As you may have noticed, philosophers are constantly on the lookout for practical solu- tions to concrete social problems. Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that, when it comes to the thorny questions of deficits, environmental degradation and intergenerational distributive justice, we have come up with an extremely simple, elegant way to correct the problem: the disenfranchisement of the elderly.
The logic behind the proposal is simple. Relations between present and future generations are marked by a fun- damental asymmetry. While it is possi- ble for us to displace costs onto future generations, it is impossible for them to reciprocate. By the time they come on the scene, we are long gone, and so they cannot punish us for our transgressions. Thus the fundamental circumstances of the social contract ”” the potential for mutually beneficial cooperation between individuals ”” are absent.
This situation gives us both the means and the opportunity to take advantage of future generations, by exter- nalizing certain costs upon them. Thus the incentives are in place for us to adopt savings policies that are depletionary in the long run (including negative personal savings, underinvestment in capital goods and infrastructure, deficit financing of public entitlement programs, and envi- ronmental degradation).
There are, however, certain factors that work to counteract this incentive. The first is no doubt sympathetic concern for the children of tomorrow (primarily our own gene line, secondarily that of others). The more important, however, is the overlap that occurs between genera- tions. The most fundamental feature of intergeneration relations is the fact that we all go through a long period of dependency both at the beginning and at the end of life (the former known as childhood, the latter as retirement).
Modern financial instruments tend to generate the illusion that people who save enough are able to provide for them- selves during retirement. This is not true. All the money in the world is useless if you are unable to exchange it for the goods and services that you need, like food and health care. And retirees depend entirely upon the working population to provide those goods and services.
As a result, people who are working today have a vested interest in ensuring that the economy will be reasonably robust when they retire, so that the younger generation will be able and will- ing to produce the goods and services typ- ically consumed during retirement. This consideration is not negligable, since the average life expectancy of Canadians at the age of 65 is another 18 years.
Thus the need to secure a comfort- able retirement serves as a brake on the level of narrowly self-interested behavior exhibited by all age cohorts. Yet it is not a magic bullet. In particular, the older people get, the less stake they have in the established social order, and thus the less incentive they have to refrain from adopting depletionary strategies. (Hence the number of bumper stickers on RVs that read: ”œSpending our chil- drens’ inheritance,” and the throngs of senior citizens flocking to casinos.)
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More concretely, support for poli- cies like educational spending and child benefits tends to decline within population groups as they age. And unsurprisingly, support for health care spending and state pensions increases. The extremes of this tendency can be seen in Florida, where seniors have used their voting power in some cases to loot the education system.
The solution to the problem is sim- ple. Since the elderly no longer have a direct stake in the long-term solvency and stability of the social order, they should forfeit their influence over the management of this order. Eliminating the right to vote at the age of 70 would be an easy way to achieve this. (Another option is to give parents proxy votes for each of their dependent children.)
Naturally, some people will object to disenfranchisement on the grounds that it is age discrimination. This is a red herring. The whole idea of ”œage discrimination” is based upon a conceptual confusion. In order for there to be discrimination there must be differ- ential treatment of two or more groups based on some arbitrary characteristic. But age-differentiated policies do not divide the population into two or more groups, since everyone (barring early death), eventually reaches a certain age.
In other words, ”œthe elderly” are not a group that can be discriminated against, in the way that ”œwomen” or ”œvisible minorities” can be discrimi- nated against, because everyone even- tually becomes elderly. Thus a rule that treats the elderly differently from the rest of the population will, in the full- ness of time, affect everyone equally. So as long as the rule is grandfathered in correctly, there is no injustice.
The core principle underlying the proposal to disenfranchise the elderly, as stated by philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, is that ”œpeople should be empowered to influence decisions in proportion to the extent to which they are likely to bear the consequences of those decisions.”
Unborn generations are, unfortu- nately, unable to influence the deci- sions that we make here and now. Nevertheless, we can improve their lot by shifting decision-making power toward those among us who will eventually need to interact with them.