Give the children the vote?
Here’s a novel way to address the problems caused by rising income inequality: give children the vote.
One virtue of this iconoclastic idea, recently advanced by the Canadian economist Miles Corak, is that it sidesteps the usual partisan debates. After all, the right and left have profound moral disagreements about economic inequality. But whatever your political stripe, you almost certainly believe in equality of opportunity.
Unfortunately, some of Corak’s most celebrated work has been to show that rising income inequality and declining social mobility go together. This relationship, which Alan B. Krueger, the head of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has dubbed the Great Gatsby Curve, is one of the most powerful reasons to care about rising income inequality.
That’s where the kids come in. In a policy paper published last month by Canada 2020, a Canadian progressive research group, Corak points out that the group that suffers most from declining social mobility is the young. As it happens, this is also one of the last human constituencies that doesn’t have the right to vote. That relationship may not be coincidental.
“Older individuals, and those with more education working in higher-skilled occupations, are more likely to vote,” Corak writes in the paper. “But, in addition, there is a broad bias by virtue of the simple fact that children are disenfranchised. Children’s rights are not adequately recognized and they have a reduced political voice in setting social priorities.”
Corak has a simple and radical solution to that bias: Give children the vote. “When you first hear about it, it sounds like a crazy idea, and that was my first reaction,” Corak told me, speaking by phone from Ottawa.
“But this is an aspect of the inequality discussion that I think we can all buy into,” he said. “Whether you come from the left or the right, I think most people subscribe to the idea that talent and hard work should be rewarded. And with inequality going up, there is a real risk that mobility will go down. If you are talking about opportunity, it is really a question of opportunity for young people.”
For the uninitiated, Corak’s suggestion is indeed startling. But, as he writes, it has been around since at least the 1980s, when it was formally broached by the Hungarian-born American scholar Paul Demeny.
When I reached him on the phone in Budapest, Demeny explained that he first came up with the idea – which social scientists today call “Demeny voting” in his honor – because he was worried about declining fertility rates in much of Europe.
“By the 1980s, the prospect of quite rapid population decline in some European countries was visible and one had to cast about for what public policy could do about this,” Demeny said. “I felt there should be a search for novel approaches.”
Part of the problem, Demeny realized, was that as democratic societies aged, so did their politics. After all, the elderly had a vote, while children did not. Gray voters used that power to shift public expenditures toward themselves, sometimes funding these programs by borrowing against the earning power of the rising generation of workers.
That tactic, Demeny worried, created a vicious spiral, by making the next generation concerned about whether it could afford both to have children and to fund its own retirement in a future when the state would surely have less money to spend. Enfranchising children, Demeny realized, would be a way to fix that political imbalance.
Both Corak and Demeny came to the idea of children’s suffrage for instrumental reasons – Corak’s main concern is income inequality; Demeny’s is falling birthrates. But as they thought about the idea, they came to support it for an altogether different rationale. Children, the two scholars believe, are one of the last categories of humans denied the most fundamental right of citizenship: the right to vote.
“Quite apart from the demographic argument, it is justified by logic and justice,” Demeny told me. “Children are people who are extremely interested in the future – they will live for another six or seven or eight decades. They should have a say in how public goods are spent.”
Both Corak and Demeny make quick work of the potentially daunting practicalities of the idea – how do you get a kindergartener to the polls? – by suggesting mothers vote for their children. That’s a data-backed view: Mothers are best at spending shared resources on their offspring, which is why state child support usually goes to them.
Part of the appeal of Demeny voting is that it could be bipartisan. It is hard to imagine an idea more likely to empower pro-family, socially conservative communities. And liberals, who often find mothers to be a softer sell, should like the notion, too.
Best of all, Demeny voting could be a way for the developed world to get beyond one of its deepest afflictions. Ours are aging, consumption-based societies, focused on today. We need to find a way to build for the future. Maybe enfranchising our children is the answer.