By George Robinson
Politicians respond to incentives. In many developed countries, electoral systems induce them to direct resources away from the young and toward the old in a way which is unsustainable in the long term. There are two reasons they elect to do this. The first is that most developed societies are aging. This lopsided demography gives older voters more weight in representative democracies. The second is the failure of younger people to participate in the electoral system. This voluntary disenfranchisement further reduces their influence over politicians, creating an intergenerational imbalance—a pattern of government spending that systematically favors the old.
This is particularly important in this period of fiscal retrenchment, as it means resources are being directed away from areas that would improve long-run productivity, such as higher education and infrastructure, in order to protect social security spending for the elderly. The U.K. is typical in this regard. For instance, in the previous parliament the U.K. government largely chose to protect or increase the generosity of benefits that accrue to the elderly, while cutting entitlements to people of working age and investment in skills. Between 2010–11 and 2015–16, spending on the state pension and other entitlements increased by 12 billion pounds ($16.7 billion) while benefits for working age adults and for children fell by 7 billion pounds ($9.7 billion). The government also chose to protect areas of public spending such as health care, where the benefits disproportionately accrue to older citizens.
This pattern of spending is significant for another reason: Expenditure in these areas is projected to increase as the population ages. In their report on the U.K.’s long-term fiscal sustainability, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the U.K.’s fiscal watchdog, project that annual government spending is set to increase by 79 billion pounds ($110 billion) by 2064-65. This is primarily driven by increases in the cost of state pension and health care. Successive governments have been increasing the generosity of benefits in precisely the areas where they need to control costs. There is no single policy change which can address this; it demands radical reform across welfare spending, the provision of health and social care, and the system of taxation. The existing electoral system makes securing a mandate to deliver this kind of radical policy agenda very difficult. To reduce spending in these areas, we need to shift the incentives of politicians, and to shift the incentives of politicians, we need more young people to vote.
An expansion of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds would have increased the pool of younger voters by over 1.5 million in the 2010 general election. Above and beyond this, votes at 16 may have the effect of inculcating better voting habits among young people. Evidence from Austria, which has implemented the policy, suggests that 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to vote than 18- to 20-year-olds. Political scientists have speculated that the sheltered environment—16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to still be living at home—creates an atmosphere more conducive to voting. This, in turn, increases the probability of creating a sustained habit of voting in the long run. These changes, taken together, would have a significant effect on the composition of the electorate. They provide us with an opportunity to create greater parity of political power between generations and to shift the incentives of politicians to provide a more balanced distribution of resources.
These arguments for electoral reform are rarely heard in the U.K. The argument for reducing the voting age is often rather patronizingly couched in the language of rights. Teenagers can wed. Teenagers can enlist. Teenagers can pay taxes. In other words, they can make decisions about the three defining features of human life—love, death, and taxes. With these kinds of responsibilities, the argument goes, they should have the right to vote (even if we think they’ll get it wrong). Other than being a weak argument—most teenagers do not have these kinds of responsibilities—it frames the question in a catastrophic way. It leads us to focus on the questionable judgment of individual teenagers, rather than considering the aggregate impact of a new bloc of voters on political decision-making. When we focus on the way in which an expansion of the franchise changes the incentives of our politicians, the case for reform is compelling. While teenagers are not known for their responsible spending, giving them the vote may hold the key to helping us to balance the books.
George Robinson is a Thouron Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and a writer for the journal Global Policy. He previously worked as a policy advisor for Her Majesty’s Treasury in the U.K.
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