Give the children the vote?

March 8, 2013

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.


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Get serious.

I vote for the bedazzler and Justin Beiber.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Children in America already have the vote — they elected the current president.

What, you think just because they’re over 18 they’re not children? Just look at the way they view the government — there’s nothing grown-up about that.

Posted by ak4mc | Report as abusive

“Corack writes: “…children are disenfranchised…”. Wrong! So long as children if have never HAD the “right” to vote, it is incorrect to suggest that they are or can be “disenfranchised”.

Giving children the “vote” is either putting the monkeys in charge of the circus, or giving every welfare mom with six kids an easy way to raise the various government subsidies taken from productive Americans. What’s that economic system that eventually runs out of other people’s money?

And then there’s the now obviously outmoded idea that the success of a democracy depends on an informed electorate. So fundamentally this is a modern scheme to establish a “rule” of “know-nothings”.

But if we judge from the most recent election, that’s just more of what America already has.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Look no farther than Italy’s recent elections. The under 25 have 37,1 unemployment rate and 47% of this group voted for Grillo’s M5S.

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

This story(?) appears to be a little early, April 1 isn’t for weeks yet. I’m assuming no one is stupid enough to proffer this as a genuine solution to our political mess. Not to belabor an obvious objection to this suggestion, children aren’t allowed to vote because they aren’t experienced enough to know what is best even for themselves, much less an entire nation.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive

Chrystia has been smokin’ dope again. Geez – I know this is the opinion section, but can’t Rueters get somebody with some brains to express something worthwhile instead of this schlep. I can’t believe I’m wasting time reading this, much less making a comment, except to ask for a some better writers.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

It is an exciting idea — in a horrifying way. Just imagine the campaign ads aimed at the kiddie vote and the likelihood that moneyed interests would form a Children’s Party to concentrate and co-opt the vote of that sector.

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

Try it out – start by letting children vote on whether they want school attendance and homework to mandatory.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

I don’t care who does or doesn’t have the “right” to vote. I would just like to see my signature on the document that makes me a “voluntary citizen” of any state whatsoever and not a slave to them. A voting democracy is nothing more than mob rule in which whoever can muster the 51% gets to oppress the other 49% and call it legitimate. The younger generations will always vote themselves more supposed opportunity and the older generations will always vote themselves a better retirement, both seeking to better their circumstance at any given age throughout their lives. Humanity will always be at war with its self because its a falsehood. It doesn’t exist. Everyone is an individual. They think of, by and for themselves with regard only for their own personal interests.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

Great idea, but the U.S. is alone in the world (with Somalia) in failing to ratify the UN Convention on Children’s Rights. When the U.S. gives children rights, they might be able to vote, but as of now, they are treated legally as chattel.

Posted by Sarasota | Report as abusive

I think theoretically it’s an interesting, rhetorical proposition, but in reality it would only be inviting parents to use their kids to multiply their own votes. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to figure out whether the left or the right would most benefit from this new pool of voters, and the side that benefits most would support this idea for that reason alone, rather than on any principle. And, of course, the side that would be hurt would be opposed to it for the same reason. (The right seems to believe in general that the more people who vote, the worse their chances for success, which is also an interesting hypothesis. Seems they’d be in favor of doing away with elections all together.)

We already see this dynamic playing out with adults, except it’s not the parents doing the manipulating. It’s people of influence, namely, people in authority and in the media, from politicians to AM radio jabber jocks to tv info-journalists, and now apparently, even employers (as we saw in some instances during our last national election).

ak4mc and OneOfTheSheep misguidedly make the assumption that when elections don’t go their way, it can’t only be due to a majority’s ignorance, presumably a result of the kind of manipulation that I’m referring to. That’s clearly a head-in-the-sand conclusion, a denial that the party they support could possibly lose for legitimate reasons, determined by an adequately informed electorate. Unfortunately for them it’s that attitude that will keep their party’s election losses continuing. If someone’s looking for work and they keep getting turned down, and they convince themselves that it’s the fault of the potential employers, then that person will be lucky to ever find a job. I’ve heard several Republicans state that the problem isn’t in their policies, but in their message. That sounds to me like they are dependent on the kind of manipulation that I’m lamenting, as if all they have to do is put the right spin on the same old policies and they can turn the electorate momentum their way. Yes, voters on both the left and the right are susceptible to manipulation, but in this particular case, i.e., the current political climate, I think it’s more about the right overplaying their hand, that they’ve relied too heavily on rhetoric and spin.

For example, cutting taxes on the rich and cutting regulations will create a robust economy. Despite all the rightwing spin, a majority of Americans have recognized the reality that this rightwing tenet isn’t true. And all the prevaricating we got from the Bush Administration and the GOP about Iraq, Saddam, and the “need” to invade hasn’t helped the Republicans’ credibility with the public either (much less the rest of the world).

I think ak4mc, OneOfTheSheep, and other like-minded new conservatives are mistaken, but as long as they and their party continue to believe that way, they will continue to remain unemployed.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

ive long thought that the voting age should be lowered to 16 yo bc many of them work (i started working when i was 16) and we/they therefore should be allowed to vote. and before any of you say that well yes i worked, but i probably got all of my income taxes refunded bc i did make enough to pay tax-false, i did pay enough & was mad about it.

Posted by chrisaz314 | Report as abusive

This article misses one very important detail, namely: from what age children should be allowed to vote?..
I assume, as soon as they don’t need pampers anymore :)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

This writer is an obvious loon who consorts with loons.

Posted by Smythe-Norby | Report as abusive

The left is “running it up the flagpole to see who salutes” We will see more of this idiocy in the future.

Posted by Smythe-Norby | Report as abusive

as if the job the media and politicians have of manipulating the general public with propoganda wasn’t easy enough.. yea lets target children too.. like the cigarette companies did.

how about we have an education thresh hold (marked by a standardized test free for anybody to take). If you can pass the test you can vote.. let it be questions like what are the first ten amendments, what are the three branches of government. etc.. things that any informed voter should know.

Posted by Byron5 | Report as abusive

The obvious solution to the “aging” of politics is to disenfranchise the old. The day you “retire”, and begin collecting public benefits, your voting rights should end. Come to think of it, that shouldn’t just apply to the old.

Posted by mryan22 | Report as abusive

Is this one of those “just for the hell of it, let’s concoct the most baldly idiotic proposal we can possibly think of and test the waters to see how stupid this country has really become” experiment things? If so, well done.

Posted by philgrey9 | Report as abusive

Looks like Corak just watched “Wild in the Streets” from 1968 and quit watching about halfway through the movie, unless his idea of justice is to end up in an acid-induced haze after 30.
Fourteen or Fight! Fourteen or Fight!
Mostly crappy music except for “Shape of Things to Come” which was co-opted by Target for some ads a couple of years ago.

Posted by NedReid | Report as abusive

Having “mothers vote for their children” is a terrible idea. It’s not even enfranchising children, it’s giving mothers an extra vote for no reason. The point of the article is that many pre-18 adolescents are just as politically conscious as over-18s, and are frustrated by the fact that they don’t have a say in their own future. But giving them the vote, and having their parents vote for them is perhaps the worst way of solving this problem.

In terms of disenfranchisement, the ‘solution’ of having parents vote for their children is comparable to giving slaves the ‘right to vote’, but giving those votes to their master, or giving women the ‘right to vote’, but giving those votes to their husbands.

Posted by Alfredywong | Report as abusive

It’s time for the lawyers, sociologists and economists to get out of the way. You’ve had your turn at the wheel for too long. Clearly you’re lost and you’re taking us with you. Time for engineers, doctors, and scientists (you know REAL problem solvers) to run the country. We’ve had enough existential nonsense!

Posted by GLK | Report as abusive

Because our kids aren’t indoctrinated at all…

Posted by wolfpacksix | Report as abusive

Yeah, right…. Because everyone knows that we should leave all the important decisions to children….

Posted by ShovelyJoe | Report as abusive

I’d be willing to give it a try. They can’t possibly do any worse.

But then the old hate the young, so it will never happen.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive