumed (wrongly, it seems) that your position would be the same as so many others with similar proposals... (which mostly do not contain active teenage voting), so my criticism probably runs in some open doors.

    Still, individual representation of the child is only given if the child is individually represented - if the parent takes the vote for itself, it's no longer given.

    Usually, when a parent acts on behalf of a child, there's an objective good way to do it (like managing a bank account, or choosing a good school), and in the end the child will harvest the success.

    Free voting is very different from that. It's built on direct participation. There's no way of saving votes now and have the child use them later. And there is no objective interest because everyone has a different idea what their best interest is - and all ideologues of all sides continuously complain how people "vote against their best interests".

    (I think we all want to avoid inflammatory comments, so I refrain from making the statement I wanted to make)

    Around here, in Bremen, Germany, a new state parliament had just been elected. For the first time, 16-year-olds could vote. I've lost the numbers due to crash, but among them, Greens were the strongest party at 34%, and the conservative CDU fell to 12%. Those numbers are still similar to the result of the 18-25-year-olds, but it changes considerably with age.

  10. I love the argument for vote-from-birth. Seems to me that the opposition is essentially that defective agency in minors will lead to defective participation in elections. That could be, but for me the far bigger concern is that minors' representatives don't generally vote minors' interests - we can expect that all but the most enlightened guardians vote as we all do; that is, following their own interest first.

    Here's a concrete example: Pawlenty has taken a bit of heat lately for going back on his earlier support for carbon legislation; now that he's a viable Republican Presidential contender, he feels the need to distance himself from climate activism.

    Which is a sensible switcheroo for Pawlenty when considering the importance of Seniors in Republican primaries. Well-crafted cap-and-trade legislation can certainly bring market forces to address warming; if done right it can probably do wonders to control emissions.

    Cap-and-trade works by putting the onus on MNC's to police themselves, by using the timeless tactic of having necessity (less carbon tax) be the mother of invention (less emissions). Problem, from a senior's perspective, is that there's an unknown amount of pain between here and there, including potential real diminished economic activity (while pollution is being brought under control and the program is tweaked). That diminished economic activity may result in less resources available for things seniors care about (e.g. state-funded LTC), in exchange for benefits seniors won't live to see. In an election where seniors dominate the voting booth, it makes perfect sense for a candidate to dismiss efforts to control warming.

    For the youth, by contrast, a few years of diminished economic activity is a small price to pay for the hope that they might not have to live the last half of their lives in an oven. The youth ought generally to strongly support cap-and-trade, and not just because they tend to be progressive or crunchy, but because it is legitimately in their interests, much more so than the elderly.

    In a perfect world, the elderly would consider the interests of the youth in the voting booth, either their own children/grandchildren, or youth in general. Pretty obviously, though, that ain't how this world works.

    So give the young ones the vote. I think its a fantastic idea.

  11. I can see no reason why lowering the age of voting for teenagers would be a bad thing. Like you said we don't have any sort of test right now before we confer the right to vote, so we have a lot of people, adults, who vote against their interest because they are misinformed (like the significant amount of Americans who think Judy Judy is on the Supreme Court or believe NPR gets 5% of the federal budget) . I'm sure if we gave teenagers the right to vote we would have the same result. And they do have interests as a group. Not to mention politicians would then begin to treat them as a legitimate interest group.

    However, a case for proxy voting for infants is a bad idea, for the simple fact it gives more sway to parents who have more children than those that don't. It actually creates an incentive to have more children, if you gives you +1 or however many more votes for 15 years. And what happens if your child has a child, ala Bristol Palin style?

    And to be blunt, looking at the general socio-economic characteristics of those who have a lot of children, do we really think it's our national interest to give said Americans more representation as a reward for reproduction.

  12. "if for whatever reason things had worked out slightly differently and vote-from-birth was the status quo, people would find it normal and natural, and no one would dare to suggest robbing infants of their vote. "

    Um.. you must not be paying attention to politics if you think that. If young children voted consistently for Democrats, Republicans would absolutely be suggesting and acting to take away their votes just like they do now for non-white people and poor people.

  13. J. Clarence,

    No, it doesn't give more influence to parents; it gives equal influence to all citizens.

    And, no, I don't believe that "getting another vote" would be even the tiniest factor in having more children.

    Ron E.,

    Well, that's a fair point. If all of that happened, though, I think you would get a major uproar from the League of Women Voters types and from the sorts of people who write newspaper editorials.

  14. If a husband would get to vote for his wife, they would *not* have equal influence, but the husband would have all of it.

  15. " Now does the child get to vote, or does the parent get the ability to change the child's vote?"

    This is a strange thing to say. Why would you ever allow anyone to exercise anyone else's vote? That is not how voting works.

  16. Why are you quoting me? I share your opinion and tried to point out that Jonathan Bernstein's "vote for the child" is either what the child itself would have voted for (in which case it doesn't need the adult), or something else (in which case the parent's vote no longer reflect the child's will, and you couldn't say anymore it's the child's vote).

    Still, he gets extra credit since he actually wanted to lower the age at which people can vote - most people who come up with a "vote-from-birth" idea are opposed to even let 17-year-olds vote since they would be too immature.


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