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To fix climate change and other stumpers . . .
Give young people more votes
In the early days of the American republic, property requirements limited voting to a small slice of the adult population. The argument for such requirements was that people with substantial property constituted the most stable part of the community and the part most likely to take into account the community’s long-term interests. A fear common among the founders was that people without property would be flighty, swayed by emotion to pass measures that looked good in the moment but would weaken the republic in the long run. Related to this fear was the observation that people without property had little to tax, and therefore would be tempted to approve high taxes, which would be paid by others.
The property qualifications gradually diminished until, by the 1820s, they had largely disappeared. They faded away not because the argument behind them weakened but for reasons of competitive politics. As new states were formed across the Appalachians from the original thirteen, they strove to attract residents. New residents were essential to the economic model of all frontier communities, for the newcomers bid up the price of land, allowing earlier arrivals to reap the profits that were a principal reason they had come west. The new states had little to offer of material worth, so they offered full citizenship, including the right to vote, wrapping the package in the language of popular democracy. The approach was sufficiently appealing that the older states felt obliged to follow suit, until property qualifications had gone the way of powdered wigs and knee-breeches (which left the White House when James Monroe did, in 1825).
The idea that voters should have a material stake in what they are voting for appears in other contexts. Publicly traded corporations routinely allow shareholders to vote at annual meetings, with the votes weighted according to the number of shares owned. A large shareholder has more at stake than a small shareholder, and accordingly ought to have a larger say in the direction of the company.
The idea of requiring skin in the game is worth reviving in politics, but in a different manner than previously. Democracy has taken hold sufficiently that there will be no going back to property qualifications, which in any event don’t suit a modern economy. But there is another measure of interest that is more important to sound legislation, yet which has been almost entirely overlooked. This is the length of time one is likely to live under the laws passed.
Many of the vexing problems of our democracy involve the inability of our system to impose short-term costs to achieve long-term gains. Infrastructure crumbles because states and the federal government can’t get taxpayers to pony up the money today to keep the bridges from collapsing five years from now. (The infrastructure program currently being debated in Washington will at best make only a small dent in the problem.) Social Security is headed for trouble because Congress won’t take the immediate small steps required to stave off big trouble a decade from now.
Most glaring is the inability of the American government—and the governments of most other countries—to take serious action against climate change. Here the imbalance between the short term and the long term is perhaps most striking. Congress can dither today, knowing that the cost of its failure will be borne chiefly by people much younger than those doing the dithering.
So here’s the solution: We give greater weight to the future by giving more votes to the young. To make the case simple, we could give 1 vote to anyone 60 or older, 2 votes to those between 40 and 60, and 3 votes to those under 40. If this is too extreme, the differential by age group could be smaller.
But the principle would be that the longer you are likely to live with the consequences of decisions, the more say you would have in those decisions.
I am in my 60s, and might live twenty or thirty years with the decisions made today. When I consider laws to limit production of greenhouse gases, my self-interest tells me to weigh present costs—in higher taxes or fuel prices, for example—more heavily than benefits that won’t appear until late in this century. Out of the goodness of my heart I might be willing to pay those costs, but a political system built on altruism is not as reliable as one based on interest.
For this reason, my vote should count less than the votes of younger people, for whom the cost-benefit analysis is different. My children will almost certainly live past the mid-point of this century, and their children quite likely will see the twenty-second century.
To put it bluntly, if we don’t do something about climate change today, I’ll hardly notice. But my grandchildren’s world might be utterly disrupted. Similar arguments apply to infrastructure, Social Security and other issues that fall into the same category of short-term pain versus long-term gain.
All this might simply be a thought experiment. Making the change I suggest would require a constitutional amendment, to get around the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But even if it isn’t adopted, it might jolt people into remembering who will bear the costs of our present failures. That might be success enough.