I have a piece on CNN today about whether we should follow Scotland and let 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds vote. It’s a subversive piece. It’s easy to read it as advocating that we expand the franchise, but I’m underhandedly getting people to see that their arguments against letting high schoolers vote apply just as well to against letting many other people vote.

The key argument against letting high school juniors vote is simple: Their choice would affect all of us. After all, a voter chooses for everyone, not just him or herself. Many worry that most 16-year-olds lack the wisdom or knowledge to cast smart votes, so we don’t let them vote because we want to protect ourselves from their decisions.

And this concern is often grounded in reality — young adults are indeed in many cases profoundly ignorant about politics…

So far, so good. But:

As political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter noted in their 1996 book, “What Americans Don’t Know About Politics and Why It Matters,” political knowledge is not evenly spread among all groups. Membership in some demographic groups correlates with high levels of political knowledge, depending on region, income and education, while other groups tend to correlate with political ignorance.

So, this is the catch: If you wanted to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds on the grounds that they are more likely to be ignorant or misinformed, you would also in effect be arguing against other demographics having a say.

They edited out specific information about which groups. Care to guess which demographic groups (based on age, race, sex, income, location, etc.) tend to have low information?

What about letting all the kids who can pass the civics exam vote?

And what should we do if we still can’t get over our fear that 16-year-olds are too dumb to vote? Well, we needn’t exclude all of them. Instead, we could allow any child who can pass the U.S. citizenship exam to acquire the right to vote.

Of course, if you think that’s a reasonable standard for a 16-year-old to have to meet, it’s worth remembering that most voting-age adults cannot meet it either. So why should we demand more from our teenagers than we expect from ourselves?

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The right of self-determination, despite the stirring rhetoric of its advocates, is profoundly illiberal. It is not a right against a state but a right to a state. It is unconcerned with the legal and moral rights of individuals but with asserting a new sphere of political power –often more oppressive than the one left behind. It masks the ambitions of political entrepreneurs who claim to represent the “people” regardless of whether or not they have been properly elected, and regardless of the views of minorities and individuals who do not want to secede or be autonomous.

But the tension between self-determination and liberal principles runs deeper. The idea that collective entities have the right to determine themselves is so rooted in the political imagination and in international law that it may sound farfetched to deny it. Yet, if the right of self-determination means the right of some to forcibly enroll others in their projects, then I want to deny it.

Many people think that just as individual autonomy is a value, so group autonomy is a value; just as persons pursue individual projects, so groups pursue collective projects; just as persons seek the private good, so groups seek the collective good. But this analogy does not hold in a straightforward way. Surely groups can have great value for their members. Groups can facilitate the achievement of goals that cannot be achieved individually. But this moral value of groups holds as long as they are voluntary. Groups are importantly disanalogous to individuals. An individual has a mind that makes plans and weighs options, alternatives, values, and goals. She may err, of course, but her error will be the result of her considered judgment about how she desires to pursue her personal project, how to lead her life in her own terms. Groups, on the contrary, do not have minds. They are collections of individuals where some cooperate but others dominate, exploit, and prey on others. When an individual forms a life plan she acts freely (with the usual caveats and exceptions.). When a ruler devises a plan for society he coercively enrolls others in his projects, whether his projects are shared by many or few.

I do not dispute the claim that it is possible to say that groups have ends, interests, or projects that are not conceptually reducible to individual ends, interests, or projects. But it does not follow that the group leaders can coercively impose those ends on the dissenters within the group. This is quite obvious in the cases of non-democratic governance, but is also often true where majority rules. Most of the time an individual is the best judge of her interest and welfare; conversely, most of the time group rulers are not the best judges of the interests of its members.  This means that non-voluntary collective self-determination, that is, a collectively coerced decision about the political status, or the cultural identity, or the economic system of a group, is morally suspect.  The realization of human ends, including those that can be realized collectively, should in the last analysis be the result of voluntary interaction among free individuals. There are no non-consensual goods for collectives, nations, or tribes (over and above the goods of persons who comprise the collectivity) that group leaders can permissibly enforce. My claim is normative, not conceptual: the only morally valuable projects are (1) individual projects; and (2) voluntary group projects.

 

 

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Yeah, not so much.

The majority of Scots voted against secession. Was that good or bad? I dunno. But I want to discuss, briefly, whether we should see this as a gain or loss of freedom in any meaningful sense.

Some libertarians–by which I mean a bunch of Facebook friends, at least–seem reflexively to view secession movements in terms of freedom. The Scots seceding from the UK would mean they are in charge of their own destiny, rather than being outvoted by the damn English.

But let’s not anthropomorphize Scotland. The Scots are not one person, nor are they a big family. They are a bunch of strangers who don’t much care about each other, and who have different ends, ideas, and goals. They are not a tribe with real solidarity and real common bonds.

In the abstract, secession just means replacing one democratic body with a different one. It’s switching one government for a different one. Individuals within those bodies remain basically powerless regardless. Their lives might become better or worse. They might end up having more freedom or less. But whether they gain greater freedom isn’t an automatic result of their seceding, but rather just a question of what the new government chooses to do (or not do).

Suppose there were a big secessionist movement in the American South. Suppose a majority of Southerners wanted to leave the Union and establish a new, mild theocracy, Jesusland. Suppose they held a referendum, and the Jesusland initiative won. Suppose that, as a result, Northern Virginia (which is not the South, by the way–the South doesn’t begin until you get past Fredericksburg) is made to leave the union. What would this mean for me (or Chris, or Mike)? Would we be any freer? For me, all it means that the majority of the eligible voters who live South of me scratched some boxes on some paper, and as a result, rather than being ruled by the American electorate and its leaders, I am ruled by Jesusland’s electorate and their leaders. It means I’d have to stand in longer lines and deal with more tax forms when I give guest lectures at other universities.

I think the question of secession thus is rarely about the “freedom of peoples to have self-rule” or anything like that, because the idea that you form a coherent “people” with 4.5 million strangers is almost always a silly, bullshit, childish idea. Nations are a mythology, and a crappy, dangerous one at that, unlike the mythology of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

The main question for secession is just: is this likely to result in better quality government, government that more closely tracks the objective truth about justice and the right ends of government?

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