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When I visited Rachel the last time, or maybe the time before, I followed her around her high school and we attended a class on American Politics and Government, where the group discussed a proposal to lower the Oregonian voting age to 16. I was rather fascinated by how dismissive the students were, even though they would many of them be among the so empowered! The general feeling was that high school students are not responsible enough to vote; they would squander it, they would misuse it, they would vote for jokes and vote while drunk and generally make a mockery of the nation.

The professor agreed that it's true that many people do seem to vote irresponsibly; he related an anecdote about how many housewives who were polled at the time remarked that they were voting for Kennedy because he was so charming and good-looking. The class seemed only to take this as reinforcement; did we really want to see this trend exacerbated? But it seems to me (although I didn't say so at the time, both because I was an outsider and because it took me a while to work it out) that they had spectacularly missed the lesson of the story. Nobody in the room, I suspect, would even have conceived of suggesting that the vote be taken away from women because some of them were foolish about it; why is the standard different for minors? The thing is, if you do believe in the traditional standard of democratic equality - that each person gets one vote - then you have to live by that; you can't go around saying that people you think are stupid can't have it. Part of what you get is the right to treat your vote in a way that appalls other people, if you choose. That 16-year-olds may be, by and large, a goofy bunch (which I think is a perception which is both exaggerated and self-fulfilling) is not a compelling argument here.

I'm thinking about this especially lately because Seth David Schoen wrote something typically fascinating about ideological differences within libertarianism, and he talks a bit about the rights of children:
... I have said for years (from since when I was a radical libertarian) that families and the status of children are one of the deepest sources of paradox and internal conflict in libertarianism, and in other kinds of political thought that aspire to radicalism.

Partly, I think this is because most people have experience being somebody's child and being in some kind of family, and they have ideas and attitudes about family that they learned from that experience, and sometimes in opposition to that experience, prior to and apart from any kind of political ideal. So you can see oddities like people who are otherwise radical advocates of free expression -- "for adults" -- simply assuming that children have no independent rights to free speech or access to information.

When we were talking about Kant, in Philosophy class, we spent a lot of time on his most troubling aspects (for example, the assertion that one should not lie even to save a life, which prompted Abby to deem him 'a nutball'), but I did find one of his basic arguments very attractive - that we ought to consider people as ends, rather than means, and to treat the goals of others, and the reasoning of others, with as much respect as our own. This is only considered to apply, though, to our dealings with what Kant calls rational moral agents; one can hardly respect the reason of someone who doesn't have the capacity for it. When we came to this in class, Dale (our professor) remarked briefly that Kant had not really addressed the case of children, who, arguably, begin without rationality, but later achieve it. My own feeling would be that childhood is a sort of a moral larval stage - it's true that there are some decisions and responsibilities for which one is not yet equipped, but on the other hand, this is the time of learning to make those judgements, and so one should hardly be shielded from them entire. A certain degree of preliminary rational respect is warranted; a certain degree of freedom and autonomy, to teach you the moves. (cf. My ideological fondness for systems of education which emphasize self-determination.)

It is so difficult to try to quantify when a person is mature enough to make informed and autonomous decisions, and especially to try to do so universally. On the theory that it ought to be a conscious personal choice, Rachel's church won't baptise anyone under eight; I wonder how many Mormons would support giving eight-year-olds the right to vote?
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Andy H.

February 2013

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