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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Free skateboards for all!

As Brian Micklethwait recently observed:

When a government starts to slide seriously into the dustbin of history, the very things which it tries to do to halt the slide become part of the slide.

He was referring to Her Majesty’s Government’s rather comical attempt to shore up its plummeting popularity by launching a ‘Big Conversation’ and, for it is worth, I think he is right.

But does this formula have wider applications? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then perhaps it can be applied to the democratic process itself:

A public debate on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16 has been called for by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer.

A lower voting age would encourage more young people to become involved in politics, he told the Observer paper.

The Electoral Commission, which advises ministers on how elections can be modernised, began consulting on the voting age in the summer following concern over falling turnouts among young voters.

I can entirely understand why the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 (at present it is 18) should have a certain appeal among the political classes. By every standard that can actually be measured, democratic politics is in steady decline. The membership roles of all main political parties are now so low that corporate donations are the only thing saving them from bankruptcy and voter turnout in elections is dropping year on year.

It is probably to early to pronounce that democracy is in crisis. It is not. Well, not yet. But there is now a sufficiently large block of public indifference to send a shudder down the spines of not just politicians but also the professional classes whose wealth and status is entirely dependent on state activism.

The threat of a creeping but inexorable loss of legitimacy has prompted calls for ‘something to be done’. In the past few years there has been much chundering about making voting complusory. But the trouble with that is that it may, overnight, turn a large block of public indifference into a large block of civil disobedience and that will only make things worse. So, extending the franchise is probably their safest bet.

I am against it, of course. People of all ages tend to vote for three things: more government, more entitlements and more laws. There is no reason to suppose that younger voters will somehow buck this trend. Nor is this merely my customarily gloomy nature at work, it is an analysis borne out by history. From the 19th Century onwards the growth of the welfare/regulatory state has steadily tacked upwards on the same line that marks the growth of enfranchisement. Since governments must respond to the wishes and aspirations of those that elect them, the former will tend to follow the latter.

But if the voting age is going to be lowered then it will be lowered regardless of whether I approve or not. The real question is whether is will achieve its stated aims. Supporters of the lower voting age are hoping that giving 16 year-olds ther right to vote will enable them to express themselves, ignite their imaginations and re-quicken the democratic process.

Well, who knows? Maybe that will be the case. But it seems to me that the opposite effect is just as likely. Namely, that the steps taken to reverse the slide of democratic legitimacy just become a part of that slide as the teenyvoters stay away in droves, thus converting a nagging concern into a slough of despond.

And where do we go from there? Good question.

20 comments to Free skateboards for all!

  • I too don’t wish to see the voting age lowered – I can’t see any good coming out of it. However, until HMG stops taxing people aged 16 and 17, I don’t see why they should not have the right to vote… as long as they are taxed, they should be able to vote and express how they want that money to be spent. Otherwise, the tax boundary should just be raised.

  • Guy Herbert

    Surely the real question is whether it will achieve its unstated aims. Politicians seeking to change the electoral rules (or other constitutional arrangements) are not generally seeking some disinterested good. They are trying to make it easier for their side to win.

    If the small fraction of 16-18 year-olds likely to cast a vote could be reckoned as overwhelmingly Tories, then do you think Charlie Falconer would be so keen to increase their political participation? In fact he’s counting on getting a slim tranche of first-time voters for 2010 who are native New Britons and cannot remember a time before New Labour. Harold Wilson pulled the same trick. It worked to some degree for him, and he didn’t control the schools.

  • Slowjoe

    This is a bad idea, for more practical reasons.

    1. People in the 16-18 age group pay little or no tax.
    As such, they will generally be in favour of more spending.

    Already, there is a large “grey vote” which puts huge pressure on the government to increase pensions year on year.

    2. They will also not be familiar with the impact of red tape, and be in favour of “big government” initiatives.

    Regarding the “they pay tax” argument. Surely that suggests that the unemployed should lose the vote?

  • Bernie Greene

    It would be most interesting to see what would happen if voting was made compulsory and along with that a vote could be cast for “none of the above”. If that would result in empty seats in the Commons I’m all for it 🙂

  • Guy,

    As I recall I was three months short of my 19th birthday when I voted Labour in 1970. My support didn’t do Wilson much good, though.

    It seems perfectly obvious that participation in our democracy is waning because the old, conflicting class interests have been resolved. Voter participation is a function of division in the country. A new division, if sufficiently deep, would certainly send voters scurrying back to the polling stations. Without that, reducing voting age will have no lasting effect.

  • Bill

    It should improve Brittany Spears’ chances of becoming PM.


  • Average Joe

    How about lowering the voting age to 14? How about 10? Politicians could compete for the Sponge Bob vote.

    Also, I’ve never understood why some people consider not voting so terrible. Voting bodies commonly give members the option to abstain. To abstain is sometimes responsible, not derelict. When I was in college I was strung out with papers and mid-terms; the last thing on my mind was politics. I had no business casting an ill-informed vote, so I didn’t. Would flipping a coin have been better?

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    I think the only requirement for voting should be payment of taxes. And I think you should get as many votes as you pay Pounds/Dollars/etc. in tax.

  • zack mollusc

    I think the plan is to try and get people to vote for your party before they learn any better. A bit like the advertising industry targetting younger audiences ‘Buy our crap quick before you realise we are lying to you’.

  • CS

    What a ghastly proposal! Surely the indoctrinated New Labour youth can hold off voting for a year or two more; after all, in no nation that I know of is the voting age below eighteen. Furthermore, given that 60% voted in the American Presidential race of 1968, and 55% in the race four years later, after the franchise had been extended, it is little likely that these children will in fact be voting.

    Alas, it is sad to think that this ‘Lord’ Falconer, Blair’s former flatmate, is likely the very last of the Lord Chancellors, a position that has flourished since 605 AD. The abolition of Britain proceeds apace, but even so, let us retain an admiration for his office, for as the verse of Wordsworth reminds us,

    Men are we, and must grieve when even the shade

    Of that which once was great is passed away.

  • Pedro

    They’re not adults! Seriously, where do you draw the line? I’ll bet the real goal is to create more left wing voers. An old saying in Oz is that if you don’t vote labor before you are 25, you don’t have a heart, and if you don’t vote [conservative] after then, you don’t have a brain.

  • ed

    An interesting idea is to include voting as a part of the duties of all citizens. The technique is to implement a flat $500 per year tax. If you don’t vote you don’t get it back. If you do vote then you end up getting a rebate check. If you don’t pay any taxes then you don’t get taxed and you don’t get a rebate.

    If nothing else it’ll annoy people.

  • Verity

    The next time we have a discussion on lowering the voting age – or indeed, anything to do with compulsory voting, reducing the number of MPs and ideas of that ilk, could the kind Samizdata who writes the introductory article please include a warning that trotting out “Anyone under 25 who doesn’t vote Labour doesn’t have a heart ….” in the belief that he is making an original point, causes massive brain hemorrhage in regular readers and makes them scream.

  • Julian Morrison

    If there has to be a democracy I think the age thing is a red herring. A better criterion would be: “persons owning their own home, free and clear of debt”. Doesn’t rule out enterprising 12-year-olds, does rule out most everyone whose interests would be served by bread-and-circuses.

  • You mean dogs still can’t vote in the UK? That is so backward. Over here, in the more progressive jurisdictions, everyone gets to vote: dogs, infants, dead people. . .

  • Richard Thomas

    Julian, you mean give the vote mostly to those who face increasing medical costs in their later years? Now, *That* is a recipe for low taxation I am sure.

    Excuse me while I wipe up the puddles of sarcasm.


  • David Gillies

    I’d raise the voting age to 30 and reinstate the property ownership qualification.

  • Ownerhsip of property is good (unrealistic), but should include a gov’t Tax Loan — where the gov’t loans the money, and the parisite, er, recipient agrees to pay the money back. With his taxes; plus a 5-10% surtax, until the loan is repaid.
    (see my Tax Loans) Tax Loans

    Voting should also occur in the week after tax returns must be filed; and there should be a vote:
    Favor much more taxes (10%) more taxes (5%) same taxes (0% change) less taxes (-5%) much less taxes (-10%). Add up the votes, the following year’s budget has to be adjusted according to this, democratically voted for budget.

    Taxes are the dirty, detailed work of government.

  • rogelio

    i think the voting age should chang as the ppl want it to chang ask the ppl they know what they want out of the goverment hey should decide not us

  • Dawg

    the last three comments are by three of the stupidest jackasses to ever use a computer. i guess they just read the title and not the article itself. jesus, what brainless loosers!