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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Teen Suffrage

This past Sunday afternoon I was listening to the CBC radio program Cross Country Checkup, hosted by Rex Murphy. For the benefit of non-Canadians, or for the majority of Canadians who couldn’t care less about the CBC, the program is a phone-in show airing once a week, where people nationwide are invited to call and voice their opinions — no matter how half-baked — on a selected topic. Usually the topic concerns some current event, but every fourth show or so it is hockey-related, for no apparent reason other than to curry favour with CBC’s elusive and much sought-after knuckledragger demographic.

It is the only phone-in show I have ever listened to, and even so, I sometimes have to turn it off, when the stupidity of the mob makes me cringe just too much. I typically avoid phone-in shows, for the main reason that they’re too democratic. The fact is, democracy is ugly and probably doesn’t work, and this is largely because of the people. Intelligence is not evenly distributed amongst a population. There is more stupidity in the world than its opposite, so without rigorous filtering by producers, a phone-in show will necessarily be a curiosity cabinet of folk stupidity. But I listen to Cross Country Checkup nevertheless, because as we live in a putative democracy, it is necessary to have some idea of what the mob is thinking, if only to be better able to defend oneself from it.

The relative rarity of non-stupidity among the general populace may partly explain why the host of the program, Rex Murphy, will so shamelessly suck up to, and abase himself before, any caller who presents himself as either a doctor, clergyman, or professor and who seems to have mastered the art of multisyllabic speech, or even better, speaks with a British accent, no matter how affected. These traits are for Mr. Murphy signs of education and therefore of non-stupidity This is, of course, a mistake, since the correlation between education and non-stupidity is weak at best. In any case, when such a caller comes forward, he is received by Mr. Murphy with utter deference and a linguistic fawning that I find highly amusing and literally nauseating at the same time.

(I should qualify the above remarks in two ways: First, to be the object of Mr. Murphy’s fawning deference, one should also usually be over 65 years of age, male, and white. Second, in order to burnish his dubious credentials as a “man of the people” he will occasionally — and inexplicably — fawn over a caller who is clearly “not up to it” intellectually, or who is lamentably hindered by non-whiteness, non-Englishness, non-agedness, or non-maleness. But I digress.)

To return to this past Sunday afternoon, the topic of the program was the recent Scottish referendum. It should be mentioned that Rex Murphy normally does his best to portray himself as a neutral who doesn’t take sides. By “does his best”, I mean he does it not terribly well. He has a tendency to subtly denigrate callers of an opposite view to his own, or else he gives them short shrift by cutting their time on the program short. At the same time, he will lavish time and attention with abandon on the like-minded. In any case, on this occasion he was clearly pro-Unionist. Fortunately, either through filtering or happenstance, the great majority of callers were pro-Union too. The program also seemed to attract more than its usual share of elderly white males of British descent.

One thing that seemed to outrage many of these callers was the decision to allow 16-year-olds to vote in the Scottish referendum. Naturally, this didn’t go over well with the over-65 callers, most of whom came off sounding much like what they probably were — unpleasant, crotchety, and plainly bigoted against the young. The two most common complaints about it were that (i) it unfairly favoured the “Yes” campaign, since younger voters were presumed to be more likely to vote that way, and (ii) 16-year-olds are too stupid/contrarian/rebellious/capricious/clueless to be trusted with the franchise. Let us consider these claims for a moment.

First, there was little empirical support for the claim that 16-year-olds tended to support independence. Many polls indicated the opposite. Of the available evidence, there was nothing that would decisively point one way or the other; depending on the source, it seemed to point in both directions, and hence, in no direction. In this effective absence of evidence, I would offer a counter-claim, one that also touches on the claim that teenage voters would be too contrarian or rebellious or whimsical. It is a claim I have put forward on this blog before: It is possible that 16-years-olds, insofar as they would bother to vote at all, are more likely to vote the way their parents vote, on the assumption that a greater proportion of their political knowledge is imparted to them by their parents. If this were the case, then the problem with allowing them to vote is not that they would do so rebelliously or capriciously, but rather that it would unfairly weight the vote in favour of whichever side has the support of parents of teenagers. If every teenager reliably voted as their parents did, then allowing teenagers to vote would effectively give each parent of a teenager one and a half votes instead of one (a half vote extra each to mother and to father, more if they have more than one teenager).

Second, I suspect that old people’s fear that the young will misuse their votes is, at bottom, the fear that the young will not vote the way that those old people want them to. This is effectively to privilege the views of the old, by assuming that whatever they vote for is the “proper use” of the vote, against which any deviation by the votes of the young is an improper use. Since the old folks who were most objectionable to the young voting also happened to be pro-Unionist, — hence the complaint that it favoured the “Yes” side — this “misuse of vote” argument in effect says that a vote for the “Yes” side is a misuse of one’s vote. This view has the unwelcome consequence that it implies almost half of all Scots somehow “misused” their vote in the referendum, which hardly makes such misuse a problem of voters’ age per se. If 16-year-olds misused their votes, they were in good company.

Third, on a related note, I would assert that old people are equally given to misuse their votes, if by “misuse” we mean something like “use for selfish or perverse ends rather than for the common good”. You see, statistics showed support for the “No” side to be higher amongst old folks, many of whom were afraid of what would happen to their pensions and other vested economic interests should  Scotland vote for independence. Younger people, lacking such vested interests, were less concerned about this. The motivation of the old, while eminently intelligible, is also selfish.

Fourth, there is a moral argument to be made that not only should the young have a say, but that their say should even be given extra weight, insofar as they are the ones who must live with the consequences of the outcome in the longer term. Old people, by definition nearing the end of their allotted time on earth, have less time in which to live with the outcome of the vote. Young people, having their entire lives ahead of them, have a lifetime in which they will live with the outcome. If humans were perfectly rational (which they aren’t), from which side would you expect a more considered use of the vote, with an eye to the long term? Not from the old, I suspect. After all, après moi, le déluge, as the saying goes.

Fifth, and perhaps most interesting, was a point made by a female caller to Cross Country Checkup. She was originally from Aberdeen, and her soft, calm accent reminded me of my great-grandfather’s and brought pleasing childhood memories flooding back. Although she didn’t give her age, she sounded not young. She was obviously well-educated, enough so that Rex Murphy was grudgingly obliged to treat her with the deference he normally reserves for the old men. In any case, her point was simply this: In Scots law, the age of legal capacity is 16, while in the rest of the UK it is 18. While one can argue whether 16 is too young an age for such responsibility, one can at least say that allowing 16-year-old Scots to vote in a referendum on their nation’s destiny is consistent with Scots law, which is really the law that ought to apply in such a case.


  1. I had not ever considered your point about the young having more time left to experience the results of their votes. To me, the most significant factor in the equation is simply maturity of judgment. Certainly, I can say I wasn't ready to vote at 16. In any event, we are all living longer now, so if considered as a fraction of the average lifespan, 18 would still seem to provide young voters enough time to suffer the fruits of their electoral wisdom.

  2. You're right that maturity ought to be the most significant factor. Like you, I suspect I was not mature enough at 16, in my case because I would most likely have unreflectively vote the way my parents voted, not because I was rebellious or perverse.

    The problem is, wisdom is a notoriously difficult thing to measure, and from what I've seen it is not the preserve of the old (despite the etymology of the term). It seems to be a rare quality amongst all demographic groups. I'm not sure sixteen year olds -- given their voting weight among the population at large -- could do much more damage than adult voters are already doing! Which is why I'm in favour of constitutional containment of democracy: Let as many people vote as want to vote, let them all democratically "express themselves", but also make sure there are enough checks in the constitution to limit the amount of damage "the people" can do!