## Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

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 1. weird from the standpoint of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, 2. an excellent prescription for turning out adults who still think the way children are supposed to, 3. a useful tool for cracking down on unwanted precocity of all kinds, and 4. 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? ### 105 Responses to “Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?” 1. Anthony Mills Says: Well-argued. You’ve convinced me. I agree wholeheartedly that it should be based on a citizenship exam or something. 2. MattF Says: An argument against giving rights to children is that when you give rights to a child, you are taking rights away from the parent. This is not exactly the same thing as taking away a Victorian husband’s right to beat his wife. Children will do stupid and dangerous things because they are children. Do you want the state or the parent to be the disciplinarian? 3. Anatoly Vorobey Says: 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? In Helen DeWitt’s – in my opinion – intensely brilliant novel The Last Samurai (no connection to the movie), one of the characters argues for this change eloquently. 4. Scott Says: MattF: Good question! It depends on the act. If a kid is doing stupid and dangerous things that only endanger himself, I want his parents to teach him some sense. But as soon as he’s tormenting another kid, I potentially want the state involved. (The very absurdity of that thought, to many people, is the measure of how far what I’m advocating is from current practice.) Experience has shown that a bully’s parents might do nothing at all to restrain their child, or might even egg him on. 5. Jadagul Says: MattF: But then, the launching point for the article was a story about the state manifestly getting itself involved in what should if anything be a “honey, that was kind of juvenile, you shouldn’t do that again” moment. If the state is going to directly assert this much power over children, the children need to have the same sort of rights that we give to adults to protect them. Scott: I totally agree with you on the general point that children should probably have more legal protections, but I’m amused that you start with the vote; in my mind it’s in a lot of ways one of the least important and least consequential rights (it’s valuable because it makes it harder to subvert the system within which rights are protected; children will always be a small minority (I hope) and thus can’t really protect their own rights through the vote). If I could push one magic button I’d quite easily go with “due process” or “jury trial” or “strong free-speech rights” over “voting rights.” 6. NE1 Says: I think you are pulling a fast one with the Mickey Mouse / proxy issue. The regime where they exactly cancel each other out isn’t guaranteed. For example, I think the chances of childrens’ votes being commandeered by their parents is higher than their minority vote doing something crazy like electing a third party (like that’ll ever happen). I’m pretty sure Robin Hanson has mentioned having explicit advocates for future citizens at the table for various negotiations… but I don’t know how exactly you expect those representatives to be faithful. What happened to Ms Transue was unfortunate, but I have the (vague, unhelpful) feeling that the failure was somewhere else. Judged by a panel of her peers? 7. roland Says: Do you really think marijuana should be legal? It is thought to induce psychosis and to be more harmful to the lung than smoking. Also personal observation of pot smoking people tells me that it’s not a good lifestyle choice. Maybe someone with an overabundance of mental (or physical) health isn’t affected by it. But many long time consumers are visibly impaired. 8. Scott Says: I’m amused that you start with the vote; in my mind it’s in a lot of ways one of the least important and least consequential rights Jadagul: I couldn’t agree more! Voting is mostly a symbolic right. It’s (relatively) simple and unambiguous, and people who can vote are less likely to be stepped on in other ways—though it might take decades for this ‘ripple effect’ to be felt. In women’s case, suffrage came first and the other rights followed 40+ years later. In African-Americans’ case, theoretical voting rights came soon after the end of slavery, while the demand for actual voting rights was a major (and, it seems to me, necessary) part of the civil rights movement. 9. Mark Says: Roland, Do you really think alcohol should be legal? It is thought to induce lapses in self-control and judgment, and to be more harmful to the stomach than coffee. Also, personal observation of alcohol drinking people tells me that it’s not a good lifestyle choice. Maybe someone with an overabundance of mental (or physical) health isn’t affected by it. But many long time consumers are visibly impaired. 10. Scott Says: Roland: My understanding was that smoking anything (tobacco, marijuana, leaves…) is terrible for your lungs—but that it’s more a consequence of the ash than of whatever’s being smoked. If you take marijuana by (e.g.) eating it or through a water bong, I understand that it’s much less dangerous than either alcohol or tobacco. I agree that, unless you’re using it to relieve pain, taking it regularly is a bad lifestyle choice—but that probably has less to do with subtle health effects than with the classic finding from The Onion: Marijuana Linked to Sitting Around and Getting High. If any of the above is mistaken, I’ll be grateful to be set straight. 11. Jelani Says: 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. Yes! I’ve been saying this since I was like, 10. I find age-based rights in general to be unfairly discriminatory. I can’t think of a single situation when age-based requirements should not be replaced by narrower criteria which test for the properties you actually care about. Aside from suffrage, this goes for drinking, driving, and military service as well (as examples). But then the question arises: who decides what the criteria are, and the devices for measuring that they’ve been met? Do we vote on this, and who gets to vote? People say: should toddlers have the vote? Should embryos? You have to draw a line somewhere! Well, if those toddlers fit whatever criteria we actually care about, then sure! Most toddlers would probably fail a suffrage exam, but for the ones that don’t, more power to them. 12. Anthony Says: This was a really interesting article. I sometimes have similar thought experiments. While there were some straw men, it was pretty good. One thing I thought of to pique your curiosity: If a minor has a job and makes over a certain threshold of money, that minor is responsible for paying taxes. Is this taxation without representation? 13. jsc Says: I think that the weight of a vote should be proportional to the amount of taxes paid by the person. A bit like in a company where the weight of a vote is proportional to the amount invested in the company. Then all childrens could vote, and the weight of their vote would increase gradually with their income (if any). 14. eric Says: jsc: So, Bill Gates’ vote should really count for 2500 times mine just because he pays more tax? 15. John Sidles Says: Author Phillip Pullman is a well-known advocate for broad-ranging children’s rights. Although I am not aware that Pullman has specifically addressed children’s voting rights, Pullman has addressed the even more fundamental issue of children’s reading rights, without which children’s suffrage is (obviously?) useless, or even harmful. Pullman’s essay No to Age Banding is a good example of Pullman’s moral reasoning; the essay is notable for its uncompromising arguments such as: “The market knows best? The market knows nothing.” Both Deutsch and Pullman are well-worth reading, and there is a considerable synergy and resonance evident among their works. As a rough estimate, the correlation between someone’s enjoying Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality and enjoying Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy would be … oh … approximately unity IMHO. 🙂 Or as Milton put it (informatically): Chaos umpire sits, And by decision more embroils the fray By which he reigns: next him, high arbiter, Chance governs all. Into this wild Abyss, The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave, Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mixed Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight, Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain His dark materials to create more worlds– Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while, Pondering his voyage Pullman borrowed from the above passage the phrase “his dark materials” as the title of his trilogy. It would be very interesting to know whether Pullman and Deutsch are fans of one-another’s works … definitely this is the impression of at least one reader. 16. Scott Says: John: Thanks for the link! I completely agree with Pullman, though of course age banding of books is an extremely narrow part of the problem. What about age banding of classes? 17. Mary Says: Boy did I feel strongly about this when I *was* a kid. I couldn’t stand being condescended too by (I thought) so many stupid adults, and I couldn’t see the justice in laws that let them do whatever they wanted with my life. I remember reading what “Demosthenes” and “Locke” do in “Ender’s Game” and thinking, of Card, “Finally, someone who gets it.” I remember debating people on the early internet and loving it when they didn’t guess my age. However… I remember what happened with student council elections — vicious popularity contests. I remember what happened with mock presidential elections in junior high and elementary school — Regan and Bush I and Dole won overwhelmingly, because all of our parents were Republicans. I remember how seriously I, and my fellow students, took our (few) responsibilities. And I remember — with a shudder — my own high school Ayn Rand phase. And how obnoxious I could be in some of those internet debates. And how convinced I was that I was always right, and much smarter than all of these adults. Basically I was an insufferable twerp, is what I’m saying. Adult me is pretty glad kid me didn’t have the right to vote, after all. 18. harrison Says: Scott, you realize you’re all but asking for MIT students involved in the whole “undergrad dining” fiasco to try to rope you into it? 🙂 Anyway, if I may play devil’s advocate for a moment: But why isn’t the driver’s-ed test or the citizenship test given to immigrants similarly elitist? Well, an “untrained voter” isn’t by itself a terrible thing; a single person is just too unlikely to affect the outcome of an election. A single untrained driver, on the other hand, can directly cause potentially tens of injuries and deaths. As for citizenship: we certainly can’t let everyone into the country who wants to be let in; we just don’t have the resources! And asking someone who wants the privileges of being an American to know some basic facts about the country is at least as good a dividing line as any other. In both those cases, there’s very good justification for not having a 0-1 law; for child voting, there’s not. 19. Dan Says: “Over a certain age or has passed a test” is silly. If we’re going to acknowledge that some people under the age of 18 are mature enough to vote reasonably, then we should admit along with it that some people over the age of 18 aren’t. 20. Scott Says: Mary: I, too, would not want to see the world (or any part of it) run by student council members. Precisely because they have no real responsibilities, there’s nothing for student councils to do except to devolve into vicious popularity contests, precisely as you say. You and I might have been pretty similar as kids: I too was sometimes a twerp, and I went through a (mercifully short) Ayn Rand phase. Whatever her failings (and even at the time I wasn’t blind to them), she certainly made more sense than my 10th-grade English teacher. I’m now 27 years old. Some of the unusual things I believed as a kid, I’ve since found to be laughable. Others still seem true, but for different reasons. Others still seem true for the same reasons. And some I’ve discovered aren’t unusual at all: everyone knows them, but except for the socially-clueless Aspberger types, they know better than to say them in public. I try to go on a case-by-case basis, is all I’m saying. 21. Leonid Grinberg Says: Two cents from someone who *is* a legal minor and who *still* experiences high school student council popularity contests (and, for completeness, whose Ayn Rand-esque phase was brief and didn’t actually involve Ayn Rand since I hadn’t heard of her at the time): Generally speaking, I don’t at all buy the argument that people will vote in the general election to elect Mickey Mouse (where “Mickey Mouse” is the generic name of some clearly incompetent or joke candidate). People may be stupid, and turn school elections into popularity contests, but that happens because the elections have no consequence. Most children probably wouldn’t even pass a civics test such as the one you proposed (and which I agree with). Those that would even bother taking it wouldn’t elect Mickey Mouse to office. However, I also don’t buy the argument that children voting would have prevented Bush from being elected. In fact, I’d even venture to guess that there are more politically active children of conservative upbringing than liberal, and that given the chance to vote, the conservative party would have an easier time winning, not a harder one (this mostly applies to the United States. I doubt this is true in Europe, for instance). 22. Mary Says: A commenter on another blog I read quoted G.K. Chesterton: “Children are innocent and love justice, while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.” I think kids are way more judgemental than adults, having had less optortunity to fail to live up to their own expectations. I remember how disillusioned and cynical I felt, how badly managed the whole world seemed to me, how much better it would be if I were just in charge. Every kid thinks they’re going to be one of the successful people (which accounts for Ayn Rand’s popularity in the demographic, I’d say). I think maybe instead of a civics test there should be a humility test. Any kid who passes the humility test is mature enough to vote. Maybe the examiner has to trick them somehow, and the kid can only vote if he or she can admit being wrong. Actually, I would totally be in favor of a humility test for adult voters too. 23. Mary Says: (If only because it would disenfranchise Rush Limbaugh.) 24. Aaron Luchko Says: I think having to pass a test to vote is a very bad idea. Who writes the test? There’s already enough controversy about voting lists, gerrymandering, polling locations, etc. The test would become a major battleground to try to exclude the opponent’s demographic. You need a very simple test to decide who can vote. Either everyone can vote or you use an age cutoff, for an age cutoff I think 18 is better than any others I can think of. I think the woman’s suffrage/minorities argument falls flat because children to grow up, “Right, and what about the children who die before they’re 18?” What about the adults who gets hit by a bus on their way to the booth? ” 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?” By that same argument you couldn’t have elected terms since people only have a vote during the election. Children will have the vote, that’s what matters, oppression happens when people have no power, but the promise of power is very powerful indeed. As for economic independence I think that is important because until they’re living on their own children don’t have a full understanding of everything that society does (they won’t know everything after, and it is a fuzzy barrier, but it does exist). I don’t see denying the vote to children to be a bad idea at all, it may not be optimal. I could see the utility of extending the vote 1 term before 18, so they have the experience of the decision process with their parents, or one term after, so they’re fully adapted to real life, or let them vote earlier if they emancipate (though this is a small enough demographic that it’s probably not worth it). But that’s just tinkering the current system. 25. Alp Says: I believe democracy is in strong contradiction with individual rights esp children’s. Parents/Govt can forbid children from accessing certain sites or watching tv programs. If you think about it democracy is mainly about squashing minority rights — it has nothing to do with freedom. It simply says “whatever majority wants will be imposed”. The only protection to its extent is drawn by the constitution (fortunately). If it wasn’t for the constitution, I doubt there’ll be a racial equality in the States (just like there is none when it comes to minors). I don’t see how “right to vote” could change this. What about abolishing all right to vote and having one strong constitution which ensures individual rights no matter the age? 26. Greg Kuperberg Says: Two remarks (speaking as a parent). First, children are dependents and their parents usually have vast legal and social influence over them. Yes, some children are charged with crimes and can go to jail, but most are not. In this circumstance, giving children the right to vote might well simply multiply the voting power of families. While I might well be gratified if our household had four votes instead of two, this is would not necessarily lead to more real rights for children as independent people; it might simply partly disenfranchise adults who do not have children. There is an unsettling precedent for this. The first state or territory in the US to grant women the right to vote was Utah. (Or at least one of the first.) Was this a good thing? Some Utah residents calculated that it would empower women. But others, including eventually Utah’s strongman Brigham Young, calculated that it would strengthen polygamy. Of course I think that women should have the right to vote everywhere; I’m not with the Taliban. But at the very least, if I had to pick a US state or territory to get women’s suffrage first, I would not have picked Utah. You could argue that 18 is an arbitrary age for emancipation. Maybe all mentally normal people should be emancipated by default by some age such as 18, but there could be reasons to emancipate unusually mature teenagers earlier than that by court decree. Then of course those teenagers should have the right to vote along with the responsibility of working for a living and so on. On one related point I feel very strongly that the US is often grossly unfair to children. Namely, when children are “tried as adults” when they commit lurid crimes. I don’t know that there is any such thing as an “adult crime”, and certainly the usual crimes that lead to this status are no evidence at all of maturity. On the contrary, they are usually evidence of childishness. There are thousands of Americans serving life in prison without parole for crimes that they committed as minors. In my view, people are defined as much by their life experiences as by their genes; and even biologically people change a lot from age 15 to age 30. It seems senseless to me to have a man sit in prison at age 50 and for the rest of his life, for anything that he did at age 15. It’s an axiomatic form of retribution, extrapolated to the point of waste and sadism. 27. Siddhartha Says: As a purely practical matter though, since strongly religious and/or unambitious people tend to have many more children compared to smart people (purely anecdotal observation on my part though I think it is correct in general), if children do generally vote in line with their parents’ beliefs, then what could effectively happen is a massive increase in the “stupid” vote compared to the “intelligent” vote. 28. John Sidles Says: Siddhartha Says: … unambitious people tend to have many more children compared to smart people … With respect, your schema may need some adjusting, Siddhartha! 🙂 To point out just one troubling implication: is it really the case that a desire to have children either is not an ambition, or else is not smart (or both)? And wouldn’t most human beings disagree—including most folk’s moms and dads? However, those readers who are pursing academic careers at major research universities (where this schema is highly functional) might be well-advised to profess it. 🙂 ——— By the way, I seem to recall (with imperfect memory) that in typical human societies the most fertile 10% of the population have about as many children (in total) as the least fertile 50% of the population. This implies: (1) selection pressures on the human genome remain strong in every society, even modern industrial societies, and (2) it is highly doubtful that these (obviously) committed and hard-working reproducers are unintelligent or unambitious; more plausibly, the opposite is true. 29. Scott Says: I think maybe instead of a civics test there should be a humility test. Mary: I too see humility as a virtue, but not by any means the highest virtue. Obama isn’t a humble person, nor were Newton, Feynman, Churchill, or Martin Luther King. Indeed, I’m guessing most of the people who’ve done things to advance civilization have been pretty arrogant S.O.B.’s (though not so arrogant that they lost touch with reality, at least not when they did their great work). Others, like Gandhi or Mother Teresa, achieved a level of humility so advanced it seems indistinguishable from ostentation. At any rate, I wouldn’t want to make humility a prerequisite for voting, any more than for passing a math test. 30. Gus Says: Hi Scott, I can’t be bothered to come up with something insightful to add. But rather than stay silent, I feel compelled to spam your comment section with my moral support. This issue has always struck a chord with me. When you found the new political party, I want to be first on the list. Gus 31. Aaron Luchko Says: @John Sidles Not to sidetrack into a different debate but I’ve heard a lot of evidence that there is a negative correlation between education levels and number of offspring in North America. In fact I recently heard that people who believe in evolution have on average 1.6 children while creationists have something like 2.3 or 2.6 children. A somewhat disturbingly ironic statistic… 32. Russell Says: The right to vote isn’t a matter of making wise or correct choices. It’s the right and obligation to protect your personal interests through an equal say in government, and a ritual where citizens acknowledge our responsibility for the government we choose. As parents are responsible for protecting their children and are responsible for their children’s actions, a more consistent policy would be to give parents proxy votes on behalf of their children. 33. John Sidles Says: Aaron Luchko Says: I recently heard that people who believe in evolution have on average 1.6 children while creationists have something like 2.3 or 2.6 children. A somewhat disturbingly ironic statistic… Aaron, there’s a simple, obvious, and logical answer: compulsory intermarriage! 🙂 These arranged marriages would do much to remediate the all-too-human tendency—which advanced education does surprisingly little to remediate—of insufficiently savoring all the various aspects of what it means to be human. After all, it was William Osler who said: “Were it not for the great variability among individuals, medicine might well be a science and not an art.” And if medicine is an art, how much more so are marriage and child-rearing? 🙂 34. anon Says: I would definitely agree. If we trust a 16 year old with a ton of metal going 60 miles an hour, it seems odd not to trust them to vote. I also am definitely more appalled by the denial of rights to minors simply because they’re minors. (e.g. Morse v Frederick) I do fear a civics test of some sort would probably get manipulated for political purposes. But would anyone really have a problem just extending the voting rights down to 16? In general I would prefer to err on the side of giving too many people the right to vote rather than too few. I also think its ridiculous that someone can be denied the right to vote simply because they’ve been convicted of a felony at some point in their lives. 35. Aram Says: It’s not just a symbolic issue. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Poverty_by_Age.png The elderly vote in large numbers and Social Security is “the third rail”. Children don’t vote and government policy is consistently bad at defending their interests: schools are underfunded, wars are started by people far too old to fight, and long-term problems like global warming are ignored. 36. Aram Says: My argument also explains why we should not have civics tests, literacy tests, or anything designed to exclude the uneducated. The Voting Rights Act is a useful and important thing, and leaving aside the modern GOP, I don’t see any evidence that it has led to any dumbing down of government. 37. Jelani Says: I think kids are way more judgmental than adults, having had less opportunity to fail to live up to their own expectations (**) I think maybe instead of a civics test there should be a humility test. Any kid who passes the humility test is mature enough to vote. If anything, (**) makes me trust the kid vote even more. I want voters who expect the best from their politicians and don’t tolerate corruption. 38. hawk Says: Despite the illogicality of e.g. Marijuana laws, nevertheless it is possible to make the claim “the world ultimately will remain a better place if Marijuana is illegal”. That could well be true for subtle reasons, whether feeling-motivated or not. Maybe it’s even a good thing, although it seems irrational, to outlaw various things entirely at random – I could invent some reasons (certainly, some utility function) according to which this might be the case. The larger question is of what the systemic role of rationality ought to be. It’s something that I’ve put a lot of thought into, but at some level maybe the only thing we can aspire to is to have the balance to appreciate everybody’s way of thinking on these issues. And indeed we’ve sort of evolved as a species to divide into different personalities – some that resist change, others (like Scott and probably myself) that tend to demand it. It’s just kind of how it is, you know? 39. Pascal Bourguignon Says: If you want democracy, you could give the balls to the parents, one for each child in addition to theirs. But you’re raising another problem in that the right to vote has a threshold, the legal age. Instead, we could progressively move a greater percentage of the ball to the children. Assuming the period of transition would be [8,18[, your 17 years old girl would be able to cast 8/10 ball, and her parents 1+1/10 each (or perhaps 17/20 and 1+3/40 if she’s 17 and a half). But it doesn’t matter: democracy is fundamentally flawed with heterogeneous populations. It works well only amongst Athenian “citizens”, Knights of the Round Table, or share holders. If you want to retain some of it, we could privatize entirely the country, give one million shares to each person alive, dissolve the state and replace it by an administration council, and let people vote according to the number of shares they have. They can buy/sell shares. Shares can be inherited (so your question about children vote is solved: parents may give their shares, or buy more for their children). Immigrants would have to buy shares if they want to vote. 40. Scott Says: When you found the new political party, I want to be first on the list. Thanks so much, Gus! I’ll give you a call when we get around to opening our Canadian branch. 😉 41. John Hawksley Says: Sorry that’s me, I started a wordpress so I can use my real identity. I realize I make a frivolous point, but I will share some experience of mine. I tend to have an emotional response against drugs, the opposite of yours. At the encouragement of some “high EQ” friends, I ultimately found the most satisfaction not by focusing on drugs at the rational level, but by trying to understand exactly the source of the feelings. When I got down deep enough, I isolated it to a certain fear of lack of freedom that dominates me. Then by digging deeper still, I discovered that at my core I actually believe “people should NOT be free to choose to be without freedom”. And that’s not such a rational thing to believe, anyhow. 42. Scott Says: indeed we’ve sort of evolved as a species to divide into different personalities – some that resist change, others (like Scott and probably myself) that tend to demand it. It’s just kind of how it is, you know? Right, and some people eat babies while others volunteer for the emergency ward, some commit stock fraud while others discover new solar systems, but it’s all just how it is, y’know? Live and let live, that’s what I say. 😀 43. John Hawksley Says: Very nicely said 🙂 Still I feel that each person’s emotional chord isn’t that different from any other – by “just how it is” I meant it more as a perspective about the nature of conversation itself rather than the underlying. 44. Greg Kuperberg Says: Despite the illogicality of e.g. Marijuana laws I assume that you mean here criminalization of marijuana. If so, I somewhat agree with you. However, the new trend is “medical marijuana” laws that confuse public opinion even further and are equally illogical. Somewhat to my surprise I found this relevant DEA page. Again, I am not particularly a fan of the DEA, but their explanation on this page is almost completely correct! Marinol is medicine just as distilled ethanol is medicine. But smoked marijuana is not. It is essentially impossible for it to be medicine in the 20th century sense, for the same reasons that a flask of tequila cannot be medicine either. In comparison to the DEA page, the Wikipedia page on medical cannibis is fairly stupid. It’s ironic, because I usually like Wikipedia a lot. The one concession to the Wikipedia and medical-marijuana-laws side of things is that there is a place for recreational drugs not as medicine, but as appropriate recreation for patients with certain medical conditions. For instance, if you break your leg, then it could be appropriate to drink liquor or smoke pot for lack of a better way to have fun. They will also have a pain relief effect — but that does not make them medicine. 45. Anon Says: There are may be good arguments for a civics test (in particular I’ve heard Iranian friends of mine argue that their country needs one to keep demagogues like Ahmadinejad out of power), but I think people should be VERY skeptical of such proposals. They have a dubious history at best, as similar tests were widely used to deny blacks the right to vote prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A civics test implemented extremely well may be preferable to an age-based system done poorly, but a civics test done poorly is MUCH worse than any realistic age-based system. There’s so much potential for abuse in any such test that I doubt I could ever support one. 46. Bharath Says: Voting rights may be useful for those children who are intellectually much more mature than their peers, but in general I don’t believe that the standard child is ready to vote. I just turned eighteen a few months ago, and from personal experience, I can say that I would not have had the maturity to vote responsibly a few years ago. (In fact, I’m not sure that I have the maturity to vote properly now. I find the idea that eighteen year olds are considered adults fairly ludicrous. I’m still financially and emotionally dependent on my parents, as are most of my peers, and I am certainly not capable of supporting myself. Instead of giving the vote to eighteen year olds, perhaps the military recruitment age should have been raised to 21). However, it seems that many of the people on this blog, certainly including Scott, were members of the small minority of children who were mature enough to actually understand what they were doing. Although I’ve known a few people like them, most of the kids I’ve known, including myself, were little intellectual clones of their parents. In high school and middle school, I was convinced that I wanted to grow up to get an MBA and become a CEO in a big financial company, mainly because that’s what my mother wanted (and still wants…) me to do with my life. Fast forward a couple of years, and now I’m studing CS theory and trying to get back into the Berkeley theory program for grad school… 47. Jean Vincent Says: I am all for allowing minors to vote. But whenever I talk about that around me people forcefully reject the idea like Satan was in the room. I think that children should be able to vote regardless of a test unless adults also take the same test. From what age? How about from birth? Yes, this would be a parent vote on behalf of them but as you mention this is not much different than some spouses voting as the dominant spouse in the family votes. Children should be able to vote by themselves as soon as they want to, as simple as that. Denying a willing child to vote should then be considered as a form of child abuse. Why should a five years old be allowed to vote? Because voting is not about intelligence it is about representation, or else we could discriminate against other groups based on IQ or something else. I also want nobody to be denied the right to vote including inmates and mentally retarded people, because once again this is about representation of human beings. In some states, such as New Mexico, one could argue that blacks (FYI I’ white) are denied the right to vote because a large portion of the young black population is in jail. Not allowing them to vote is the best way to prevent due reforms in these states that discriminates against blacks. Voting in a true democracy is about representation of all people regardless of any form of discrimination whether based on sex, religion, color or age. 48. Bharath Says: “Voting in a true democracy is about representation of all people” How does just giving a child the right to vote result in her opinion being represented? A five year old, more likely than not, cannot understand how Republicans or Democrats are different, or why climate change is true or false. Just giving a ‘vote’ to the child won’t let him make an opinion on an issue that he doesn’t understand yet. What will happen instead is that the child’s parents will be given more power to represent their own views. 49. Scott Carter Says: The debate on giving children the vote was played in Wild in the Streets. NB Richard Prior played the drummer, Stanley X, in Max Frost’s band. IMDb lists the tag line, “If you’re thirty, your through.” The hit song of the band was, “Fourteen or Fight.” A 45 RPM single, “Nothing Can Change the Shape of Things to Come” was released. In the movie, old people were put into homes and fed LSD. 50. Joseph Hertzlinger Says: Was it a coincidence that you posted an idea this strange on Purim? 51. Per Says: As I see it: Let children be children. They have enough choices too make already. This does not mean that they should not be encouraged to take part in the political debate in different ways (And, at least here in Sweden, voting isn’t the only way to make a difference) I studied abroad in US during your election. And I don’t even want to imagine the political campaigns between cartoons during the elections… Then, of course, you could always discuss at what age a person should get the right to vote. Personally, I have never found that discussion very interesting, not even when I was 15 years old and very active in a political youth association (don’t know exactly how to translate that). 52. Mary Says: Obama isn’t a humble person, nor were Newton, Feynman, Churchill, or Martin Luther King. Your list of personal heroes overlaps with mine quite a bit, I think. But I suspect we are using different definitions of humble. One of my favorite things about Obama is that he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. A lot of his speeches have “This is a hard problem” as their take home message. Also he was the only one in the Dem debates to admit to a real albeit minor flaw (disorganized) when asked about his weaknesses — the others all said “I just care too much about poor people.” Newton and Feynman also knew better than to think they knew everything. And definitely Dr. King. (Though you may be right about Churchill.) Anyway, that’s the kind of humble I meant. But I’m probably just projecting anyway… 53. Aspergerish eccentric Says: And don’t most people of every age simply vote their demographics? Congratulations, you’ve rediscovered an objection to democracy in general. Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on who’s for dinner. It’s several million ethnic Austrians and and several hundred thousand Austrian Jews voting on Anschluss. Etc, etc. This fundamental flaw has been papered over in the US because it’s traditionally had a powerful English-derived, middle-class majority (which didn’t always work out so well for certain other groups but somehow nobody ever points out what role democracy played in that), but that era is coming to a close, as we become balkanized both ethnically and along class lines. If, in light of this, you think democracy is a good idea, then by all means it makes sense to enfranchise children, along with the retards and vote-my-race types, and the people who just want their representative to raid as much pork from the public trough as they can. 54. Chris Lesniewski-Laas Says: Hi, Scott. I’m a little surprised that you see this subject as taboo; if the topic came up, I would have expected a substantial fraction of thoughtful people to agree that younger citizens should be able to vote. I don’t think that it is politically impossible: the main hurdle is convincing a party in power that extending the franchise will cement their lead. However, erecting a civics test barrier to voting is, historically, a horrible idea. 55. Simina Says: A comment regarding the girl being sentenced: Sometimes I think that in North America (Canada at least) it is tried very hard to suppress even the most basic reactions of anger (or similar feelings); for example, it is forbidden to “insult” verbally a bus driver, even when they behave completely inadequate. I’m not arguing that people should be allowed to hurt each other physically (I hate physical violence), but why is it not okay to some extent to release negative emotions? (like mocking a prof) So that one doesn’t live in an artificially calm environment and blows up one day by killing dozens of people just because. I might be missing the point, and maybe what I said is false, but it’s something that I found striking here. 56. wolfgang Says: >> would anyone really have a problem just extending the voting rights down to 16? Not where I live. In Austria you can vote at age of 16. >> It’s several million ethnic Austrians There is no such thing as ethnic Austrians. 57. Robin Says: Thought provoking article. I agree the age could be lower, but I’m not sure where. It might perhaps be better to equalise the ages, so for example, stop sending under 18s to prison, ever, under any circumstances. Have you heard of http://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/ I assume you have now I see David Deutsch is apparently part of it. It seems to me there is a wider issue than all of this — we have created this stage in life called adolescence, and no-one particularly likes it. It is associated with “children” behaving badly, often railing against all authority, but that is what you would expect an adult to do in the same situation of school and parental control – it’s possible adolescents aren’t more rebellious than adults, they are just stuck in unpleasant, unfair situations. 58. Scott Says: Was it a coincidence that you posted an idea this strange on Purim? Yes. 59. Scott Says: Robin: Yes, I know of TCS, and I talked with Deutsch a great deal about it when I visited him in Oxford. I hope they succeed in bringing wider attention to these issues. I agree with you 800% about the wider problem being adolescence itself—about this long stage of life where we treat children as children even though they’re biologically and mentally more-or-less adults, even though in the ancestral environment they would have been adults (fighting battles, getting married, whatever). Yes, they seem immature and rebellious, but a 30-year-old treated the same way would also seem immature and rebellious. Of course, some people aren’t ready to assume adult responsibilities until age 18 (or age 40 🙂 ), but others are ready by age 13, as in the following classic “Bar Mitzvah Haiku”: Today I am a man. Tomorrow I return to the seventh grade. In this respect as in so many others, the current system leaves no wiggle room for individual variation. Indeed, any time an individual variation is accounted for, you can bet it’s because a sympathetic principal, teacher, parent, judge, guidance counselor, admissions officer, etc. has decided on his or her own to act against the rules. I know this not just from my own case, but from many other cases I’ve had the privilege to become familiar with since. 60. John Sidles Says: Scott Says: John: Thanks for the [Pullman] link! Last week’s Keynote Address by Philip Pullman at the Convention on Modern Liberty is worth reading too. Pullman’s address asks “What are the virtues that a nation needs in order to be a state fit for human beings to live in?” The answer begins: “First of all, it needs courage. Courage is a foundational virtue: it’s what we need in order to act kindly even when we’re afraid, in order to exercise good judgement even in the midst of confusion and panic, in order to deal with long-term necessity even when short-term expediency would be easier. …” “Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiosity. Wakefulness of mind might be another term for it. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and of its history, and of every thread that makes up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know, how to understand, and how to love their work – we need to be taught how to love – believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and memory of the nation. …” There’s much more (all quite good). Anyone who is a fan of the Federalist Papers is likely to enjoy Pullman. My wife and sons (all writers) take quite a lot of inspiration from him. 61. Scott Says: I’m a little surprised that you see this subject as taboo Chris: Well, experience has shown that I sometimes say taboo things when I didn’t mean to; I’m a miserable judge of what is and isn’t taboo (making a roughly equal number of errors in both directions!). I was pleasantly surprised by the many sympathetic and thoughtful responses to this post. 62. John Sidles Says: Scott, shouldn’t childrens’ suffrage rank rather low among our priorities, given that our MIT colleagues have just updated the MIT Integrated Global System Model … which now (soberingly) predicts civilization-destroying levels of global warming by 2100? What MIT scientists are predicting for our grandchildren makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (a great novel about childhood) seem like Wind in the Willows (another great novel about childhood). Isn’t it time to start asking (to borrow a phrase from Apollo 13), “What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” 63. Aaron Tos Says: Scott, have you checked out the Sudbury Valley School? This school has for more than 40 years run as a full democracy. All decisions (even budgets and hiring and firing of staff) are made democratically, with one vote per participant. Since children (from age 4 years and up) vastly outnumber staff, they effectively run the school. If your worldview is that children are inherently irresponsible, you would probably expect them to buy candy for the entire budget and generally decent into chaos. But the reality is that it is probably one of the best run schools in the country with an economy any headmaster would admire. 64. Chris Says: Nice article, well argued. Unfortunatelly, the values of enlightment and rationality aren’t given automatically to persons with their 18th birthday. Actuelly, that’d be a nice present for most of mankind…even though quite some children posses them earlier.. 65. Evan Says: I have thought about this problem quite a bit as well, and I do have some observations. First, I strongly agree with the principle that we need to do much better at extending our basic rights to children. Voting rights are both an end in and of themselves, and also hopefully a means to the end of improving freedom of children in general. I am not worried at all that children might be unable to choose wisely or to understand the issues involved. The only real concern I have is that it might lead to coercion. Adults coercing children to vote a particular way is not only directly (psychologically if not physically) damaging to the child, but also would likely serve to reinforce the aspects of our society that limit the freedom of our children. Of course, coercion is a real problem for adults as well, and a large chunk of election law is in fact designed to avoid this as much as possible. If we give children the right to vote, we need to put equal measure of thought into how to ensure that as a class children are not taken advantage of in this fashion. The first and most obvious rule would have to be protecting the anonymity of their ballots. This means that one way or another most children voters must be able to fill out the ballot on their own. This could be done by voting age, or by making the ability to read and complete the ballot independently an explicit requirement. Special care must be taken for disabled children, since I assume we don’t want to discriminate against them specifically. I think you need to make a rule that if a child needs assistance to complete a ballot their parent or guardian *MUST* not be the one to provide that assistance. On a wider level, you also have to make sure that children have easy and private access to information about candidates and issues. Even though many children will simply vote the way their parents do, they must have the opportunity to make their own decisions should they choose to. Most of the potential issues are relatively small for older children. I would support immediately lowering the voting age to (say) 16 or 14. I likely would not support lowering the age to 8 without examining these issues more closely, or having first experience with an intermediate solution. I definitely agree that we can easily make something that is better than what we have now. 66. Eric Says: A few comments: (1) The only party that actually seems to care about children’s rights is the Libertarian Party. Their (generally byzantine but extremely principled :^) platform debates every four years typically feature children attending the convention rising to argue for their rights, and their platform typically includes strong assertions of those rights. (Not sure if the current one does or not, I think they may have stripped it in the interest of wider voter appeal.) (2) Your hero, President Obama, has just passed the Intergenerational Ripoff Act of 2009, the idea of which is to spend a trillion$ on democratic special interests and bill the kids for it. (Even the CBO argues that it harms the economy in the long run, thus is clearly a ripoff of kids. I would argue it pretty obviously has a strongly negative Keynesian multiplier even in the short run, cf http://whatisthought.com/keynes.html )

67. PJ Says:

I’m suprised no one’s mentioned the time this issue was brought up on _The West Wing_ episode http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Good_Day. It was one of my favorites.

The real problem with this issue is that people grow out of caring about it.

68. Scott Says:

The real problem with this issue is that people grow out of caring about it.

Well, some do. 🙂 Whites were needed for abolition, men were needed for women’s suffrage, and grownups will be needed for this, if it ever happens.

69. harrison Says:

PJ: That was, in fact, one of the first things I thought of, although for some reason I thought it was from one of the Big Block of Cheese Day episodes. Wonderful show, that.

70. John Says:

Scott,

Speaking of taboos – if children should be treated
as equal citizens and be trusted to have the judgment to
vote, then should having sexual intercourse with children
be continued to be held as a crime? (not only is it legally forbidden, it is considered by society as one of the lowest and most horrible criminal acts)
I always thought it was quite odd that many children (especially female) are physically sexually mature as early as let’s say 13-14 (with some even earlier), yet they are not trusted to judge rightly whether or not to have sex with adults, and an adult ‘seducing’ such a child, having sex with them with complete agreement of both sides is facing severe criminal charges (i’m not sure about the state of affairs in the USA, but in many countries the charge is simply ‘rape’).

71. KaoriBlue Says:

“I always thought it was quite odd that many children (especially female) are physically sexually mature as early as let’s say 13-14 (with some even earlier), yet they are not trusted to judge rightly whether or not to have sex with adults…”

I’d hazard a guess that this is because evolution put a premium on reproduction over psychological fitness (and happiness) in modern society. Times have changed – radically so over the last two hundred years. It’s a lot harder and scarier to be an adult these days, and I support the idea of giving kids as much time to grow up and screw up (in a largely consequence free environment) as possible. I also strongly believe that pushing kids to grow up early will greatly diminish the quantity and competitiveness of scientists and engineers in this country.

72. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott,
Could you give examples of unusual things you believed a kid for the wrong reasons? Was it just a coincidence that you were right?

Mary,
That’s a great quote! From my view of parties today, it seems to be opposite to the more famous Churchill quote. Were they disagreeing? have the parties reversed in the past century? was one of them wrong which side is which? (or me?)

hawk:
Maybe it’s even a good thing, although it seems irrational, to outlaw various things entirely at random

Daniel Davies argued for “strong laws, frequently broken” to teach people not to trust government to decide what’s right, but I think that this utterly fails in practice. People do follow government’s judgement that marijuana is evil, even an awful lot of people who use it.

73. Job Says:

Do you think voting will ever be extended to super-computers that meet certain qualifications? They could vote for certain unrepresented parties, such as the environment.

If we’re up to the point where we’re having meaningful conversations with spam bots (Musatov said the most interesting thing the other day…), maybe we should start asking.

74. Bram Cohen Says:

There are a few different dates here:

The age at which you can vote

The age at which you can (legally) drink

The age at which other people can (legally) have sex with you

The age at which your parents can call the cops and have you kicked out of their house for trespassing.

These are currently, in California: 18, 21, 18, and 18. I think far more sensible would be to set them to 16, 16, 16, and 18. I’m not sure how the forms of prosecution for crimes work at different ages. The age at which your parents can kick you out of the house is particularly strange – the day before, if they kick you out they can be arrested for child abuse, but on that day the cops will happily arrest you for tresspassing for not leaving. The drinking age and age of consent strike me as particularly batty, since the fraction of all people who get to those ages without having done those things is fairly small.

75. Brian Hayes Says:

Right-on, Scott! This is an issue I cared about passionately when I was an adolescent. Now I’m a grandfather, and I feel the same way. We treat children very childishly.

(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?)

Yes: Edgar Z. Friedenberg. His “Coming of Age in America” was published in 1965 (when I was 15). I haven’t looked at it again since then, and I can’t recall exactly what policies Friedenberg promoted, but I do recall my sense of elation and relief when I discovered the book.

76. John Sidles Says:

It is interesting (and surprising) to me that many readers conceive that the most interesting aspect of Scott’s question “Should children have the right to vote?” is the answer … with the looked-for answer taking, typically, the form of either a logical binary (“yes” or “no”), or else an numerical range (“after age 12”, for example) … and with the reasoning process leading to that answer being also of interest.

It is (of course) equally valid to adopt the point of view that the question itself is great interest, and therefore, provides a valuable starting-point for inquiring “What child-related questions are even better to ask?”

This latter style of analysis is much closer to the way that disciplines like diagnostic medicine and systems engineering are taught (and practiced) … it also is closely related to Grothendieck’s “Rising Sea” philosophy of mathematical inquiry.

The great art, of course, is to practice both forms of analysis simultaneously: to ask exactly the right question, and then (sooner or later) provide a beautifully reasoned and rigorously justified answer. This ain’t easy!

For me, the most interesting aspect of Scott’s question is not the answer, but rather, the cloud of other beautiful questions that hover near it.

77. Leonid Grinberg Says:

Bram, just since you mentioned drinking as well as other ages:

I had a discussion with a friend who spends most of his time in England, where drinking ages are a lot laxer. We both agreed that having the drinking age be set at 21 is dumb precisely for the (at least official) reason that it’s set that high — prevent drinking and driving. Most states allow a license to be obtained at 16, so the logic is that since kids are already driving, they shouldn’t also be drinking.

The problem with the logic, of course, is that kids drink anyway. Those kids, however are not the problem. Ironically, it is the kid who waits until his 21st birthday to try his first drink — he tries it, doesn’t feel anything, tries some more, still doesn’t feel anything, decides he just has a high tolerance level, starts driving, and 30 minutes later, it hits him. If anything, the drinking age should be 16, while the driving age should be 21. Then, by the time you get your license, you will have had 5 years of experience to figure out your body’s reaction to alcohol.

78. denis bider Says:

I think the whole idea of “rights” is misguided. The world doesn’t owe anyone anything. To the extent that we are in a position to influence outcomes, it is sensible to influence them towards a mutually most beneficial result. This is a matter of pragmatism, not a matter of principles. Principles, when considered abstractly and taken our of context, tend to obfuscate and obscure more so than illuminate. Principles, ideals, and rights are things that we create in order to solve practical problems. The practicality and desirability of results dominates the principles and ideals. To the extent that we forget that, we are chasing our own tail.

Taking that into consideration, I find it unfortunate that the majority of your article addresses children’s rights from a viewpoint of abstract principle mathematics, whereas only towards the end you give any hint that there may be practical advantage to the position you espouse. An article that does the opposite, arguing the practicalities while stopping briefly to mention abstract principled beauty of the idea towards the end, would have been much more convincing.

And, of course, more difficult to substantiate. It is not very difficult for an intelligent person to engage in abstract principle mathematics in their minds, but it is essentially masturbation – or, to put it more kindly, chasing one’s tail – when it’s not accompanied by facts.

Thank you for the link to Paul Graham’s article. I found that insightful. Your article too, just… chasing its own tail without getting to the point of how the proposed change would actually improve our world, or how the current situation makes us suffer.

79. BPR Says:

Observations:

– The ‘twerp’/judgmental/’Ayn Rand’ phase certainly does not end at 18. (From experience) 20 year olds seem about as ‘twerpy’ as 16 year olds.
– Scott as you point out, it is interesting that one becomes a Jewish-adult at 13 but not a US-adult. Yet other religious/cultural conventions are recognized (e.g. marriage).
– What do you think of the pretty much inevitable reaction when a far higher percentage of rich white kids can vote over poor african-american kids?
– Throwing in ‘property/tax’ requirements is very dangerous. This has been used historically to disenfranchise minorities etc. It is ‘interesting’ that (because of property restrictions) only (something like) 25% of adult males in Britain could vote during the first world war -> most soldier killed could not vote for/against the politicians who sent them to die.
– The arbitrary age restriction are hard to rationalize – i.e. one can die for one’s country but not toast a fallen comrade?
– The ‘its ok since kids will turn 18 eventually’ argument also seems to apply equally well to R/X rated movies. Should children dying of leukemia be allowed to see them?

80. rrtucci Says:

What if they voted to turn us adults into soylent green.

81. rrtucci Says:

Soylent green is people! Soylent green is people!

82. Scott Says:

John:

if children should be treated as equal citizens and be trusted to have the judgment to vote, then should having sexual intercourse with children be continued to be held as a crime?

I think courts ought to judge on a case-by-case basis whether this minor gave meaningful consent in this situation. People are undoubtedly right to view the sexual exploitation of young children as one of the most despicable crimes, on par with murder. But the current law (at least in the US) regards sex between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old as “statutory rape” and theoretically just as bad. I understand that in practice, juries almost never convict in such cases—but isn’t that very fact an indication that something is awry with the law?

83. Scott Says:

Denis:

* My post was responding to the actual arguments that I actually get from actual people when the subject of children’s rights comes up.

* Even then, I was careful not to rest the case on abstract libertarian principles that would justify anything, but on arguments specific to the question at hand.

* I’m hoping to address the practical aspect (i.e., why I think treating minors as babies or prisoners even after they’re ready to partake in the adult world has such nasty consequences) in future posts.

* Didn’t the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements rely on “mathematical,” “masturbatory” abstract principle arguments, rather than just consequentialist arguments? And wasn’t that probably necessary for those movements to succeed?

84. Scott Says:

The ‘its ok since kids will turn 18 eventually’ argument also seems to apply equally well to R/X rated movies. Should children dying of leukemia be allowed to see them?

I couldn’t say, since I find the MPAA system a joke (there are G-rated films that could give people nightmares for years, and humane and uplifting films rated R because of words used constantly on the schoolyard).

85. Someone Says:

I have not read all comments, but a search learns that no one has mentioned the Convention on the Rights of the Child (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_the_Rights_of_the_Child) which does grant children some basic rights, including the right to express their opinions. This convention was ratified by every member of the U.N. except – you guessed it – the United States and Somalia.

86. John Armstrong Says:

denis sez:

It is not very difficult for an intelligent person to engage in abstract principle mathematics in their minds

from which I gather he believes that there are vanishingly few intelligent persons.

87. Greg Kuperberg Says:

I think courts ought to judge on a case-by-case basis whether this minor gave meaningful consent in this situation.

In my view, Scott, that the is the main consideration that you don’t properly address. If you need a court to determine whether a minor’s consent is meaningful — and this is already done for a wide range of personal affairs such as medical treatment, even as you hypothesize it for acts of sex — then that’s not really consistent with a de jure assumption of meaningful choice in the voting booth. The situation is not the same as a conservative woman who lets her husband think about politics for her.

I’m not necessarily against giving children the right to vote. What I do think is that if anyone who cannot making a meaningful electoral choice nonetheless has the right to vote, then we need to think through who is really doing the voting. Children are not the only case of that. For instance, should people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease vote, even when they are no longer legally competent to buy groceries? Maybe they should, but the situation that you do not want is a nursing home director writing hundreds of absentee ballots in the name of his patients.

Moreover, your example with Hillary Transue is so extreme that it doesn’t raise any public policy issues. Judge Ciavarella is a criminal who will spend much longer in prison than Transue did in detention camp. There is no real argument that Pennsylvania doesn’t care about Hillary Transue’s rights, nor for that matter about children’s rights in general. Conceivably things would be better still if children could vote, but they do already enjoy real protections from the fact that their parents can vote.

Which leaves them better off than certain adult Americans. In my view, the most absurd example, albeit not the most unjust one, is the fact that Puerto Ricans cannot vote in federal elections. If you as an American citizen lived anywhere in the world last year, whether it was Toronto or Jamaica or Pyongyang, you could still vote for or against Obama using your last state of residence. Anywhere except Puerto Rico. If you move from California to Puerto Rico, then you can’t vote for president.

88. John Sidles Says:

My wife and I are licensed foster care parents. Speaking on the basis of this experience, we highly recommend that anyone interested in children’s right should take some training (which is free in most states), and then—even better—actually take some responsibility for a child, by working as a foster parent / Big Brother / Big Sister.

The level of commitment required is high, and the ensuing experience is radical. The care-provider is certain to learn many of the right questions relating to child welfare, and perhaps, a few of the right answers.

The abstract principles of children’s rights discussed on this forum are not wrong, yet neither are they particularly useful (especially to the children) until they have been leavened by interaction with the gritty realities of the real world, and brought to life by the physical and emotional realities of actual child-care.

In every state in the USA, and every large city in the world, there are thousands of children who are hoping that more people will volunteer.

In marked contrast, there is no shortage whatsoever of people who are eager to share their ingenious theories of children’s education and social welfare.

89. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

How about conditional votes for legally dead or incompetent (stroke, dementia, coma) people? If their set of conditions could pass the same literacy/competency test?

“If the state of the world and country is A, B, C, D, E, … N;
and the major candidates for Senator in my state are j (with positions 1, 2, 3, 4), k (with positions 13, 14, 15, 16), and l (with positions 22, 23, 24, 25);
then I vote for candidate k for Senator.

Kind of an extension of the reasoning behind the rule against perpetuities.

I’d be interested to see predictions of the effect it could have on policy.

90. Ambitwistor Says:

To follow up on Aaron Tos’s mention of the Sudbury Valley School, they have an excellent essay entitled “The American Dream”, about how our treatment of children (in public schools) goes against traditional American ideals about universal rights. See also “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

91. tomate Says:

Sorry I didn’t read all of the comments, do skip mine if redundant. I agree with many of your considerations, but I think that the weak part is requiring a test, and I have a couple of not-ideological objections you didn’t consider.

First of all, who should write those tests, and with which conception of political partecipation and intepretation of political history? It seems to me that this makes voting a complicated issue, with delicate intellectual questions on objectivity and practical questions on executive board formation underneath, whereas voting should be as simple as it can be, theoretically even accessible to illiterates.

Secondly, I think one should gain a personal and possibly critical view on historical facts before he is attractive as a potential voter (the US school system doesn’t help, bt still…). I would not like to see private lessons and schools for young voters, not because I fear what they would vote, but because they would be hindered the possibility to build a personal view on facts.

Maybe lowering the 18 years-age requirement might be enough.

92. John Sidles Says:

To follow-up on Ambitwistor’s post, Sudbury Valley School has an attractive web page that tells an inspiring story … and so does the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) … and so do many thousands of inspired, charismatic physicians and teachers.

This makes a working familiarity with the principles of evidence-based evaluation all the more important, in both medicine and teaching. Because although Sudbury Valley School may indeed be an excellent institution, it is sobering that the evidential value of the material on their web page is so strikingly similar to NAHA’s.

My own experiences lead me to conclude that most children can be exposed to almost any system of education, without taking much lasting harm from it, providing only that they receive plenty of daily, two-way, affectionate interaction with adults who are not crazy or exploitive. Providing this environment is not easy, needless to say.

93. John Sidles Says:

Hmmm … I confidently expected that identifying high-quality education with “daily, two-way, affectionate interaction with adults who are not crazy or exploitive” would stimulate criticism of present-day graduate education … because how many mathematicians and scientists can say that this was their happy experience?

My experience has been that engineering and medical graduate education consistently achieves reasonably high quality by this common-sense measure, largely via the immersive educational methods that were conceived by William Osler. Nowadays Osler’s pragmatic methods are universally embraced in medicine, and increasingly embraced in engineering, and they are even beginning to be embraced in mathematics—the wonderful Polymath1 web project that Tim Gowers has been running is a good example of Oslerian methods in mathematics.

With regard to the undoubtedly strong link between human rights and human education, my favorite literary passage is a humorous one, from page 108 of Patrick O’Brian’s Yellow Admiral:

Jack said “Doctor, do you know about the Droits de l’Homme?”

“Few things are more familiar to me than that amiable fiction.” replied Stephen, “In my youth I wrote several versions, each more liberal than the last. In one I even included women, asserting that they were …”

The sailors smiled indulgently, and the purser said, “He means the man-of-war, Doctor. A French seventy-four. It was in the days of high revolutionary fervor, in ninety-six or ninety-seven, when they gave ships names like that.”

The gap between the theory and the practice of human rights is a recurring theme in O’Brian’s works, and it is always treated with the respect, tolerance, and good humor that this crucially important subject requires.

94. Greg Kuperberg Says:

I have to agree that in some ways, the Sudbury Valley School seems too good to be true. Their ideas of democracy and freedom for students sound great; maybe the public schools in my city should take steps in that direction too. But when I read the literature from this school system, on the one hand they first assure me that their school is successful in every way imaginable. But as John says, they only vaguely refer to scientific evidence of that manifold success. Their description of all other schools as totalitarian doesn’t help matters. It seems difficult to share their alleged success, or even to understand it in any depth, without buying into their system completely.

http://www.sudval.org/05_onepersononevote.html

95. Leo Horie Says:

I think one problem with asking the question of whether children should have the right to vote is that it assumes that one of the two choices is “better” than the other.

There’s this quote I’ve become quite fond of: “There is not a perfect tomate sauce, only many perfect tomato sauces” – radical universal changes will always affect different people differently – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively from their own perspectives. (e.g. it’s normally accepted that women’s freedom to work is a good thing, but the number of divorces and broken families has also gone up after that revolution, which is normally considered a bad phenomenon for the affected kids).

96. Scott Says:

I think one problem with asking the question of whether children should have the right to vote is that it assumes that one of the two choices is “better” than the other.

Leo: Is it “better” to spend time commenting on this blog, rather than (say) basket-weaving or committing bank robberies? How do you know? The answer doesn’t follow from the axioms of set theory! Yet somehow you seem to have made a choice. Societies also make choices—whether or not to go to war, commit genocide, fund theoretical computer science, etc. If there’s never any grounds to favor any choice over any other one, if every possible tomato sauce is perfect in its own way, then why even get out of bed in the morning? How do you know it’s “better” than laying in bed and starving?

97. John Sidles Says:

To provide a historical context for Scott’s well-justified assertion that we all “have to make a choice”, Jonathan Israel’s history of the Enlightenment emphases that, historically, the core values of the Enlightenment have always been absolute rather than relative.

Prof. Israel summarizes these historical values in the following convenient list:

Radical Enlightenment conceived as a package of basic concepts and values may be summarized in eight cardinal points:

(1) adoption of philosophical (mathematical-historical) reason as the only and exclusive criterion of what is true;

(2) rejection of all supernatural agency, magic, disembodied spirits, and divine providence;

(3) equality of all mankind (racial and sexual);

(4) secular ‘universalism’ in ethics anchored in equality and chiefly stressing equity, justice, and charity;

(5) comprehensive toleration and freedom of thought based on independent critical thinking;

(6) personal liberty of lifestyle and sexual conduct between consenting adults;

(7) freedom of expression, political criticism, and the press, in the public sphere.

(8) democratic republicanism as the most legitimate form of politics.

When it comes to implementing these eight cardinal points and (necessarily) compromising among them … for example, when it comes time to implement systems for public education and health-care … well, that’s the messy arena in which principles, practicalities, and politics all are joined! 🙂

98. Hopefully Anonymous Says:

“If there’s never any grounds to favor any choice over any other one, if every possible tomato sauce is perfect in its own way, then why even get out of bed in the morning? How do you know it’s “better” than laying in bed and starving?”

Following your lead in venturing off the OP, (and this may not be in either of our fields of expertise) isn’t it a bit of a myth that we get out of bed in the morning because of a reasoning process? I’m not sure it’s clear yet that the epiphenomena/qualia of observing and reasoning has any causal impact on our physical actions or even the cognitive path or conclusions that we reason to. A lot of the scientific insights I’ve read about seem to go in the nonintuitive direction (how we intuit things work cognitively is quite different from the empirical results).

I think this stuff is worth teasing out -although perhaps not by us or in this blog!

99. Leo Horie Says:

Scott: that’s exactly my point – we don’t know what is better – even the term “better” itself is subjective. Granting or not granting voting rights are simply different choices with different consequences.

>>” If there’s never any grounds to favor any choice over any other one, if every possible tomato sauce is perfect in its own way, then why even get out of bed in the morning?”

I feel that in a lot of situations, the opposite is true: there are often plenty of reasonable arguments to support all sides of a discussion. Similarly, there are often many valid arguments against all sides. The important thing to take note is that “many perfect sauces” is not only different from “a single perfect sauce”, but also different from “all sauces are perfect”.

So should we let kids vote? It depends on who you ask. Perhaps yes. Perhaps not. Perhaps that question has no correct answer.

100. Algirdas Says:

Leo Horie,

I submit we should extend your thesis as to impossibility of finding a single perfect answer to many questions to the very question of whether it is possible to find a single perfect answer to many or most questions. I say there are plenty of reasonable arguments to support both sides of a discussion on whether or not there are plenty of reasonable arguments to support all sides of a discussion.

Q.: Do you agree that the answer to the question “Should we let kids vote?” is “Perhaps yes. Perhaps not. Perhaps that question has no correct answer.” ?

A.: Perhaps yes. Perhaps not. Perhaps this question has no correct answer.

Why, we can easily construct an infinite sequence of impossibilities – and so let us wallow in our impotence for all eternity!

101. Johan Richter Says:

“Obama isn’t a humble person, nor were Newton, Feynman, Churchill, or Martin Luther King”

Shouldn’t you wait a little before placing him in that catergory? There is still plenty of time for him to go wrong. In fact, I don’t see him achieving very much yet.

I pretty much agree that most of the arguments against granting children the vote are similar to the ones against female suffrage. However that doesn’t mean they are wrong 🙂 (This time.)

In fact it seems reasonably likely that children and teenagers are dumber and more immature than adults. Of course, you are suggesting a test but I can’t say I am quite comfortable with the elitist implications. Do you agree that lack of maturity is a good reason for denial of the franschise, if proven?

“But why isn’t the driver’s-ed test or the citizenship test given to immigrants similarly elitist?”

The driver’s ed is a different case. Nobody disputes that elitism has a place in some situations, like the appointment of professors. It is just in voting we want equality.

As for the immigrants? That actually leads to a question. Don’t you agree that immigrants should be given the vote even if they are not citizens? And that this is more important than giving children it?

102. John Sidles Says:

This thread has raised memories from a period where my wife served on the Seattle School Board — with responsibility for about one hundred public schools.

And these memories aren’t particularly happy. My wife and I both learned far more than we ever wanted to know, about the widespread human tendency to embrace ideology, call it logic, and abandon common sense and charity.

Neither the ideologues of the far-left nor those of the far-right have a monopoly on this brand of foolishness (and I will add religious ideologues and libertarians to this list), and yet for some reason, adherents of all these ideologies felt compelled to attend School Board meetings.

I showed this thread to my wife, and she remarked that a common call from educational ideologues (of all varieties) was to “replicate successful schools.” This is infeasible for two common-sense reasons, both of which are surprisingly difficult for ideologues to appreciate.

First, it’s by no means clear (except to ideologues) which schools are successful. Second, it is possible to replicate a school building, but in general it is not possible to replicate the school’s students, faculty, or neighborhood … and the latter are immensely more important than any physical building.

Parents (as contrasted with ideologues) exert continued pressure on School Districts to (1) increase diversity, (2) increase choice, and (3) increase investment. This common-sense parental advocacy works where political and religious ideologies fail, by creating a varied, vibrant educational ecology that is good for students and families … and which demands from the public considerable tolerance, foresight, and committed investment in the future.

103. KaoriBlue Says:

Leo ,

Do I understand correctly that you are saying this argument is meaningless because there isn’t social or political pressure (from almost any quarter) for extending suffrage to children? That arguments of equal weight can be constructed on either side but ultimately won’t make a difference until enough people are passionate about the issue?

104. Leo Horie Says:

Algirdas:

>> Why, we can easily construct an infinite sequence of impossibilities – and so let us wallow in our impotence for all eternity!

We could easily leave things as they are because of the mathematical paradox, but we should remember that by not taking any action, we’re still taking a biased stance (and one we may not agree with, at that!).

Kaori: I’m not saying it’s meaningless, nor that children’s suffrage would not make a difference – quite the opposite, actually: it would likely change the dynamics of many things and would probably mean a lot to a lot of people.

Let’s rephrase the original question: given that a set of consequences to a given system has both good and bad points, would you personally prefer the set of consequences of the current system, or the one from a system where children can vote?

As far as I can tell, it’s a completely personal question, so we can’t debate if one’s opinion is more “right” than someone else’s. We might as well just vote on it based on gut feeling – after all, it’s 50/50 vote and the worst case is that we get the second best option.

105. Erewhon Says:

My 2 cents:
I wasn’t aware that 16 year olds in Austria could vote. Perhaps that explains how an extreme right-wing party – some have said neo Nazi – won the vote with a blatant populist campaign a few years back.

My point being, I feel that young adults, and children even more so, through their lack of experience, are more susceptible to manipulation than adults – although not much more, in some cases. I.e., “No more taxes” is probably as effective a campaign as “Free Barbies/iPods/whatever is on your wish list”.

But as we’ve seen, the people can only take so much before voting for the other guy. Maybe less so as kids.

So I’m not for lowering the voting age. But I’m all for self-actualization, at no matter what age. Also, as an optimist, I feel that if you give people – children and adults – more of a say in things, they should theoretically rise to the responsibility of exercising the power they have.

A few more thoughts:

Humans do not suddenly turn into sexual beings when they turn 18, as if they only grow genitalia on their birthday. This prudish, puritanical attitude needs to be changed, while at the same time stopping abuse, to make the world a better, more balanced place.

Seeing as alcohol is probably here to stay, even though it has been shown that alcohol abuse results in so much suffering and illness, adolescents should have the chance to gain experience with alcohol in a controlled manner, to avoid the binge drinking and abuse that is so prevalent.

And here’s another thought, possibly naive: I think that some of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the ‘war’ on drugs should be spent on improving society, especially for those who take drugs – then people wouldn’t want or need to take drugs.