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Two Girls in a classroom. (Thinkstock)
Two Girls in a classroom. (Thinkstock)

For a more equal society, empower the children Add to ...

Here’s a novel way to address the problems caused by rising income inequality: Give children the vote.

One virtue of this iconoclastic idea, recently advanced by University of Ottawa economics professor Miles Corak, is that it sidesteps the usual partisan debates. After all, the right and left have profound moral disagreements about economic inequality. But whatever your political stripe, you almost certainly believe in equality of opportunity.

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Unfortunately, some of Dr. Corak’s most celebrated work has been to show that rising income inequality and declining social mobility go together. This relationship – which Alan Krueger, head of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has dubbed the Great Gatsby Curve – is one of the most powerful reasons to care about rising income inequality.

That’s where the kids come in. In a policy paper published in February by Canada 2020, a non-partisan think tank in Ottawa, Dr. Corak noted that the group that suffers the most from declining social mobility is the young. As it happens, this is also one of the last human constituencies that doesn’t have the right to vote. That relationship may not be coincidental.

“Older individuals, and those with more education working in higher-skilled occupations, are more likely to vote,” Dr. Corak wrote. “But, in addition, there is a broad bias by virtue of the simple fact that children are disenfranchised. Children’s rights are not adequately recognized and they have a reduced political voice in setting social priorities.”

He has a radical solution to that bias: Give children the vote. “When you first hear about it, it sounds like a crazy idea, and that was my first reaction,” he said in a telephone interview. “But this is an aspect of the inequality discussion that I think we can all buy into,” he said. “Whether you come from the left or the right, I think most people subscribe to the idea that talent and hard work should be rewarded. And with inequality going up, there is a real risk that mobility will go down. If you are talking about opportunity, it is really a question of opportunity for young people.”

Dr. Corak’s suggestion is indeed startling. But, as he writes, it has been around since at least the 1980s, when it was formally broached by the Hungarian-born American scholar Paul Demeny.

When I reached him by phone in Budapest, Dr. Demeny explained that he first came up with the idea because he was worried about declining fertility rates in much of Europe. “By the 1980s, the prospect of quite rapid population decline in some European countries was visible and one had to cast about for what public policy could do about this,” he said. “I felt there should be a search for novel approaches.”

Part of the problem, Dr. Demeny realized, was that as democratic societies aged, so did their politics. Elderly voters use that power to shift public expenditures toward themselves, sometimes financing programs by borrowing against the earning power of the younger generation.

That tactic, he worried, created a vicious spiral, by making the next generation concerned about whether it could afford both to have children and to fund its own retirement in a future when the state would surely have less money to spend. Enfranchising children would be a way to fix that political imbalance.

“Quite apart from the demographic argument, it is justified by logic and justice,” Dr. Demeny told me. “Children are people who are extremely interested in the future – they will live for another six or seven or eight decades. They should have a say in how public goods are spent.”

Both men make quick work of the potentially daunting practicalities of the idea – how do you get a kindergartener to the polls? – by suggesting mothers vote for their children. That’s a data-backed view: Mothers are best at spending shared resources on their offspring, which is why state child support usually goes to them.

Part of the appeal of so-called Demeny voting is that it could be bipartisan. It is hard to imagine an idea more likely to empower pro-family, socially conservative communities. And liberals, who often find mothers to be a softer sell, should like the notion, too.

Best of all, Demeny voting could be a way for the developed world to get beyond one of its deepest afflictions. Ours are aging, consumption-based societies, focused on today. We need to find a way to build for the future. Maybe enfranchising our children is the answer.

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