djw has a nice post up about whether children should have the right to vote (unfortunately it sems to load very slowly, but its worth reading). He is somewhat persuaded that they should, and outlines the argument of a paper by Michael Cummings arguing the case (my colleague Fran Schrag has another interesting paper making a different argument for a similar conclusion). I’m not sure I disagree with any of the arguments djw presents, all of which are responses to possible arguments against enfranchising children. So he calls for an argument that is not easily responded to, so, ever willing to oblige, here’s a possible reason, which, I think, makes a better version of the case that his comment #4 is a response to.
We know that young children are not competent, and that the responsibilities implied in the right to vote would be absurdly burdensome on them (for example, the responsibility to weigh the moral reasons and empirical evidence for and against particular policy alternatives). Granting young children the vote (say 5 year olds, 7 year olds, 9 years olds) would either be meaningless (because we don’t put any pressure on them to exercise it non-trivially) or burdensome because exercising the relevant responsibilities would require them to forgo numerous goods that they are entitled to as children (leisure time, some degree of carefree-ness, some level of ignorance about the bad things in the world etc).
Of course, we know that many older children do have the relevant competences, and some of those would gain from exercising them and the responsibilities associated with them, but we do not have a fine-grained way of distinguishing between the competent and the incompetent. So we set an age which we know will leave some competent children disenfranchised.
This is where the argument djw refers to in # 4 comes in. Having barred some competent people from the franchise for the sake of others we have to show that we are not expressing contempt for them; in other words that we are not treating them as Blacks and women have been treated when they have been disenfranchised. And, indeed, unlike disenfranchised women and blacks they have a relatively straightforward way of becoming enfranchised; growing up. Furthermore, like non-citizen immigrants, competent and interested children have the rights to participate in political decision-making in all the ways that do not involve voting (they can join political parties, participate in campaigns, write letters, support strikes, get beaten up by the police, etc) while they wait to be 18 or 21 or whatever the age is. So, no contempt is shown to the disenfranchised in this case.
The actual age of enfranchisement is left up for grabs by this argument; 11 is too young, but 25 is too old (though I realize that many people in their early 20’s think they should be free from burdensome responsibilities). 16 seems fine to me, as does 18. But there is a lower limit, and it is not far below 16 in my opinion.
Anyway, what I really wanted to do here was provide a lengthy quote from William – The Hero (it’s lifted from my paper, “How Should Children Be Heard?”). It was written toward the end of WWII, and the 10 year old William and his friends are discussing, and trying to formulate a child-oriented alternative to, the Beveridge Report:
“Well, first of all, they’re goin’ to have shorter hours” said William. So we’ll have ‘em too.”
“Longer holidays,” said Ginger.
“Much longer holidays,” said Henry.
“As much holidays as term,” said Douglas.
“More holidays than term,” said Ginger…..
“An’ no afternoon school,” suggested Ginger.
“Yes, no afternoon school, “ agreed William. “Afternoon school’s not nat’ral. Well, come to that, school’s not nat’ral at all…Axshally, I don’t see why schoolmasters shouldn’t teach each other. It’d give ‘em something to do an’ serve ‘em right. Still, we’ll be reasonable….”
The boys go on to interpret ‘Higher Wages’ as requiring ‘A shilling a week pocket money’, and ‘Better Conditions’ as requiring ‘No Latin or French or Arithmetic’. William points out that “They’re very partic’lar about Freedom from Want an’ Fear. We’ve gotter be partic’lar about that too.” They dissect the demand. The boys will be free from fear if they have ‘No punishments and stay up as late as we like’. And Douglas says:
“We need somethin’ more than a shilling a week to give us freedom from want. I bet I wouldn’t feel free from want – not really, not honestly free from want – without six ice creams a day”
“An’ bananas—when they can use the ships for bringin’ ’em again, ’stead of havin’ to carry guns an’ things all the time.”
“An’ cream buns.”
“Yes, an’ cream buns.”
“An’ bull’s eyes. Lots an’ lots of them. As many as we want.”
William books, by the way, are finally available mostly, but not always, in abridged form, the US.