Should people who comment under YouTube videos be deciding the fate of our country? That’s the frightening scenario proposed by Ed Miliband, who wants to give 16-year-olds the vote because, as he put it, it will make them ‘part of our democracy’.
Or, in other words, the electorate’s opinion is no more important than a child’s. There is nothing progressive about allowing children to vote, any more than it is progressive to allow kids to sit on juries or take out mortgages. These things all involve the ability to make judgments, which is not sufficiently developed in adolescence.
Voting isn’t just a right that makes you feel ‘part of democracy’; it’s a responsibility and decision-making process. Because voters aren’t just numbers on a register, but judges, and certain things make them better at it. One is age, which confers wisdom (usually). Entering the workforce, owning property, marriage and children also help, giving people a stake in the country’s future stability.
Some voters are better qualified than others, although it’s a subjective measure and so simply easier if every adult has one vote; but expanding the franchise below the legal age of adulthood will reduce its value and, although child-enfranchisement may not decide elections — few teens will bother, anyway — it will not increase the quality of debate.
It’s also undemocratic because children, lacking the independence of mind to make decisions for themselves, are easily manipulated. All the worst political movements in history, from the Nazis to the Taliban, have been youth-heavy; which is no surprise, since teenagers are on average the least well-informed section of society and the most prey to simplistic interpretations, rather than understanding life as a trade-off between imperfect outcomes in which government cannot provide magic solutions.
A cynic might say that this is Labour’s motivation, although it’s also part of a wider trend of pandering to the young, of politicians pretending to believe anything they think is important or interesting, when it isn’t.
But worst of all Labour’s stance is unscientific, because most of the research suggests that humans do not reach mental maturity until their mid-20s, and new guidance for psychologists states that adolescence ‘now effectively runs up until the age of 25’. Until then our frontal cortex has not developed sufficiently.
And the age at which we allow people to make judgments — such as whether to buy cigarettes or knives, or fight in wars — is going up, while the average age at which people acquire property or get married continues to rise. There are those who bemoan the infantilisation of men, but in the past many young people were forced into maturity; one thinks of Victorian orphans who raised younger siblings, or the subalterns just out of public school in 1914, wise before their years. It’s no bad thing that young people are not forced into those situations today. Let children enjoy their teens — but don’t pander to them by treating them like grown-ups.