The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now. See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspergerish. I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner. And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning. For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.
There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything. Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page.
At worst, Hillary Transue thought she might get a stern lecture when she appeared before a judge for building a spoof MySpace page mocking the assistant principal at her high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She was a stellar student who had never been in trouble, and the page stated clearly at the bottom that it was just a joke.
Instead, the judge sentenced her to three months at a juvenile detention center on a charge of harassment.
She was handcuffed and taken away as her stunned parents stood by.
“I felt like I had been thrown into some surreal sort of nightmare,” said Hillary, 17, who was sentenced in 2007. “All I wanted to know was how this could be fair and why the judge would do such a thing.”
The answers became a bit clearer on Thursday as the judge, Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., and a colleague, Michael T. Conahan, appeared in federal court in Scranton, Pa., to plead guilty to wire fraud and income tax fraud for taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers run by PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care.
The article expresses disapproval about the corruption of the judge and the severity of the sentence, but seems completely unfazed by the idea of an American citizen standing before a judge to answer for a satirical website. And this is actually understandable given the context. While children’s rights law is a notoriously murky area, it seems fair to say that children’s “individual rights” (free speech, due process, etc.) are generally thin to nonexistent, certainly in the US and probably elsewhere too. So for example, if Ms. Transue had been punished by her school rather than a court for setting up her website, it probably wouldn’t even have been news.
The law strikes me as inconsistent in its attitude toward minors: first it denies them individual rights, on the ground that they’re not yet capable of exercising moral judgment. But then it punishes them harshly for all sorts of offenses (in many cases more harshly than adults), thereby presupposing the moral responsibility they’re not yet supposed to have.
Now, if I had political capital to spend, I would not want to spend it on children’s rights, just as I wouldn’t want to spend it on legalizing marijuana. In both cases, I’m guessing that lions will embrace vegetarianism and the polynomial hierarchy will collapse to the 23rd level before American law changes significantly. But I’ve also noticed an interesting difference between the two issues. In the case of marijuana, almost every brainful person I’ve met (whether “liberal” or “conservative”) has agreed that the current American laws are an absurdity; that all the power is on one side of the issue while all the evidence and arguments are on the other side; and that eventually, one imagines this will all be as obvious to everyone as it’s obvious today (say) that contraceptives should be legal. It’s just a question of time, of the regrettable generations-long delay between the inarguable and the acted-upon.
By contrast, when it comes to granting legal rights to children, people whose intelligence I respect seem compelled to give really bad arguments for the status quo—arguments that (so to speak) a 12-year-old could demolish. (I know of only two famous intellectuals who’ve publicly advocated changing things: the educator John Holt and the quantum computing pioneer David Deutsch. Anyone know of others?)
For simplicity, let’s restrict attention to the question of whether suffrage should be extended to a large class of people under 18: either by lowering the voting age (say, to 12 or 14), or better yet (in my view), by giving any citizen the vote once he or she reaches a certain age or passes a test of basic civics knowledge analogous to a driver’s-ed or citizenship test. (Just like with the plurality voting system, showing that the current rule is terrible is the easy part; figuring out the best among many possible better rules to replace it is the harder and more interesting problem.)
I’ll also restrict attention to the US, even though most of the discussion applies more broadly. Finally, I’ll use the word “children” to mean “children and teenagers”; I like it more than legal terms like “minors” or “people under 18.”
As John Stuart Mill pointed out in The Subjection of Women, it’s not clear how you make an affirmative case against a form of discrimination: pretty much all you can do is stand around, wait for people to suggest pro-discrimination arguments, and then answer them.
People say: should toddlers have the vote? Should embryos? You have to draw a line somewhere! But the real question is: granting that one has to draw a line, granting that any line will be arbitrary and unfair, can’t one at least make it vastly, manifestly less unfair than the current line? To give two examples: if you can be imprisoned for a crime, shouldn’t you be able to vote? If you can demonstrate knowledge of American politics and history well beyond that of the average voter, shouldn’t you be able to vote? (In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, on the ground that anyone who can be drafted into the military should be able to vote. It seems to me that one can take that same logic much further.)
People say: if you want to grant the vote to sufficiently knowledgeable children, then shouldn’t you also take it away from sufficiently ignorant adults? Well, it’s going to be quite a while before the glorious age of the intellectual meritocracy, when all shall submit willingly to Plato’s philosopher-kings. And before that happens, we’ll have probably all upgraded ourselves to post-Einsteinian superintelligences anyway, by downloading the requisite applet from the iBrain store—so the question of what to do with the ignoramuses will be moot. Until that day, I’m content to imagine something that’s merely politically impossible (like giving the vote to anyone over 18 and to all knowledgeable minors), rather than 2 to the politically impossible power.
(Notice also that slippery-slope arguments get invoked every time any new step away from medieval morality is on the table: if we legalize gay marriage, then don’t we also need to legalize polygamy, etc. etc. Again, the fact that any rule we can think of is imperfect, doesn’t imply that some rules we can think of wouldn’t be much better than the current ones.)
People say: if you’re going to grant votes to some children and not others on the basis of a test, isn’t that elitist? But why isn’t the driver’s-ed test or the citizenship test given to immigrants similarly elitist?
People say: even supposing they can pass some test, doesn’t everyone know that children are too immature and unwise to be entrusted with awesome burden of democracy? Ah, and who are the mature, wise elders, those paragons of Enlightenment rationality, who twice elected George W. Bush? If minors could vote, wouldn’t Bush have almost certainly lost both times—thereby averting (or at least mitigating) the global disaster from which we’re now struggling to recover? Or was that a fluke: a case of the young disproportionately getting the right answer by accident, while the older and wiser made one of their rare mistakes? Or am I being ‘reductive’ and ‘simplistic’? Does our belief in the political immaturity of the young belong to that special category of truths, the ones too profound to be confronted by data or experience?
People say: but children only care about the present; they lack foresight. But isn’t it children pressuring their parents to worry about climate change and the Amazon rainforest, more often than the other way around? And isn’t that just what you’d expect, if children formed a self-interested bloc much like any other; if they grasped (some clearly, others less so) that they’d eventually run the planet, and if they consequently cared more rather than less about the distant future? So if—like me and many others—you see excessive short-term focus as the central tragedy of politics, then shouldn’t you be chomping at the bit to let more young people vote?
People say: but children will just vote however their parents tell them to. But to whatever extent this is true, doesn’t it undercut the previous fears, of immature brats voting in Mickey Mouse for president? And if millions of wives in conservative parts of the country still vote however their husbands tell them to, is that an argument for denying those wives the vote? And don’t most people of every age simply vote their demographics?
People say: but only a tiny minority of precocious, high-IQ children could possibly care about voting—and while you might have a point in their case, you ignore the 99% of children who only care about the latest Hannah Montana accessory. But if less than 1% of Americans want to run for Congress, or file a Freedom of Information Act request, or do computer security research that’s outlawed by the DMCA, does that make those rights unimportant? At the risk of the usual charge—elitism—doesn’t the tiny minority that cares about such things tend to have a disproportionate impact on everyone else?
Also, suppose that in Victorian England, only a tiny percentage of women cared about politics rather than the latest in corsets and garden mazes: should that have carried much weight as an argument against women’s suffrage? What if the denial of rights to a whole class of people is a reason why many in that class focus on trivialities, rather than the other way around?
People say: but it’s obvious that children shouldn’t vote, because they’re not economically self-sufficient. Again, wouldn’t it save time to pass these arguments through the “Victorian England / women’s suffrage” filter before making them, rather than after?
People say: ah, but there’s no comparison between the two cases, since unlike Victorian women, children will be able to vote once they’re old enough. Right, and what about the children who die before they’re 18? Even ignoring those cases, is it obvious that it’s okay to deny people their fundamental rights, provided that those people, in turn, will someday get to deny fundamental rights to others?
People say: at any rate, denying the vote to children doesn’t seem to have any particularly bad consequences. I wish I agreed; the reasons why I don’t are really a topic for another post. Briefly, though, I think our culture’s insistence on treating children as children even after those children are ready to be treated as adults is
- weird from the standpoint of anthropology and evolutionary psychology,
- an excellent prescription for turning out adults who still think the way children are supposed to,
- a useful tool for cracking down on unwanted precocity of all kinds, and
- a terrific way to make up for the unfortunate encroachments these past few centuries of justice, civilized behavior, and protections for the nerdy and weak, by keeping human beings in such a savage environment for the first years of their lives that by the time they’re let out, the new Enlightenment nonsense has difficulty gaining a foothold.
(For more on similar themes, see Paul Graham’s justly-celebrated essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular, or my Return to the Beehive.) The denial of suffrage is just a small part of the story—nowhere near the most important part—but it works as an example.
Finally people say: that’s just the way things are. This argument—also useful for justifying chattel slavery if you happen to live in 1845—is, at last, a sound one. I agree with it and accept it. Because of this argument, I’ll now admit that this entire post has been nothing more than an intellectual exercise, a way for me to procrastinate from answering email. I don’t actually believe any of what I wrote—nor, for that matter, do I believe anything. Still, purely out of academic curiosity, I’d be interested to know: are there any other arguments for the legal status of Hillary Transue, besides its being the way things are?