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Why (Most) Children Shouldn't Vote

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Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory


Media outlets from The Washington Post to CNN are now calling for changes in law that will allow children to vote. 

The motivation appears to be the perception that teenagers are more in favor of gun control than older people. Thus, gun control advocates right now are seeing young people are more reasonable, and humane than their elders. So why not give them the vote? At least then, we would have young people to balance out those awful old people who refuse to defer to the sensible position that cops and soldiers — undoubtedly the most enlightened people among us — should be the only people with guns. 

Of course, whether or not most children actually agree with gun control advocates is an empirical question and may or may not be true. After all, in the past, polling suggests that young people are not especially pacifist in their views. As Pew has noted, the youngest age group (i.e., 18-26) was the most pro-war group in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was also true in the days before the Gulf War of 1991, when "on the eve of war in January 1991, young people favored military action over giving sanctions more time by a 54% to 40% margin." Older people were evenly divided on the matter. 

Even during the Vietnam War, younger people were more likely to reply "no" to the proposition that the invasion of Vietnam had been a mistake. By 1973, 69 percent of the over-fifty crowd thought that the Vietnam War had been a mistake. Only 53 percent of the under-thirty respondents agreed. 

Apparently, as recently as 2006, a great many young people have had no problem with shooting — or dropping bombs on — innocent people.

So, if some activists believe that youth voting is the key to ushering in a utopia of kindler, gentler, more peaceful public policy, they may be very wrong. 

After all, objectionable views held by young people aren't exactly a new thing. As one young young female abolitionist explained in nineteenth century America, there were no eligible bachelors in her community because "there is [sic] no young men here except Copperheads, and they are beneath our notice." 

But, whether or not young people right now happen to agree with one's opinions is not a terribly good reason to either limit or extend the franchise for younger voters. 

While it might be tempting to simply deny the vote to anyone we find annoying or beholden to objectionable politics, a more reasonable approach is to establish an objective measure by which people can be found qualified to participate in elections. 

Historically, the franchise has been limited for any number of reasons. The vote has been denied to women, to people under 21, to non-whites, and to paupers. 

Sometimes, this was done cynically to simply deny votes to people who, it was feared, would vote "incorrectly." But there were non-cynical rationales as well. 

One rationale has been that the members of the excluded group were simply incapable of understanding the public policy issues, or perhaps lacked the analytical abilities necessary to make reasonable decisions. This rationale was usually applied to women and children, and sometimes to "inferior" ethnic and racial groups. 

Another common rationale was that the members of the excluded group did not have "skin in the game" and thus were not to enjoy the privilege of voting on what to do with public resources to which the excluded person had not contributed. 

This second rationale was more commonly applied to paupers who did not own property and often paid very little in taxes. The idea at work here is that taxpayers must be "net contributors" to society before they can be trusted with the vote. 

When it comes to children, of course, we could see how both of these rationales might apply. After all, current law is clear that minors cannot enter in contracts, thus implying that they are not capable of making good decisions in relation to matters of law and finance. 

In this article, however, I would like to focus on the second rationale: that of whether or not children are "net contributors" to the public sphere. 

The Net Taxpayers vs. the Net Tax Receivers

If we use the standard of the "net taxpayer" to determine voting eligibility, the first things we notice is that it is not necessarily so that all children — and by "children" I mean people under 18 — would be excluded from voting.  For example, a 17 year old who attends private school, works at a private sector job and pays payroll taxes may very well be a net taxpayer. That is, he or she may be paying more in taxes that he or she is taking out of public coffers.  Thus, we would not be justified in denying the vote to this person, regardless of age. Indeed, by this standard, this 17-year old is more qualified to vote than a 40-year-old native-born American who works a government job.  This difference between those who are net contributors to the public purse — and those who are net receivers — has long been a fundamental challenge for democratic states.  

In his short book Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises examined this problem in the context of government employees. In a section titled “The Bureaucrat as a Voter” Mises explains:

The bureaucrat is not only a government employee. He is, under a democratic constitution, at the same time a voter and as such a part of the sovereign, his employer. He is in a peculiar position: he is both employer and employee. And his pecuniary interest as employee towers above his interest as employer, as he gets much more from the public funds than he contributes to them.

This double relationship becomes more important as the people on the government's pay roll increase. The bureaucrat as voter is more eager to get a raise than to keep the budget balanced. His main concern is to swell the pay roll.

Mises went on to examine the rise of powerful interest groups in France and Germany in the years before “the fall of their democratic constitutions.” He explained:

There were not only the hosts of public employees, and those employed in the nationalized branches of business (e.g., railroad, post, telegraph, and telephone), there were the receivers of the unemployment dole and of social security benefits, as well as the farmers and some other groups which the government directly or indirectly subsidized. Their main concern was to get more out of the public funds. They did not care for “ideal” issues like liberty, justice, the supremacy of the law, and good government. They asked for more money, that was all. No candidate for parliament, provincial diets, or town councils could risk opposing the appetite of the public employees for a raise. The various political parties were eager to outdo one another in munificence.

Mises concluded:

Representative democracy cannot subsist if a great part of the voters are on the government pay roll. If the members of parliament no longer consider themselves mandatories of the taxpayers but deputies of those receiving salaries, wages, subsidies, doles, and other benefits from the treasury, democracy is done for.

The logic of this position is simple. If the voting taxpayers (specifically, the net tax contributors) are outnumbered or outcompeted by the net tax receivers, then, inevitably, the economic system will tend more and more toward economic profligacy, leading eventually to bankruptcy.

Naturally, this issue extends well beyond the issue of whether or not children should vote, and it extends well beyond the issue of gun control. This is fortunate since there are important issues out there other than gun control. Moreover, the same rationale about voting qualifications applies to pensioners, immigrants, government employees, and military contractors. This isn't just a conversation about children. 

At the heart of the issue, as Mises notes, is whether or not voters see the state as their meal ticket and means to economic security. Once a majority comes to that conclusion, the democratic system is doomed. 

So, if we're going to say that children ought not vote, it is best to come up with some objective standard on which to base our conclusion. But if teenagers want the state to confiscate the weapons of everyone but the police, they can start by paying for the state they want to come to their "rescue."  


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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