In Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel, Boomsday, a Generation X blogger and emerging PR star suggests that to deal with the social and economic strain of a large and aging Boomer population, the government should offer people incentives to commit suicide by the age of 70. In addition to being offered perks like free Botox and no estate taxes, those who opt to “voluntarily transition” to death after retirement are to be treated as patriots and heroes on par with veterans. Resistance to the proposal is understandably intense and widespread. But the novel does provoke an important question: What should democracies do when the interests of the elderly appear to be at odds with the interests of younger generations?
One proposal mooted in philosophy circles over the past few decades is to disenfranchise the elderly—that is, eliminate the right to vote at age 70 or some other appropriate upper threshold. The idea is that once citizens reach a certain age, they will be less concerned with our social, political, and economic future than younger generations and much less likely to bear the long-term consequences of political decisions and policies. In that case, their votes ought to be discounted, or eliminated altogether, to ensure that the future is shaped by those who have a real stake in how it turns out. But would disenfranchising older citizens be fair?
Consider two principles of political legitimacy and the way they appear to unravel in the context of intergenerational justice. The affected interests principle holds that those whose interests are affected by political decisions ought to have a say in those decisions. One is a free citizen, the argument goes, only to the extent that one has opportunities to shape the laws and policies to which one will be subject. Without those opportunities, we face a democratic deficit. A second principle—political equality—holds that those who participate and are affected ought to have an equal say in the selection of decision-makers and policies. This is the ideal that the notion of one-person-one-vote is intended to meet.
In the context of intergenerational politics, these principles come under pressure. Decisions made by older generations will affect the interests of younger and unborn generations, but those younger generations will themselves have less or no say. Moreover, as some argue, older citizens have greater incentives to deplete natural resources, underinvest in infrastructure, accumulate public debt and ignore the environment. Polls of top political issues show that concern for the environment and education declines with age. Grandma votes against carbon taxes and recycling programs, and Grandpa votes against education spending? So take away their right to vote and let younger people make decisions about the future.
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But before disenfranchising older citizens, consider some objections. In the first place, a policy to disenfranchise the elderly rests on some questionable assumptions. Although evidence suggests that seniors sometimes vote in ways that discount the future, younger citizens also vote in self-interested ways that can lead to costs being passed on to future citizens. Support for free university and college tuition, for example, serves younger citizens’ interests but, if financed through debt, effectively passes the costs to future citizens. Similarly, parents who support lower taxes so they can pay for childcare might be as much of a threat to long-term infrastructure investments as seniors voting for more spending on long-term care. For almost every reasonable policy preference, a case can be made that it imposes costs on future generations—even if only an opportunity cost.
Moreover, a proposal to disenfranchise the elderly rests on a rather narrow view of what the right to vote represents. Although voting is a mechanism for expressing policy and leadership preferences, it is also a central means by which democracies recognize the moral and political equality of citizens. Disenfranchising the elderly might eliminate one source of short-term thinking in politics, but would also reduce politicians’ and policy-makers’ incentives to address the legitimate needs and interests of older citizens. So long as older citizens are still living citizens, a fair and legitimate democracy must continue to recognize their political equality and provide them with means to influence decisions that will affect their interests.
Frustration with the policy preferences and omissions of older citizens is a long-standing complaint of younger citizens. Future generations will no doubt continue to shake their heads at many aspects of the world they inherit. The challenge for living, and especially older, generations, is to vote and engage in politics in ways that go beyond self-interest. The challenge is to recognize that although future generations cannot impose costs on past generations, future citizens can and will judge those who lived before them and will have the final say over how we and previous generations will be remembered.
Dan Munro is a Visiting Scholar and Director of Policy Projects in the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Listen to The Ethics Lab on Ottawa Today with Mark Sutcliffe, Thursdays at 11 EST. @dk_munro