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Votes for children: going back to first principles

I’ve been planning to write something here on the arguments around lowering the voting age, for a few months now. Then Nicolas Brando beat me to it, in a very clearly argued post setting out the main positions last month. I highly recommend Nicolas’ post, which provides an excellent overview of the debate. I’m going to try to avoid covering the same ground by approaching the question from a slightly different angle.

What first prompted my interest in the question was the fact that who is entitled to vote, whose voice is heard in the political process, is a fundamental question regarding how we run our democracies. Yet the existing debate seems to be dominated by pragmatic and practical considerations (which side benefits from a lower voting age), with little discussion of the underlying principles. Moreover, I was suspicious of the structure of many of the arguments, which start from a difference between adults and children (in terms of cognitive capacity, experience, susceptibility to manipulation) and then argue that this is a legitimate criterion for deciding who to grant the vote. Structurally, these arguments seem to me similar to arguments about the relative moral status of humans and animals, or the relative political obligations we have to compatriots and foreigners: begin with a difference between the two groups, and then argue for the moral significance of the difference.

In all these cases, the reasoning feels a bit ad hoc: there is a sense that the conclusion has been decided in advance (children ought not to vote, animals have lower moral status, foreigners should not have equal consideration), and then the argument retro-fitted.* It seems to me a better way to approach the question is to start with a set of qualifications or criteria for judging whether somebody ought to have the vote, and then deciding whether children meet those standards.

I think the best way to derive a set of criteria for having the vote is to start by asking ourselves what purpose elections serve. One argument is that elections have epistemic value: they are more likely to make the ‘correct’ decisions because they draw on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, by bringing a large number of people with different perspectives and sources of information. The question then is whether adding children to the electorate can improve the quality of electoral judgements. Arguments emphasising children’s cognitive limitations and lack of experience suggest not. But children are not the only members of society facing cognitive limitations and limited experiences – and so this line of arguments risks undermining the case for democracy altogether, in favour of a system that only enfranchises a sufficiently rational and educated elite (as in Jason Brennan’s idea of an ‘epistocracy’). As Pierre-Etienne Vandamme has argued in a previous post, a broad electorate is epistemically desirable because  a narrowly drawn elite may choose to advance their own interests over the rest of society, or may lack awareness of the interests of others. But then this argument applies to children, as well as less qualified adults: preventing them from voting may lead to their generational interests being neglected.

A second reason for allowing people to participate electorally is the educative function of democracy – the responsibility of having the vote is supposed to help people develop their ability to reason, argue respectfully, and develop a sense of moral commitment to the rest of society. This argument, if anything, seems more applicable to children than adults. Since children’s habits and values are in the process of being formed, they are surely more malleable than those adults, and so they are more likely to be positively influenced by voting.

A third position is that democratic institutions exist to limit or legitimate our loss of freedom due to living under a coercive state. On this view, the laws enforced by the government restrict what a person is able to do, but the harm of this coercion is reduced or eliminated if the person gets to help write the laws by which they will be bound. Children live under the law, just like everybody else, and so at first glance this argument seems to endorse giving them the vote as well. However, the critical question is whether the coercion of children is morally problematic in the way in the way that it is for adults. It is often argued that children’s cognitive limitations, lack of experience, and regularly shifting preferences and life goals mean that it is regularly acceptable to restrict their freedom (which is why parents can claim justified authority over their children). This of course, raises the question of which specific limitations of children justify limiting their freedom, and what threshold of cognitive ability, experience, stability of personality (or whatever) is necessary to be treated as an adult. I won’t try and answer that here, but I suspect that these are the implicit considerations behind arguments of the form ‘16 year olds are permitted to marry/join the army/leave school, so they should vote’. The claim is that we recognise their freedom to make these decisions are morally legitimate, and so that loss of freedom entitles them to participate democratically.

A fourth justification for voting is to ensure equal consideration of interests – all those affected by a decision have should have an equal opportunity to influence it. As we have already seen, this consideration would seem to speak in favour of giving children the vote – their interests are at stake just as much as adults. The question then is whether children are capable of formulating and articulating these interests sufficiently well.

Finally, there are minimalist theories of democracy, according to which the value of elections is merely to regulate conflict and ensure orderly transfers of power. On such accounts, whether children have the vote is neither here nor there, unless their inclusion or exclusion breeds such resentment as to affect many citizens’ judgement of the legitimacy of the process.

What should be clear from this is that our view on why democracy is valuable will greatly affect the questions we need to ask to decide whether children should have the vote. The considerations identified by Nicolas: cognitive ability, experience, susceptibility to influence, impact on political discourse might all be relevant, but they will be of different relevance to people with different underlying theories of democracy:

  • On the epistemic view, what matters is whether children’s cognitive limitations are offset by the benefits of the different perspective they bring
  • On the educative view, what matters is children’s ability to develop good skills and habits through democratic participation
  • On the freedom view, what matters is children’s capacity for autonomy
  • On the equal consideration of interests view, what matters is children’s ability to formulate and represent their own interests
  • On the minimalist view, what matters is how the inclusion or exclusion of children affects citizens’ willingness to abide by electoral results

* Not necessarily: in principle it should make no difference whether you look for differences first, and then decide whether those are morally relevant criteria, or decide on criteria first, and then look to see whether there are differences between the groups on those criteria. But I suspect in practice, the order of our reasoning affects our judgements.

Aveek Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Social Policy at the London School of Economics. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from the University of Oxford. His research interests include cosmopolitanism, migration and political economy. He blogs at https://socialproblemsarelikemaths.wordpress.com/



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  1. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for this useful clarification of the principles at stake in the debate.

    In my view, the equal consideration of interests matters for epistemic reasons, because we want a procedure that produces just decisions and hence does not neglect some fundamental interests.

    Another possible view is democracy as a fair compromise between competing claims to power (Singer 1974).

  3. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Your article Awesome Thanks for this information, very informative as well as Modern.

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