Thursday, August 18, 2022

Should under-18s get to pick the Prime Minister?

One subject that I'll be covering in my Democratic Theory module in the coming semester is the voting age. There's been a long-running debate over votes at 16 and some political theorists have gone even further, suggesting that the voting age should be lowered to 12, to 6, or even abolished altogether. Of course, there are others who think that it should stay where it is, or perhaps even be raised higher.

In this context, I was quite interested to learn that children as young as 15 can vote in the current Conservative Party leadership contest. There's no need to be eligible to vote in general elections in order to participate. (Similarly, one need not be a British citizen either.)

The BBC article, linked to above (first one in the previous paragraph), includes interviews with several young Conservative Party members, most of whom seem to oppose a general lowering of the voting age. One is reported as saying that the fate of the country should not be in the hands of those who don't pay taxes, have mortgages, or support families. However, this ignores at least two things.

First, lowering the voting age to 16 wouldn't put the fate of the country in the hands of 16- and 17-year-olds, since they would still only be a small portion of the electorate. Those over 18 would continue to have a major say. Indeed, the electorate is currently dominated by the relatively elderly (because there are a lot of them and because they are more likely to vote).

Second, many over-18s don't do these things either. If one were to apply this principle consistently, then it would seem that these groups also ought to be excluded. I take it that this would be obviously undemocratic. Perhaps, then, the exclusion of 16-year-olds is also undemocratic.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Politics without ideas?

The 1st year politics module that I regularly teach is about political ideas. I have, in the past, received feedback from students saying that they don't think it's really political. This comment isn't usually developed sufficiently for me to be clear what exactly is meant by this or what might make it seem more political to them. Nonetheless, I have responded by making politics one of the ideas covered. Determining what is and is not political presupposes having some idea of what politics is, which means doing some political theory.

There's an interesting piece in today's Guardian, however, about the decline of ideas in politics. 'Big ideas' from the likes of J. M. Keynes, Milton Friedman, or F. A. Hayek were partly responsible for significant changes in society. Yet, the author claims, today's politicians seem to lack any similar ideas. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why my current students don't always recognise the relevance of ideas to politics. 

In any case, the author goes on to suggest that this lack of ideas is partly responsible for the rise of identity politics as an alternative, before ending with the snappy remark that "politics without ideas is possible, but not necessarily desirable". Maybe I'll have students discuss this remark, to see what they make of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Should we tolerate Big Bang denial?

Catriona McKinnon has a couple of interesting papers on free speech and denial of the Holocaust and climate change. In both cases, the essence of the argument is that denialists are not really historians or scientists, even if they claim to be. (This is not simply saying that they are bad historians or scientists, but rather that they are not even doing proper history or science.) Therefore, there is no need to include their views in academic conferences, journals, etc.

I just came across a possibly parallel case, concerning apparent 'censorship' of papers questioning the Big Bang on arXiv. I say 'possibly' because I simply don't know enough about this case to judge. There's no obviously non-scientific reason, that I'm aware of, for anyone to deny the Big Bang.

I wonder whether this is a case where these papers ought to be allowed - even if they are mistaken (i.e. bad science) - or whether they ought to be excluded on the grounds that they are not really scientific (as, McKinnon argues, climate change denial ought to be).

Sunday, August 07, 2022

A hostage to fortune

I've not said much about the current Conservative leadership contest (which is also, of course, a race to be the UK's next prime minister). However, I thought it worth commenting on recent remarks by Liz Truss, as reported here.

She says that the UK is currently heading for recession (something that I assume isn't news to anyone following the economy) but, crucially, claims "that is not inevitable" and can still be avoided.

This strikes me as rather unwise. If she wins the contest, becoming PM, and we end up going in to recession then she's effectively admitted responsibility for that. At the very least, she'd have to backtrack and admit that these remarks were wrong and the recession was inevitable. But perhaps she'd have been better off taking that line now, while the recession can definitely be blamed on others.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Why punctuation matters

Punctuation can make a crucial difference to the meaning of a sentence. There are well-known examples out there, but I just came across a possible example 'in the wild' as it were.

Football commentator Martin Tyler has recently apologised for remarks he made about the Hillsborough disaster in a 1992 interview. He's quoted by the BBC as referring to "Hillsborough and other hooligan-related issues". The problem with this, of course, is that the reference to other hooligan-related issues implies that Hillsborough was also hooligan-related.

However, without having heard the original interview, it's not clear to me whether this is a fair - or charitable - way to interpret his remarks. The spoken word lacks explicit punctuation, but he might have meant "Hillsborough and other, hooligan-related, issues". In this case, he would be saying that there were other issues, besides Hillsborough, and these other issues were hooligan-related, but not being implying that Hillsborough itself was hooligan-related.

An apology may be warranted anyway, since even saying something that could be misconstrued may be insensitive to families of the victims. I don't want to get drawn into the specifics of the case. I just thought this a good example of how commas can change the meaning of a sentence.