Before anyone freaks out, please know the title is (mostly) satirical. That being said, I think it wouldn’t be the worst idea to put an upper age limit on the right to vote. There is, after all, an argument to be had that senility and ossified thinking make the elderly particularly poor decisionmakers. This is magnified by the fact that older individuals lack much of the technical and cultural skills needed to understand and navigate an ever-changing social environment, which is why they are so much easier to scam. Of course, this is not true of every senior citizen. But it’s also not the case that every 15 year old lacks the maturity and knowledge to vote. Ultimately, most laws are arbitrary, and that’s just how it is. This doesn’t mean that laws don’t serve some good, however, even if they do create localized inefficiencies.
But there is a much bigger problem with the elderly voting: They don’t have to live with the consequences of their votes. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this is a dynamic that seems to reek of moral hazard. Why curtail costly Social Security benefits when the financing burdens will only impact those in younger generations? Why pay the cost of installing more energy-efficient appliances when you aren’t the one who has to suffer the consequences of a changing climate? The issue is much broader than this, though. After all, most people are a bit greedy, and it is not as if the elderly are the only ones that are myopic or support targeted government welfare: Students want free college, certain industries want a return to protectionism, and low-skilled workers want to block any immigrants against whom they might have to compete. The real problem is that the elderly are far too willing to weigh in on long-term social and political issues on which they lack the requisite knowledge to make appropriate decisions. One very clear example of this occurred during the 2016 Brexit vote, which saw the young overwhelmingly vote Remain while the elderly solidly backed Leave. Yet, when asked why they voted to leave, many of the older voters said they did it for their children and grandchildren. Apparently, these retirees didn’t bother to ask their grandchildren what they wanted for their country.
I think one interesting way to think about this problem is to conceive of it as a type of historical relativism. We are frequently reminded that we cannot impose our modern standards and moral systems on people in the past because conceptions of right and wrong are contingent and evolve over time. But nobody seems willing to apply the corollary of this lesson. Namely, people from the past shouldn’t impose their morals systems on the present. This does not mean that the experience and wisdom of those who have spent many decades on this planet are of no use. Instead, it simply means that their wisdom should be used to help shape the ever-changing societal framework, not lock it into place. As the oft-repeated admonition goes, we cannot afford to forget the past or the experiences of those who lived through it. But, at the same time, we cannot try to recreate the past. For one, this sets the bar too low, as it suggests there is no room for growth. But it also forgets that, as a matter of fact, we cannot recreate the past because the world moves on. People of President Trump’s generation may pine for the glory days of strong unions and well-paying factory jobs, but seeking to return to that era is counterproductive because we now live in a globalized world that is increasingly automated. People from older generations may not accept gay marriage, but that’s simply too bad because it has broad and growing support across every demographic.
To reframe my critique slightly, consider a family business. The founder of the business is getting old and decides he will hand the reigns over to his daughter. However, he resents her bold, though much-needed reform plans and continues to meddle in the business to the detriment of everyone. This is the danger of allowing the elderly to try to backseat drive. Eventually, one must train a replacement and trust that he or she will do a good job. This is as true for government as it is for business.
To reiterate, this is not to say that those who came before have nothing to offer. It simply means that they need to know when to let go. After all, the world seems to have gotten continuously better over the past few centuries despite every generation viewing the one that follows it as nothing more than a bunch of lazy degenerates. So perhaps there is just a tendency for the elderly to chronically undervalue the skill and diligence of their offspring. Moreover, as a practical matter, the elderly have to let go. To understand why, one must simply watch the Mark Zuckerberg hearing and note how pathetically ill-informed the questions were. Most of the people in Congress are simply too old to understand Facebook, and this is equally true of elderly voters. They may be frustrated by all the young people on their Snapbooks and Twittagrams, but that doesn’t make them remotely qualified to regulate social media.
To conclude, I want to briefly return to my initial proposal. While I don’t think the establishment of an upper age limit on voting is the worst idea, it still strikes me as a bad idea. I do, however, think the elderly need to be more cognizant of their frequently quite paternalistic attitudes. Specifically, two “rules” should guide how older people approach political issues. The first is that they should default to younger people’s views when it comes to long-term decisions simply because it is the younger people that have to live with the consequences. So if a retiree has an opinion on whether he wants speed bumps installed in his neighborhood, that’s fine. If he wants to leave the EU because he misses the days when Britannia ruled the waves, he needs to abstain. The second rule is that the elderly should seek to maximize future options when they lack knowledge about an issue. This is true for people of every age, by the way, but it is particularly relevant advice for older individuals who lack important technical or cultural knowledge. These two rules won’t solve everything, but I suspect they might move us in the right direction.