Since youth are denied the right to vote, should they have the same obligations as adults?
Hobbes, Locke, and other great political philosophers agreed that when human beings first left the state of nature to create civilization, they were entering into a "social contract." In any contract, each party agrees to give up certain things in return for certain benefits. When humans first entered into a social contract, they gained, for example, protection of their property against thieves, in return for which they gave up the freedom to take whatever they pleased.
With every right people gain through the social contract, people also take on certain obligations. When a group of people are singled out to be denied a right, however, it would seem only fair that group remain free of the obligations tied to the right they've been denied. Yet in America today, youth are denied many rights and are still expected to shoulder the responsibilities associated with those rights.
Youth, for example, are denied the right to file law-suits. In some states, a youth who has the energy and know-how can jump through legal hoops and get a lawyer to file on his behalf, but youths do not enjoy the same free access to the courts enjoyed by their elders. Adults, however, can still sue children and teenagers as easily as they can sue other adults. Is this fair? Should someone with no right to file his own lawsuits be saddled with the obligation to answer lawsuits?
This essay, however, will focus on the right to vote and the obligations tied to that right. I offer these comments as food for thought as we search for a fairer way to treat youth.
In the United States, there is no age-limit on the obligation to pay taxes. Anyone with a job sees tax money deducted from his paycheck: for federal income taxes, for social security taxes, and for other taxes. Even the child with no job is required to pay sales taxes, road tolls, and other payments to the government. Yet, while no state has an age-limit on being taxed, every state has an age-limit on voting.
Are voting and taxes tied together? Absolutely. When someone buys stock in a corporation, he is entitled to a vote in how that corporation is run. Likewise, when someone pays money into his government, he is entitled to a voice in how that money is spent. This connection should be clear to every American. Our nation was founded on the motto "No taxation without representation." By "representation," our founders meant election of law-makers who represent our views.
For 200 years before the Revolution, Americans lived as colonists under British rule. Unlike citizens of Britain, these colonists had no vote in deciding who could sit in Parliament. The colonists accepted this, however, because they also had no obligation to pay taxes to Britain. The French and Indian War changed that.
When Native Americans, backed by the powerful French army, challenged colonists for the land, the colonists urged Britain's King George III to send his mighty army to fight for the colonies. King George III did so, and the British army triumphed.
The King found waging war expensive. Hoping to recoup his loses, the King taxed those people he believed had benefited the most from this military expenditure: the colonists. This caused outrage. Yes, the colonists had benefited from the King's expenditure, but they had no say in how that money was spent and therefore, they reasoned, the money should not be taken from their pockets. For this, they went to war, demanding independence.
In the same year that Thomas Jefferson wrote our Declaration of Independence, he also drafted a constitution for the state of Virginia. In his draft, any Virginia-resident who had paid taxes to the state for at least two years would be guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of race, gender, or age (1). Jefferson was no egalitarian; his draft also guaranteed voting rights to "male persons of full age" regardless of whether they had paid taxes (2). But while Jefferson did not believe in full equality, he understood it was wrong to demand taxes from people who had no vote in how that money would be used. Likewise today it would seem only fair that those who are locked out of the voting booth should also be free of the obligation to pay taxes.
As John Adams prepared his contributions to the American Revolution, he received a letter from his wife, the intellectual Abigail Adams. She urged him that, in shaping this new nation, he should give voting rights to women because women "will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation" (3).
There has never been a time when Americans did not acknowledge this basic truth, that a law can only be imposed fairly on those who had some say in shaping that law. In the Declaration of Independence, our founders declared that governments derive their just power from the "consent of the governed." Even earlier, Puritan leader John Winthrop, speaking in 1639 as the deputy governor of the Massachusetts colony, described the relationship between government and the governed by comparing it to the relationship between a husband and wife: "The woman's own choice makes such a man her husband; yet being so chosen, he is her lord, and she is subject to him" (4). While Winthrop was revealing a horribly patriarchal view of the family, he was acknowledging that only those who have chosen an authority have any obligation to obey that authority. This sentiment surfaced again when feminist Susan B. Anthony denounced "man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law that tax, fine, imprison, and hang women while they deny them the right of representation in the government" (5); and the sentiment surfaced again when Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law" (6).
Should those declared too young to vote be exempt from obeying laws? This sounds like a shocking idea, yet to an extent, it is already followed. If a four-year-old in a supermarket puts something in his pocket and wanders away, we do not prosecute the child as a shoplifter. We assume a four-year-old lacks the sophistication to fully understand the ramifications of shoplifting, to understand the violation of property rights and its impact on victims. For that reason, we do not jail the four-year-old and, for the same reason, we do not give the four-year-old a voice in shaping public policy regarding shoplifting. Since he cannot understand the ramifications of shoplifting, he cannot reasonably judge how our society should treat shoplifters any more than he can reasonably judge whether he himself should shoplift. But as the youth becomes older, we expect him to reach a degree of sophistication where he does understand the ramifications of shoplifting. At that point, if he still chooses to steal, we punish him for that choice. But if someone has that degree of sophistication, it follows that he is sophisticated enough to help shape the laws on shoplifting, help to determine its proper punishment. If he cannot understand shoplifting well enough to have a say in how we should treat shoplifters, then he cannot understand it well enough to be held accountable if he himself becomes a shoplifter. The same holds true for any other crime.
Yet all across America, we build juvenile halls for the sole purpose of punishing those not allowed to vote. Americans as young as 14 are eligible for the death penalty, held to the highest level of responsibility, while declared not responsible enough to cast a vote.
We allow a young law-breaker to be tried "as an adult" if a prosecutor decides this particular youth is responsible enough to be treated as such. Why is there no similar procedure for law-abiding youth who want to vote? Can it be that the only youth who are responsible and sophisticated are the ones who commit crimes? I find that unlikely.
I see two ways our society can act honorably on this question. One is to treat people on an individual basis: decide which individuals are responsible enough to vote and to be held responsible for crimes, and leave the remaining individuals devoid of votes or responsibility. The other way is to break people into age-groups. Those age-groups considered responsible will be allowed to vote and will be held responsible for any crimes they commit. The remaining age-groups will have no voice and bear no legal responsibility.
If the second path is taken, this would result in raising the age at which one can be punished for crimes, or lowering the age at which one can vote, or both.
The idea of lowering the voting age probably scares many adults, though I'm not sure why it should. In the early 1970's, the voting age in America was lowered by three years, from 21 to 18. The impact this had on our society was minimal. It led to a temporary drop in the legal drinking age to 18, but in the next decade, the drinking age was restored to 21.
If the voting age were lowered again, to 14 for example, there is little likelihood this would have much impact on those older than 18. The older group would still hold the majority of votes; nothing could be done without their support. So why should Americans fear lowering the voting age to match the age of accountability, the age at which we expect people to bear full responsibility for their actions?
Some insist teenagers should not be trusted with even a small portion of the votes because teenagers are intellectually inferior to adults. For those people, I refer you once more to that great American founding father Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson felt the same way about blacks. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote several pages describing his view of blacks, insisting they were inferior to whites in knowledge, intellect, reason, imagination, and in other respects. Yet later, this same man wrote of blacks, "whatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others" (7). Even the "inferior" classes of people should have a say in the laws they obey, or else be relieved of the obligation to obey them: this is the cornerstone doctrine of democracy.
Aristocracy is built on the belief that the most educated people should shape laws for all to obey. Democracy is built on a belief in fairness.