Thursday, February 18, 2021

Raising the voting age?

I’ve recently been discussing the voting age with my 2nd/3rd year democratic theory students. Our time this year was mostly focused on whether to lower the voting age (for instance, to 16) or whether we might implement some form of test, as well as or instead of relying on an age threshold.

I didn’t really discuss whether the voting age should be raised, though of course many of the arguments against lowering it can also be used to advocate raising it. There’s no reason to think that we have the right balance at present. However, I just stumbled across this provocative 2017 post by Robert Ringer, which advocates raising the voting age to at least 25, preferably 30. I wish I’d seen it earlier, as it might have made for a good discussion prompt.

Interestingly, Ringer titles his post ‘Putting an End to Child Voting’ but that’s a rather misleading characterisation of his aim. He refers, in the first paragraph, to “18 year old children” but it’s not clear whether he thinks of 24 year olds (and even 29 year olds) as ‘children’. Maybe so, but – of course – they’re legally adults, so what he proposes is in fact to deny voting rights to some adults.

Though he concedes that some people are mature at 18, while others are not even at 40, the main support for his thesis is an article on the teen brain – seemingly this one – reporting that teenagers are more emotional and less rational than adults.

It’s somewhat surprising that he accepts this at face value, given that he later disparages colleges for misinforming many young people about history and economics. Maybe he thinks psychology is more objective, despite the well-known ‘replicability crisis’.

In any case, even if we accept these findings – that people’s brains tend to be more emotional and less ‘rational’ up until around age 25 – it doesn’t follow that this is reason to disenfranchise anyone.

First of all, this would be to derive a normative conclusion (a view about what we ought to do) from empirical facts (descriptions of what is the case). As Hume pointed out, it is difficult to see where the normativity comes from in such supposed inferences. It seems that one must rely on an implicit (normative) premise that people ought to be excluded from the franchise if they are not rational.

This brings us to a second question, as to whether ‘rational’ thought trumps emotional reasoning. That’s too large an issue for me to explore here, but feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan and Genevieve Lloyd have criticised the conflation of rationality with maleness and pointed out that emotional thinking may be a good thing, at least in some cases. As I say, this is not something I can do justice to here, as it’s beyond my expertise anyway, but it’s certainly not obvious that ‘rational’ thought is better than ‘emotional’ thought, or even that there’s a clear binary here to begin with.

Third, even if we do think that voters should be rational, it may be better to test for rationality directly, rather than relying on age as a proxy for the development of rational thought. While this would be an argument for eradicating age thresholds altogether, rather than a defence of the status quo, it does suggest that Ringer’s proposal of raising the threshold is simply the wrong response to the alleged problem of irrational voters.

Finally, if we were to accept Ringer’s claim that ‘children’ of 24 are not sufficiently rational or responsible to be trusted with the vote, this might have wider implications. Perhaps, for instance, they ought not to be held criminally responsible for their actions either? And, given that ‘no taxation without representation’ was a founding principle of American independence, maybe they shouldn’t be expected to pay taxes until they’re old enough to vote. (I suspect that Ringer isn’t particularly keen on government taxation anyway, but I don’t know whether he’d favour an exemption for ‘children’ while having to pay himself…)

As I said, this would have made a good discussion prompt…

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