Category Archives: inter-generational justice

Just give the young more votes

Young people seem to get a raw deal. But what should they expect? Only half of 18-24 year olds vote while 75% of those 65+ vote (2010 UK General Election figures).

One cannot really blame the politicians; they respond to incentives. As John Stuart Mill noted (in a slightly different context)

‘however honestly disposed [the ruling classes are], they are in general too fully occupied with things which they must attend to, to have much room in their thoughts for anything which they can with impunity disregard.’(105)

But there are solutions.

How raw is the deal?

In 2012, university tuition fees were tripled. Students benefit from university and repayment is income-contingent. Isn’t that fair?

Yes, but who will pay unpaid student debt? Not universities, and not current taxpayers. Future taxpayers – that is current young people – will pay that as well.

There is also a proposal to make under-25s ineligible for housing benefit. A generation ago a politician told unemployed people to get on their bikes to look for work. Should under-25s leave home and find employment, they may have to sleep on their bikes as well.

The baby-boomers 

While many old people face significant financial hardship, as a generation, the baby-boomers do quite well. Many have retired with defined benefit pensions while insisting such schemes are too costly for the next generation.

All pensioners qualify for free bus travel; most for a winter fuel subsidy. In fact pensioners are the only age group to become better-off during the last few lean years.

None of this is intrinsically bad but it is odd. Two dominant themes of 21st century politics is that public money should be ‘invested’ on things that improve economic growth (e.g., education) and that people should be helped only if they cannot help themselves.

So, why spend so much money on those less likely to be economically active and more likely to be responsible for their poverty? This second point needs care. There are many pensioners who are in poverty through no fault of their own. Perhaps this is true of most.

But if you randomly selected one poor 20 year old and one poor 65 year old and had to bet on which was responsible for her poverty, where would your money go? (Hint: on the one who has been an adult for more than two years.)

Baby-boomers are not selfish but their moral concerns tend to favour their own. As David Willetts noted in The Pinch, baby-boomers have been ‘better parents than citizens’. But not everyone can rely on a previous generation.

What can be done? 

One – largely ineffective – solution is to implore the young to vote. They are young. It is hardly a surprise that more of them (though not all) don’t think long-term or have the settled lives that encourage long-term planning.

But we could give the young who do take an interest more political power. If the young lose out because fewer vote, and the interests of the young are similar, then we should increase the voting power of those people whose interests are most similar to the non-voting young, i.e., the voting young.

More voters for the young

Let’s assume that there are one hundred 18-24 year olds but only half vote. To ensure that the total political power of the young is realized we double the votes of those who do vote.

We can apply this idea to all age-groups. But as long as fewer young people vote their voting power will increase more (see below).

Age category A: Assumed number of eligible voters B: %-age who actually vote C: The increase in voting power of each voter (A * B =C, e.g., 100*0.518 = 1.93)
18-24 100 51.8% 1.93
55-64 100 69.8% 1.43
65+ 100 74.7% 1.34

 (NB: the voting percentages are taken from the 2010 UK general election.)

This proposal is a form of plural voting. Plural voting was made (in)famous by Mill.** Fearing the great unwashed Mill wanted to give more educated citizens more votes. My proposal is very different: it is based on shared interests not a better education or greater intelligence.

The proposal is also sensitive to the numbers of people who actually vote. As more people in each age group vote, the voting power of each vote declines. And the total voting power of 18-24 year olds can never be greater than the total number of 18-24 year olds.

There are moral objections. But none, in my view, are serious and all are too complex to address here. So, would giving the young more votes improve their lot?

Let’s test it

Researchers could stratify constituencies by age and see whether election results would be different if the young had more votes. Where results would change we can see whether the hypothetical winner has more young-friendly policies.

These results would not settle the question. In the longer term, politicians – knowing that the political voice of the young would be louder – would compete more for their votes. This might correct some distortions.


The democratic state must treat the interests of the rich and poor, old and young with equal seriousness. Where politicians compete for votes and where older people vote in larger numbers this does not happen.

In difficult times, more votes for the young is one way to correct for this. Let’s at least do the experiment and see what we learn.

**My proposal also owes a lot to Philippe Van Parijs’s magnificently entitled ‘Disenfranchising the Elderly’.

Greece and the EU – should we follow Kant or Aristotle?

In an article in the Observer Alan Posener argued that “Greece must honour the terms of its bailout.” Greece

“lied its way into the eurozone, refused to reform … can’t or won’t collect taxes properly, has been bailed out repeatedly and still doesn’t accept the rules.”

It is the failure to stick to the rules that, says Posener, is the problem. For Germans, rules “must never be broken, even if they are self-defeating”. He contrasts this Kantian way of thinking with utilitarian (or “Anglo-Saxon”) thinking.

Immanuel Kant and rules

For Kant, the goodness (or ‘moral worth’) of an action is independent of its consequences. This can seem plausible. Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes – as when a two year old tries to pick flowers for his mother. The flowers do not survive but we praise the intention (or, in Kant’s language, the manifestation of a good will).

But ignoring consequences can be self-defeating. The most extreme example of this comes from Kant himself. In  On a Supposed Right to Lie Kant argued that one cannot lie to a would-be murderer even if lying is the only way to prevent the murder.

This has led to accusations of rule-fetishism; and Posener’s Germans seem to be guilty of it. So here are some relevant questions.

Are the Greeks who caused Greece’s current plight the same Greeks who will suffer from it?

If not, then by pursing current policies Europe may merely make one group of people suffer for the sins of another group. And it seems to be innocent Greeks who will suffer most. Youth unemployment in Greece is currently over 50%. And youth unemployment can have disturbing life-time effects.

We should also distinguish between morality (or individuals’ conduct and politics (or groups’ conduct). Perhaps person A should be held responsible for her actions. But it does not follow that everyone in group B should be made to suffer the effects of actions and practices of some sub-group of B. Let’s call the relevant sub-group the ‘oligarchs’:

“Greece has failed to address …[its] problems because the country’s elites have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. Since the early 1990s, a handful of wealthy families — an oligarchy in all but name — has dominated Greek politics. These elites have preserved their positions through control of the media and through old-fashioned favoritism, sharing the spoils of power with the country’s politicians. Greek legislators, in turn, have held on to power by rewarding a small number of professional associations and public-sector unions that support the status quo.”(Eleftheriadis)

If this diagnosis is correct, then it may be inter-generationally unjust to hold all Greeks liable for Greece’s plight.

When following the rules is self-defeating, on what principled basis should we make exceptions?

This second question is more general. The worry here is that rules do have exceptions but without some sound principle about how to identify them we might delude ourselves and make self-indulgent exceptions when we shouldn’t.

The utilitarian can offer a good answer to this question. Kant struggles. If, like Jeremy Bentham, you think that rules or acts are good or bad to the degree to which they bring about good or bad consequences, and you discover that following the rules will have disastrous consequences, you can – without hypocrisy – ignore the rules.

The reason to depart from the rules is the same reason that justifies following them.

If, like Kant, you think things are good or bad independently of their consequences, then disastrous consequences alone cannot justify exceptions. We can end up feeling compelled to tell the truth to the would-be murderer with full knowledge of what will happen next.

Aristotelian virtue ethics

But there is another view and – given our problem – the approach to ethics of one of Greece’s most famous sons (although he wasn’t actually a citizen) may be apt.

Aristotle thought that there are no universally-applicable moral rules. The world is just too complex. Moral rules are true only ‘for the most part’. Exceptions exist and Greece’s current plight might just be one of them.

For Aristotle, the wise person – the person of good character and judgement – can differentiate correctly between legitimate exceptions to rules and the cases in which the rules must be followed despite unpalatable consequences.

But it is not possible to reduce this wisdom to a set of rules that can be followed by the not-so-wise.

What would the wise person recommend?

I speculate but I sense that she might look forward 20 years and ask what kind of Greece and Europe will there be if youth unemployment runs at 50% for any length of time (youth unemployment is at a similar level in Spain)? How many lives might be ruined? How much will it cost to keep such societies tolerably stable?

What else? Political reform to reduce the wealthy’s domination of Greek politics is probably necessary. Attempts to reduce oligarchs’ economic clout without first reducing their political power will almost certainly fail anyway.

But whatever the solutions, making Greece stick to its agreements because the rules must be followed, and because the Greeks have failed to reform, punishes the wrong people and may be self-defeating.

In other words, the way forward for Greece may be a little more Aristotle and a little less Kant.