Home > Politics > Should the Elderly be Allowed to Vote?

Should the Elderly be Allowed to Vote?

I recently read an essay by Philippe Van Parijs called “The Children’s Vote”. It started with the question of whether the elderly should be allowed to vote. To avoid disappointment I will immediately confess that I have no intention of attempting to answer that question here (nor to the equally interesting question raised by Parijs – children’s suffrage) – my gut instinct is to answer with a strong affirmative but there is undoubtedly some subtlety to the problem. For Parijs’s own answers to this question you’ll just have to read him yourself. But the question stimulated me to think about some of the problems that we are currently facing from a novel angle. It is this that I wish to pursue in this essay.

The starting point of Parijs’s essay is nevertheless a useful place for us to also start. His point of departure was an experience he had in 1970 at the University of California where a visiting professor was frustrated with Conservative seniors “flocking into Southern California and trying to impose their values, with Governor Ronald Reagan’s help, upon the University of California’s emancipated students” ((1), p 32). The professor was so irritated that he wrote an article for The New Republic called “Disenfranchise the Old”. His argument was that seniors had less of a stake in the future of their society and so were likely to vote in more “selfish” ways. This is not entirely implausible, although there are good reasons to be sceptical of it as a generalisation. There is that tired old cliché that those who are young and not progressive have no heart while those who are old and are not conservative have no head. That cliché is one that I find particularly irritating. It has always struck me as empty words that a certain class of people hide their guilt behind for having abandoned their ideals and ceased active engagement with the problems of the world. There certainly doesn’t seem to be any solid empirical basis for it as a trend. At least part of the point of this essay is to describe how three decades of conservatism has not served the elderly (present and future) any better than anyone else. The bias of the cliché bothers me too: it gives the impression that conservatism is the solid stuff of sound and mature reflection while dressing up progressiveness as being rash and emotional. Neither characterisation holds up to any sort of scrutiny. As for myself, I am only getting more progressive as I get older: while never tempted by conservatism, I was certainly more conservative in my youth than I am today. I am only beginning to discover my own ideals as I discover the dynamics of the world.

A possible answer to the challenge of elderly electoral selfishness is that senior voters are more likely to vote in the long-term interests of a society because they have a lesser stake in it: they might not be as affected by the long-term interests of the society, but on balance they may also be less committed to the short term institutions that threaten the long-term interests. But again, I will remain sceptical on this matter – it doesn’t seem to me to be that much more plausible than that defence of the aristocratic House of Lords (the British upper house of parliament) which cites the relative wealth of the Lords as giving them a valuable distance from the problems they address and, with it, a degree of objectivity.

Whatever the case, we cannot limit electoral short-termism to the elderly. The last three decades of neoliberalism has ensured that people of all ages vote in both a short-term and selfish manner. People have become consumers of government rather than active citizens. The engineered reduction in scope of possible government action – the so-called “shrinking of the state” – has also shrunk the domain of democracy. By apparently removing economic concerns for government deliberation, one of the most important and universal aspects of society has been ruled “out of bounds”. For many people this has simply made politics mostly irrelevant, as declining voter turn-out and increasing political apathy and cynicism show. But, of course, economic concerns were never actually ruled out of politics and government itself has created the conditions for the decline of political relevance. What has happened is simply that the State has become a service industry for big business and moneyed interests under the mantra that what is good for big business and the rich is good for society. This culminated in the corporate welfare of 2008, which has been spectacularly unsuccessful for everyone but the wealthy (who, as a number of reputable journals have reported in recent months, are doing at least as well as before the crisis – good for them!).

The process of governmentally-enforced neoliberalism means that instead of interacting with government people have been forced to mediate their existence through the markets. The solidarity that comes from representative democracy and the shared institutions that follow from it dissolves into relationships mediated by individual economic bargaining and subject to the relative capacity of each person to do so. Any sense of common burdens and benefits disappear, starting with the opt-out of the wealthy. We have now reached the critical point where a class of people exists that see nothing in society for them, and hence nothing that they need respect.

In any case, elderly suffrage is not under direct threat at present or at least under no more threat than suffrage in general. They are, however, as a group facing some serious problems at the moment. They represent one vulnerable group in society. Another is the young. The fates of these two groups are closely related.

Many people of pensionable age (and those approaching it) have come to discover that their pension schemes are worth considerably less than they had planned for. These pensions have been largely founded on stock-market investment and have suffered immensely as a result of the events since 2008. What should have been a quite durable benefit has been transformed into the most transient of benefits through the magic of casino capitalism. Each week the news contains stories about the pension crisis (or crises).

At the same time, those of a working age are becoming increasingly sceptical about the value of their own future pensions. They have seen today’s retirees being screwed over, and have no reason to believe their fate will be any different. They are also told that their retirement age is being pushed back – that they will have to work longer. They are seeing changes to their pensions that will cost them more and return less to them later. At the moment in the UK, the unions are protesting against changes to pensions for public service workers. This has been met with antagonism from private sector workers who rightly point out that their pension are being hurt even more. But the truth is that both groups are getting screwed over. One of the characteristics of neoliberalism is a “divide and conquer” approach. This was instrumental in the breaking of unions and the pitting of weakened workers against even weaker workers in other countries. The aforementioned watering down of democracy is the backbone to this strategy. The current controversy of public worker pensions is just another example of the weak fighting the weak instead of uniting against an impregnable elite. These same elite can look straight-faced down the camera lens and tell us that “we’re all in it together”, knowing full well that “we” does not include them.

At the bottom end of the scale we have a growing crisis of youth unemployment. The so called “job creators” (aka the super rich) are delivering ever less for their always generous compensation. This week in the UK it was announced that unemployment has risen by 80,000 in the last three months. The majority of these are in the 16-24 year old range, and total unemployment in the UK is disproportionately composed of the young. So much so that university graduates feature highly in those figures. (If we figure in the number of youths who pursue higher education because there are no jobs then the figure moves to a truly ghastly scale). So on the one hand the elderly are being told that they will need to work more years and on the other we have a massive proportion of youths who cannot get jobs. Worse still, the young who cannot find work are not starting to build up the durable benefits that will protect them later in life, creating an even bigger problem in a few decades time. There appears to be a stupendous failure of arithmetic here. But the jobs will come back, right? When the financial crisis is resolved we’ll all be ok again, right?

I wouldn’t count on it. The twinned plight of these two groups – the elderly and the young, pension crisis versus job crisis – highlights some of the core paradoxes in our economic structure.

I have previously talked about how we have entered a strange phase in capitalism. Over the past two centuries we improved productivity to a degree capable of meeting our needs. Indeed we have surpassed that point. (The fact that we still fail to meet many people’s needs proves rather than disproves the point I am making). We are increasingly producing things in order to work rather than working in order to produce things. This is inevitable as long the existing unlimited property model is accepted – a person needs to work to acquire the income to purchase the things that they need, and they can only do this by making or doing things for others. So we over-produce and mis-produce, creating mountains of things that we don’t really need in order to keep the life-blood of the property system flowing. We consume in order to produce in order to work. Consumption itself establishes competitive socially normative standards, driven necessarily by the best off, and serves to fuel the process to ever greater heights. Short-term consumption, by its nature, replaces durable benefits with transient ones – and the benefits are becoming ever more transient. Consumption has becoming increasingly disposable: in order to produce more things (to create jobs, to generate incomes…) those things need to become useless as soon as possible. Those who complain that people should spend their money more wisely or save, are only nominally correct – without the increasingly disposable consumption the whole property system would collapse (and may well be doing so at the moment).

This can all appear to work for a while. Planned obsolescence (with all its appalling wastefulness) has kept the dream alive a bit longer. Since the 1980s the entire process in the western world has been propped up increased indebtedness – not only does the transience of consumption expire soon after we have paid for it, but now it even expires before we have done so. And then on the seventh day God Money created the debt crisis. And it wasn’t good. Ultimately, as I have pointed out in previous posts, the process of perpetual growth is both mathematically and ecologically untenable. And unnecessary. There are also good reasons to believe that the situation is just not healthy for us or our societies. And right at the moment we seemed to have reached a point where that system has just plain broken down. We can borrow no more – just to be able to buy more – to make more – to earn more. Jobs are not being created, and the consumption that drives job creation is consequently dropping too. And so the whole thing collapses.

Ultimately it comes down to the problems inherent in the market system. The growth model is premised on the idea that if money moves around enough some of it might occasionally end up where it is needed. This is getting harder and harder to defend. Markets do not recognise need – they only recognise purchasing power. And purchasing power aggregates much more readily around those who need it least – this can only be ever truer in the face of limited employment opportunities. Far from driving the market to produce the things we need the most, consumption-driven growth may ultimately do quite the opposite. And as wealth concentrates into fewer and fewer hands, market demand increasingly comes to represent what those few hands desire.  For the rest of us, we must work harder and longer, and consume ever more in order to squeeze the basics out of this system.

Let’s return to the elderly. Much of the excuse for raising the retirement age is that people are living longer. This is plausible on the face of it (we do live longer). But it’s also a red herring. In most countries where this has been mooted or implemented the size of the population is static – the fact that the elderly make up a greater percentage of the population while the working population shrinks should be neither here or there. If we are improving the efficiency of production all the time (and we are) why can we not cash in our chips and support longer retirement periods? It all comes back to mistaking droughts and floods for a healthy society.

John Rawls spoke of “intergenerational justice” – to oversimplify, leaving at least as much and as good for the next generation. We’ve failed that test. We have failed the first and the last generations that are currently alive, and we are in the process of failing the rest. We are now looking at the first generations in a century that have less and worse to look forward to than their parents. The problems we face are not insoluble, but they cannot be touched while he stick to the dogmatic, limited, and flawed model of property that we have endured to date. We need to open up the discussion. So, on second thoughts, I will commit to an answer to the question that began this discussion. Let the elderly vote – their problems are the same as the problems the rest of us face. And after all, we are all in this together.

(1)  Parijs, Philippe Van, Just Democracy, ECPR Press 2011

Categories: Politics
  1. Reyhan Ricklefs
    October 20, 2011 at 3:12 am

    So, I’ve held back on posting the following comments, although they came to mind while reading some of your previous posts. However, since they keep seeming to apply, I’ll add them here.

    * * *

    First, apropos to the idea that more consumption and ever-increasing economic activity is always better is the equally questionable adage that competition leads to innovation. No, I’m sorry, but ingenious people who are trying to solve a problem lead to innovation — *not* competition — and they’ll do so whether or not there’s competition (or compensation) to be had. Why? Because having the benefits having an improved process, product, or whatever else is sufficient reward for the innovative.

    Let’s say that you want a pie, but none of the pies out there satisfy you. You try some recipes, but the results aren’t quite to your liking. So you tinker, adjust, and *innovate*. And after all that you have the perfect pie. Why did you do this? Because you wanted to compete? No. Because someone was going to pay you? No. You did it because you wanted a damn good pie. Your innovation was driven by the problem at hand, not some tertiary benefit.

    On the contrary, competition breeds waste and inefficiency. If you want an example, look no further than the all the electronics companies who’ve been trying to claim a portion of the iPad market. What did they create as a result? Products so poorly thought out that HP pulled the plug on its competing product only 7 weeks after launching it. How wasteful is that?

    Another example is the publish-or-perish mentality of academia. What would be more efficient: performing a thorough and well-rounded set of experiments to achieve an overarching conclusion, resulting in a seminal work, or rapid-fire papers with nearly identical content save for one variable that’s been tweaked? Well, the former would be more efficient, of course. But instead, competition has driven academia to the latter.

    Moreover, competition discourages bright people from working together to create something great. Instead it divides them up to work toward similar, slightly divergent goals. And looking at the battles of HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray and VHS vs. BetaMax, somehow the lesser output seems to keep “winning” the competitions.

    * * *

    Secondly, regarding productivity and unemployment… in the U.S. right now, the unemployment rate hovers around 9 – 10%. Take into account all people who should be working better jobs or full time rather than part time, and the underemployment number is closer to 20 – 25%. So, on top of the wealth gap, we also have an employment gap… but similar to the wealth gap, there’s little need for this to be the case.

    Going back to the unemployment number itself, what makes more sense: to have 90% of the people employed 100% of the time, or to have 100% of the people employed 90% of the time? Destitution for 1 out of 10 people, or a stable means of support for everyone? No one wants a 10% pay cut, but it’s better than a 10% chance at a 100% pay cut. Besides, I’m sure we could all use a few more hours a week to spend away from work, be it by ourselves or with our families.

    I know this is an oversimplification in that it ignores a cost per employee (such as other benefits like health care, tools such as a work computer, etc.) that scales differently than the cost per man-hour, but the essence of this argument is still valid despite the logistics.

    • October 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

      Agreed with just about all of that. I’ll have more to say about some of those points eventually.
      For now, on your last few points, I think “job-sharing” is an idea whose time is well overdue. And for it to work well it needs to start with the better paid workers. People are actually working longer hours than they a few decades ago which is just bizarre, except when you think that this is a natural reaction to the threat of insecurity and destitution. I call this “job-hoarding”. But in a property system, where work is the means of obtaining property, the distribution of work becomes, to a considerable degree, a proxy for the distribution of wealth.

  1. January 22, 2017 at 9:32 am

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