Intergenerational dimension of Brexit

One of the most striking features of yesterday’s referendum in the UK to leave the European Union is the significant generational split, with young people strongly favouring remaining. (This chart seems to be poll-based, but suggests that the only voters over the age of 55 favored leaving. Other polls suggest as much as 75% of 18-24 year olds wanted to remain.) This is a case where people at different ages clearly are in different interest positions. The quid pro quo on accepting EU immigrants to the UK is that UK citizens, in turn, have the right to live and work in other EU countries. This is a benefit that young people are much more likely to take advantage of than old people. (In fact, old people drawing pensions can continue to live pretty much wherever they like in Europe, the way Canadians live in Florida. It is young people who will feel the mobility restriction, because they will be unable to work.)

One might think that this raises a significant issue of fairness. Older Britains have, in effect, voted to preserve the England of their youth, without showing much concern for the wishes of those who will, in fact, have to live in that England. (And, it seems likely, that it will be just England (and Wales) — Brexit strongly strengthens the case for both Scottish independence and Irish unification/N. Irish secession.) Why should people who are, in effect, on their way out, have an equal say on an issue whose consequences will be felt largely after they are gone?

This is the question posed by Philippe van Parijs in his still-invaluable article, on The Disenfranchisement of the Elderly, and Other Attempts to Secure Intergenerational Justice. He raises an issue that I think is not taken nearly as seriously as it should. Of course, if you describe it as “disenfranchisement,” then you’re not going to get very far. There are, however, ways of reducing the voting power of the elderly that stop short of disenfranchisement. One particularly attractive proposal that van Parijs discusses is to grant the vote to everyone, including children, but with minors have it be exercised by proxy (by a parent or guardian) until they reach the age of 18. In effect, this gives the parents of young children more than one vote.

I can see some practical issues arising with the implementation of such a scheme, but I have never heard a principled objection. As long as we’re talking about electoral reform in this country, why not put that on the table?


Intergenerational dimension of Brexit — 2 Comments

  1. These sorts of schemes come with two important assumptions, each of which is very questionable.

    (1) Voters are utility-maximizers, pursuing their interests as rational choice theory conceives of those interests. But there is a ton of scholarship arguing that voters really don’t do this at all. So drawing the contrast between “young” and “old” voters (or any other voters) in this way is questionable.

    (2) van Parijis’s article has this as its stated premise: “Suppose we know what social justice is, what political institutions should we attempt to put into place in order to achieve it as closely and safely as possible?”. This is the sort of “supposition” that is only made by academics. Actual debates in electoral politics are about exactly what van Parijis takes for granted.

    These two points are connected, because it is disagreements over “what social justice is” which leads voters to behave as something other than rational choice actors.

    Of course there are also other, more important reasons to be skeptical about electoral reform proposals based on the idea that “these people disagree with me, therefore their votes should count less”. (I know, I know, that’s not how advocates of these schemes FRAME their arguments. But that is clearly all that they really amount to.)

  2. The difficulty, however, was that the young people didn’t vote in high enough numbers. If they had voted in as high numbers as their grandparents they would not have had their future stolen from them. For all the talk of the old robbing the young, this was as much a case of he young throwing their goods away.