The Kids Ain’t All Rights

Reforming electoral system is not going to be enough – The Irish Times – Mon, Feb 01, 2010

But reforming our electoral system is not going to be enough; indeed, it may be little more than a diversion. We are in the midst of the most serious crisis in our history, a crisis that affects all our institutions – economic, political and social (and, given the ongoing travails in the Catholic Church, also moral). This calls for a large-scale overhaul of our institutions, including but not confined to our process of elections. The State needs to find ways to engage better with its citizens. In particular, we need to harness our youth. We need to find better means of integrating and involving all citizens, from all sectors, in a process of civil and institutional renewal. This calls for deliberative processes (such as citizen assemblies), and other such devices that facilitate greater engagement by our citizens. Out of such processes a real review of our institutions could emerge.

Even under the most optimistic outlooks for the Irish economy a terrible legacy of debt is being left for future generations, making it all the more vital that our younger citizens have greater input into decisions today. I can think of no stronger argument than this in favour of “Votes at 16”. In this context, ongoing efforts by the National Council on Curriculum and Assessment to introduce a new syllabus on politics and society into the senior cycle in schools is very welcome.

There isn’t a great deal to disagree with here. But while it must be true that the State, however defined, needs to find ways to engage better with its citizens, surely the reverse is more important. There is no point in people expecting that the State should find better means of integrating them and involving them in their decisions, because any way that the State might do so would be on the State’s terms. Among other things, it’s the fact that the State has operated in the interest of particular groups at the expense of others that has led to the current crisis. The point being that it is up to citizens to develop deliberative processes for engagement, rather than imagine that whatever the State might put in place would be adequate to their needs. The danger is that citizens would be inured to allow the better to be the enemy of the better still, as Dewey put it.

And in that spirit, while I don’t have any problem with the extension of the vote to 16-year-olds, why stop there? Each parent has responsibility for a child, but the electoral franchise allows for no recognition of this fact, even though children are also citizens. The fact that their parents only have one vote each means they are under-represented in the decisions of state even they are the ones likely to be most affected by the most momentous of those decisions. The UK think-tank Demos produced an interesting pamphlet on this some years back. It advocated the extension of the vote to 14-year-olds, in line with the age of criminal responsibility. For Ireland, this would mean extending the vote to 12 years of age.

A reduced voting age would be one step, but still does not address the interests of most children: those under 14. Here we reiterate the suggestion put forward by Stein Ringen in his Demos pamphlet of 1997,
that all children should be issued with votes at birth. Their families could then decide who would exercise this vote, with the default going to the mothers or any other primary carers, until the children reach the age of 14. Parents could be encouraged to cast the “baby ballot” in consultation with their child, and to think explicitly about the child’s interests. But in any case, children’s votes would reinforce the importance of families with children as an electoral constituency.

Seems fair enough to me.

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4 Responses to “The Kids Ain’t All Rights”


  1. 1 Longman Oz February 1, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Also thought that David Farrell wrote a solid article there. Your identification, though, of the Establishment (why stop at the State?) having no interest in ceding power to the politically disenfranchised is spot on.

    If I could have just one item of the good professor’s shopping list of proposals, though, I would choose a new political and social syllabus in schools. Educate people and the rest has a better chance of then following.

    However, it would need to go well beyond some dry classes on STV or the role of the Seanad. Rather it would be about getting kids to think about what they believe in, how they can shape society, etc. For example, could a computer game for Transition Year students be designed to allow them to run an econony and see the cause/effect relationship of their decisons?

    Finally, given the anti-Establishment leanings of most teenagers, I would not hold out much hope for youth vote reform any time soon…

    • 2 Hugh Green February 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

      Yes, it was a decent article all right. The IT has been running a whole pile of these commentaries for at least a year now, and most of them are concerned with tinkering with this, that and the other, rather than dealing with fundamentals.

      Regarding the State vs. Establishment. Yes, you’re right. One of the curious things for me, not having grown up in this country and gone to its schools (not that my own education in this regard was in any way better), is the use of the word ‘State’ in public discourse. A lot of the time the meaning is intertwined with the idea of ‘nation’, or ‘country’, as though they all meant roughly the same thing. Like when people knowingly cite that Haughey speech where he quotes Othello on having done the state some service. What are they talking about here: the population, or state institutions, or the nation, or a mish-mash of all three? That sort of confusion serves to paralyse public debate, I think. Maybe classes on basic democratic principles would be a good start. But to follow on from the reference to Dewey above, what he’s concerned with isn’t simply the matter of having formal democracy (in terms of voting, fora etc), but of democratic action and habit. And the role of the school in this is central:

      Is it possible for an educational system to be conducted by a national state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted? Internally, the question has to face the tendencies, due to present economic conditions, which split society into classes some of which are made merely tools for the higher culture of others. Externally, the question is concerned with the reconciliation of national loyalty, of patriotism, with superior devotion to the things which unite men in common ends, irrespective of national political boundaries. Neither phase of the problem can be worked out by merely negative means. It is not enough to see to it that education is not actively used as an instrument to make easier the exploitation of one class by another. School facilities must be secured of such amplitude and efficiency as will in fact and not simply in name discount the effects of economic inequalities, and secure to all the wards of the nation equality of equipment for their future careers. Accomplishment of this end demands not only adequate administrative provision of school facilities, and such supplementation of family resources as will enable youth to take advantage of them, but also such modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline as will retain all the youth under educational influences until they are equipped to be masters of their own economic and social careers. The ideal may seem remote of execution, but the democratic ideal of education is a farcical yet tragic delusion except as the ideal more and more dominates our public system of education.

      So it isn’t merely a matter for Dewey of the insertion of a couple of extra subjects in the curriculum, but the complete modification of the curriculum and how it gets taught. And a prerequisite for this is a school system that in fact and not simply in name discounts the effect of economic inequalities, which is hardly the case at the minute with the Irish system.

  2. 3 copernicus February 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Since the best interests of children are best served by not being dragged into this vale of tears in the first place, providing extra votes to people morally insensible enough to procreate seems to be a recipe for disaster.

    It would be better if the electoral elite were chosen not from a self-selecting group of heteronormative breeders, but rather if a psephelogical weighting were given to a more urbane, objective, childless, ethically educated elite instead.

    Indeed, weighting the electoral system in the way you suggest would create the following moral hazards (a) people would be encouraged to have more children, thereby dooming more people to more misery, and (b) the poor would be encouraged to have more children than they could afford in order to procure more electoral standing with which to procure patronage from Dail deputies.

    Ultimately, of course, what you suggest would weight electoral politics in favour of those who could afford the most children, ie the rich. The wealthy could also increase their electoral power via adoption should biological limits appertain vis a vis the immediate production of franchisees.

    And we must not ignore the prospect of rebellion on the part of the childless and single, faced with the exponential increase in dependant persons and the concomitant per capita diminution in Revenue contributions by parents.

    • 4 Hugh Green February 2, 2010 at 6:43 am

      Well, if an ‘urbane, objective, childless, ethically educated elite’ thinks that the morally insensible breeders would consider an extra vote to be worth the hassle of an extra child, I’d have to seriously question their capacity for objectivity.

      There are, nonetheless, particular problems peculiar to Ireland that might be a recipe for strange outcomes. For example a local campaigning doorstepper may consider it worth his or her while wooing a family of ten with all sorts of inducements rather than knocking on all the other doors in the street. However these are cultural infelicities that would wither with the improved democratic culture that would accrue with the introduction of votes for kiddies (alongside other such stuff that might be necessary).


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