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Friday, April 09, 2004
No more reductions in the voting age

Anthony Wells links to a rather good site warning against a further lowering of the voting age. Phil Cowley of Votes for Adults agrees with almost the whole of the world that sixteen is too young an age for people to be voting, and in one short pdf document effectively scrutinises the arguments offered in favour, most of which have superficial appeal but make less and less sense the more they are examined.

The most common is the glib "If you can get married at 16, join the army at 16 ... then why can't you vote", which falls apart under the most cursory examination. Only in Gretna Green, Scotland can one marry before 18 without parental consent, and just a fraction of one per cent of under-18s do marry. Equally, military training in the army begins at 16, but that is to prepare people for combat at the age of 18. While they are given fitness training and taught how to operate as a combat unit, 16 year old boys and girls are not sent to Basra or Londonderry to keep the peace. Every example given applies to a small minority of under-18s, and all seem to be prone to exceptional circumstances that actually prove that the law already recognises a distinct difference between the responsibilities of 16- and 18-year olds in these areas, too.

And as Phil further notes, there is nothing at all odd about setting different ages for different things.

There is nothing inherently illogical in setting different qualifying ages for different things and just because some rights are acquired at 16 (like the right to have consensual sex) this does not necessarily imply that an unrelated right (like that to vote) should also be granted at the same age. Rather than ask ourselves at what age people should acquire a package of rights and responsibilities we should ask what would be the appropriate age for the activity concerned. In that case, it is perfectly understandable that different ages would apply in different areas.

Exactly. Asking rhetorically "If I can leave school at 16, why can't I vote?" as if it is some sort of trump card is no more an argument-winner than "If I can do a paper-round at 13, why can't I pilot a helicopter?". You can't for the obvious reason that different tasks and responsibilities require different levels of maturity and skill.

Perhaps the overwhelming case as far as I am concerned is the rather politically incorrect one made in different ways by two thoughtful lefties, Richard Dawkins and Oliver Kamm: the typical young mind is just not as well equipped to consider political questions properly. Dawkins delves into the scientific support for this, but Oliver Kamm's less technical reasons ought to ring so many bells of recognition.

Not all the things we value - liberty, equity, solidarity, security - are compatible with each other. In economics - and self-evident though it sounds, the principle is rarely acknowledged in discussions of public policy - scarcity is an inherent part of the human condition. Devoting revenues from taxpayers (for government has no money of its own) to environmental protection means the same money can't be devoted to school textbooks. We therefore, in politics and economics, make trade-offs.

Children don't have the conceptual equipment to grasp this. They want only good things; it would be unnatural if they didn't. Children who imagine that's a political stance, however, ought not to be flattered. They want peace, and don't see that war to overthrow a bellicose tyrant is sometimes preferable. They want forgiveness of Third World debt, and don't see that developing countries' cost of capital would thereby rise and damage the living standards of the poor. They want to protect the Earth, and don't see that global controls on pollution make it harder for the Third World to lift itself out of poverty, or that environmental protection is a preference, to be assessed in terms of its benefits and costs relative to other public goods, and not a moral imperative.

... Talk to a child who is politically engaged, and you'll find an unbounded belief in the capacity of government to effect any change, resolve any conflict and produce any amount of money (which in the last case is, I suppose, literally true if you're concerned only with nominal values rather than inflation-adjusted ones).

Of course, this all depends at what age level one defines a child. My own experience suggests we are if anything already too generous on this point. In my university class last year, I sat and listened to a debate on tuition and top-up fees and heard a discussion that followed uncannily just the line of thinking described above. The proper question - given that university lecturers demand a salary and classroom equipment must be purchased, who ought to pay the cost? - was replaced by an unthinking assertion of government's ability to provide 'free' education and of the tight-fistedness of those in office who choose not to. Government was not an imperfect arbiter between competing claims but some sort of Scrooge-like hoarder, refusing to give any of its money to obviously worthy causes. All of these people were students of politics, and all of them were of voting age, but their attitudes are typical on every campus in the country - if not the world.

Young people have a natural disposition towards extremism and utopian nonsense, a point demonstrated by teenagers at every left-wing demonstration assuring you that England's communist revolution is just around the corner, and by the foul fervency of those revolutionary students in 1930s Germany and 1960s America who wrecked campus libraries by burning book after book that they were too bigoted to read. In democratic, electoral politics, it is this separation from prosaic reality that motivates the disproportionate support from young people for those parties whose mindsets are, to put it politely, somewhat less in tune with political facts - the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP et al. Unsurprisingly, as Phil Cowley notes, it is these same parties who most seek to lower the voting age once again. But to do so will only chip away further at whatever remains of the mature and responsible politics of difficult choices and the recognition that governments are limited in their fallibility and potency.

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