Democracy is Disruptive

Oct 13, 2012

Looking back on my child voting notes I remembered an argument that I didn't touch on last time I wrote about votes for children:  that children's different experiences alone, regardless of any question of competence is sufficient to justify representation.

What often annoys me about Votes at 16 arguments is that so many of the arguments deployed are incredibly regressive. Children can pay tax, they should vote! And we'll take away the vote from adults who don't?  If we lived in democracies with property requirements child voting advocates would be arguing that 16-year-olds can own property and should vote, not that there's something wrong with the basic idea. Fundamentally there's no difference between this tax position andIan Cowie's idea that only those who paid more than £100 income tax should be allowed to vote, which itself isn't a long way removed from an argument that the rich pay for more more of the state, why shouldn't they have more of a say?

British democracy has its origins in exactly this idea of a stakeholder democracy, expanding to include any group that might threaten it from the outside. But the real merit of democracy is that it is so disruptive of existing norms - democracy shouldn't simply reflect other power structures (the rich having more of a say than others, men wielding more decision making power than women) but should work to undermine those structures by expressing the always radical notion that everyone deserves an equal say.

Children represent a distinct interest, a massive consumer of state services (which occupy and direct a large amount of their time) and yet the argument often deployed is that they are so like us that it would unfair not to include them, not that they are so different we are missing a vital voice. As Wall put it:

[C]hildren may not always have as much autonomy or power as adults, but they are every bit as different. If the purpose of democratic representation is to respond to the fullest possible diversity of social experiences, then it includes responding to children – and to children’s endless diversity – just as much as it does to adults. Indeed, children would take on a heightened status as the most important test of being democratic, since they are more likely than most to call for political responsiveness from the whole. Being represented in the political sphere should not depend entirely on how competently one can argue for one’s interests or how effectively one can struggle against others for power. It should depend finally on how different one’s experiences are from those of others. (p. 10)

The right to vote should be as expansive as possible because those voted into office are given power over the lives of all. It should be presumed that everyone can vote unless a compelling argument can be provided for exclusion. Children’s right to vote is important if elected representatives are to perform their democratic duties of challenging historical marginalization and responding to constituents’ fullest differences. (p. 12)

From this perspective because the notion of letting children vote is unsettling is an excellent reason to do it - it will disrupt current power relations in a way that improve society.  There's a fine argument that actually, children are a different class of excluded person than all previous examples because their immaturity is transitional - one day they will grow up, no one is permanently excluded - but for the 'democracy as difference' argument this is hollow comfort because their 'difference' representing the child's interests is lost. If the blanket inclusion this implies is too radical, there are schemes that represent children on a fractional basis  (which are at least no worse than complete exclusion).

My personal opinion on votes at 16 has always tended towards supportive indifference, however currently I'm trying to write something long on political equality and democracy and it's been eye opening to see how many democratic theorists are just as willing to ignore the issue ('assume a population of adults' is the spherical cow of democratic theory). It's becoming increasingly hard to hold to the stance that this is an unimportant issue, in the UK the proportion of the population under fifteen is 18% - in Iraq and Libya it's 43%, Tanzania 45%, Uganda 48%. In places where the proportion of children to adults almost approaches parity, how can any account of democracy that excludes children not be severely flawed?

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