Thursday, December 15, 2005

How many roads must a youth walk down...?

I recently posted this over at my own blog. Given the disparity between the ages of responsibility to drink and drive (independently! Not at the same tiem!) in the US and UK, I thought it would be interested to see what folks here thought.

One of the favourite topics of discussion by my party, and particularly its youth wing, is reducing the legal age for various activities. Most prominently, there has been a campaign to lower the voting age to 16, about which one of my favourite blogs has recently written.

I think voting at 16 is an excellent idea.I certainly think my own political opinions have changed since I was 16, but I don't see that as any real reason to prohibit voting. Many people change their views at other points in life, or never do, and I don't think there's much credibility in arguing that simply because you're inexperienced means you shouldn't be able to vote. This isn't a question of experience, but competence. If we ask ourselves who deserves a stake in deciding the future of our society, then it seems difficult to reject the case for enfranchising 16-year-olds on the grounds of inexperience. Any argument based on the wisdom of the electorate must surely take us towards a view that many mature electors are unwise and undeserving of the vote.

No, if we concede that anyone with a responsible stake in society is entitled to the franchise, then sixteen year olds must surely be brought within the pale of the constitution. Crucially, they are released at 16 from full-time education, and hence become potential taxpayers. The liberal shibboleth about no taxation without representation must hold true.

And yet, I find myself very much at odds with the philosophical underpinning through which many other Liberal Democrats champion the lowering of the voting age. Many seem to justify it as part of an imagined 'universal age of adulthood'. The view is expressed by Lembit Opik:

He added: 'I actually think the age of 'adulthood' should be 16.'

While I am sold on the idea of votes at 16, I don't see the logic or liberality of supporting a universal age of adulthood for the sake of it. Distinct rights and responsibilities will always interact. Just as I felt that taxation without representation was wrong, so it is a long-running complaint that 17-year-olds were old enough to join the army but not watch sex scenes in movies. However, there are distinctions between different activities, and I see no real reason why there must be a common age for all of them. The current law on drinking, with a limit at 18, but provision for under-age drinking under responsible supervision, seems perfectly sensible. Doubtless, I would be told that I should not enfranchise people who can vote based on issues such as licensing laws, but I think there is sufficient difference between the two acts that one would over-simplify the problem to claim a single age.

Like many things in life, a single age of adulthood is a neat and attractive idea, but like many such ideas, things are actually far more complicated than that. While we should do everything we can to protect the rights of young people, and to extend them, we must also guard against a worrying erosion of a concept of childhood. While some aspects of traditional attitudes to childhood could leave children dis-empowered and helpess to the arbitrary authority of the adult, the suspension of rights was based on a suspension of responsibilities. While we must ensure that young people are taken serious, respected and protected by the law, a growing trend in society to erode the basic permissiveness of childhood as a time of exploration and education is being lost.

Young people are necessarily in a strange state of transition between that age of childhood when- I think we would all accept -there is some permitted level of arbitrary authority, from parents, over human agents without the competence to take full responsibility for their actions. Deciding on ages of adulthood is, of course, a slightly bizarre concept, when young people mature physically, emotionally and mentally at very different ages. Ages of responsibility can only ever be broad and unsatisfyingly generalised. But they are necessarily within a society operating the rules of law, so we may as well have a reasonable consideration of when we think someone is typically capable of assuming particular rights and responsibilities, and in what order those rights and responsibilities should be bestowed, by society, on an individual.

Sixteen-year-olds are not children, and they should be allowed to vote, as they should be permitted to slowly commit suicide with nicotine. It is not inconsistent, however, to wait until 17 for them to take up the responsibility of driving, or 18 to deal with a mind-altering drug (i.e. alcohol). Just as tobacco and alcohol are very different drugs, deserving of different ages of responsibility, so are other ages of adulthood different, depending on their own merits and their inter-relationship with other rights.

A universal age of adulthood is an essentially illiberal concept, even if its assumed langauge of rights, responsibilities and individualism is. Just as small is beautiful in government, so small is beautiful on ages of adulthood. There is no need to stamp a one-size-fits-all age on different behaviours, even if the very nature of a legal age limit must stamp a one-size-fits-all age on an individual activity. Votes at 16 make sense on their own terms, and I'll continue to campaign for them, while preserving some responsibilities for those who are 18+.


dcat said...

Richard --
Just a couple of things -- in the US, since receiving the right to vote, 18-21 year olds have consistently turned out in smaller percentages than any other age group. It is hard to believe that lowering the age would be of use -- and 16 year olds are not in any way legally independent, which strikes me as significant in that their vote could be easily coerced. I've no interest in seeing which party's parents (or teachers) are bigger jerks.
As for the drinking age, don't even get me started - in the US it is an absurd 21, which strikes me as problematic for a host of reasons. Or I should say, it strikes me as dumb.


Peter Pigeon said...

Good blog, good post and good comment. I have said something similar on the Apollo Project a couple of times.