As people age, do they become more conservative? They evidence seems to say they do. Many opinions have been ventured about why that is, but no one reallly knows — like many of life’s imponderables, the topic remains shrouded in speculation masquerading as informed analysis. In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt tries to impart some measure of science to the discussion by presenting a statistical potpourri that seems to demonstrate that there is a new “”generation gap” in the US, and that the division is sharply characterized by an increasing liberal/conservative divide between young and old:
Sometime around 2004, though, older voters began moving right, while younger voters shifted left. This year, polls suggest that Mitt Romney will win a landslide among the over-65 crowd and that President Obama will do likewise among those under 40.
Seems strange, though, doesn’t it? After all, we are faced with an appparent contradiction between a couple of time-honored ideas:
1. People get wiser as they get older.
2. All the smart people are liberals.
But there may be a sensible and understandable explanation for this, and that focuses more on risk than politics:
As people age, they are less likely to favor policies and programs that promise social upheaval. The risk is too high. If you are young, you may be willing to tolerate a much larger probability that experiments and untested ideas may not work. First of all, you have more time to fix things if they break, and second, you have a lot less to lose — your accumulated wealth is not great, and taking a sizable whack to your nest egg, if you have one, can be much easier to repair.
Of course, some also claim that as we age, we have the benefit of having watched all manner of noble schemes emerge and founder, either because of their naivete, their poor design, or the complexities of their implementation — and often because of all three. Does this make us too averse to change of any sort? Maybe. As we age, we also have a greater stake in the social constructs that promote security for the elderly — Medicare and Social Security chiefly, but also things like New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, which improves the apparent security of the weaker and more prosperous at the expense of the dignity and liberty of the younger and less Caucasian. While a younger version of ourselves might bristle at the notion that officers can detain, search and imprison young people for possession of a few grams of marijuana, the older citizen might shrug and write it off as the price of civil order, even at the expense of civil rights.
Still, we wonder if there might not be some way to balance the needs of the 40+ population for stability with the desire of the under-40 set to seek bold solutions for newer and larger problems sets: climate change, population growth, wealth inequality, job creation — all of which will have a much greater impact on the young than the older. Here we have a novel proposal.
Society has no difficulty accepting the idea that its older citizens require a greater degree of society’s output than younger ones. As Leonhradt points out:
Over all, more than 50 percent of federal benefits flow to the 13 percent of the population over 65. Some of these benefits come from Social Security, which many people pay for over the course of their working lives. But a large chunk comes through Medicare, and contrary to widespread perception, most Americans do not come close to paying for their own Medicare benefits through payroll taxes. Medicare, in addition to being the largest source of the country’s projected budget deficits, is a transfer program from young to old.
Should we not have some sort of compensatory mechanism that recognizes the greater stake the young have in the future than the old, who will be necessarily be spending less time in it? This seems to make sense — and therein lies a solution:
Let voting, whether for president, congress, mayor or dogcatcher — be proportional inversely to the voter’s age. That is, an 18 year old would have a vote of 1/18, a 19 year old a vote of 1/19, and so on. Each succeeding year of age decreases the value of that person’s vote, so that a 36 year old would have 1/2 the vote of an 18 ear old, a 54 year old would have 1/3, a 72 year old 1/4, and so on. This principle of “reciprocal representation” would concentrate electoral power in those with the greatest stake in the future, in exchange for the economic contribution each is required to make to secure the safe retirement of the increasingly elderly.
Some might argue that giving the 18 to 36 year old segment of the population such disproportionate power would be unwise — even foolhardy. Indeed, it seems likely that there would be a period in which society would face stresses, but this kind of thing has happened before, as new voters adjusted to their franchise and learned to use their power responsibly. In the past, the right to vote has been extended several times in our republic — from landowners to the male adult population, to non-whites, and most recently, to women and voters between the ages of 18 and 21. Each time, large numbers of new voters with specific special interests were absorbed by the electorate with no longer-term disruption to the democratic process, and, ultimately, to the greater benefit of our democratic society. Each time, this extension required courage and vision.
Now, when our youngest citizens face new and more complex challenges that have less and less impact on those whose futures are more secure, and will remain so through the labor and output of the young, it seems to make sense to give them more to say about the future they will inherit.