Extra votes for the young

by Milan on January 23, 2012

in Climate change, Ethics

By all indications, the choices we are making about climate change and energy now have the effect of selling out the interests of future generations, in exchange for greater wealth during the next few years. This connects to the central conflict of interest created by climate change: the disjoint between the interests of those who burn fossil fuels and those who suffer from the pollution that behaviour creates. All indications from the political system suggest that people will continue to undermine the interests of their own children and grandchildren, where doing so is personally financially beneficial to them.

Earlier, I brought up a radical proposal to align the interests of the elite with those of future generations. Unfortunately, no such proposal has any chance of success, because elites are highly influential and members of future generations are nothing but powerless victims.

Perhaps one way reduce the strength of the intergenerational conflict of interest is to adjust the voting system so that those who will experience more of the consequences of climate change have more of an ability to vote. Specifically, votes could be weighted so that those of younger people count for a bit more while those of older people count for less.

Each person could start with one guaranteed vote. Younger people could then be credited with additional partial votes, to represent their greater personal interest in the choices being made today. If we assume that people in Canada live to be about 80, that means someone who is 50 today is likely to live until about 2042. Somebody who is 20 today, by contrast, is likely to live until 2072. The amount of climate change experienced by the 20-year-old is likely to be substantially greater. They will also live longer with the consequences of all the other related choices we made: from designing electricity and transport infrastructure to managing conflict internationally.

One way to implement this idea would be to give everyone 1 vote, plus an additional 1/100th of a vote for every year they are likely to live (based on the simplification that everyone will live to be about 80). Someone who is 20 would therefore get their 1 vote, plus 0.6 additional votes to represent how long they will be on the planet. Someone who is 70 would only get 1 vote plus 0.1 additional votes.

Usually, the older someone gets, the worse the alignment is between their interests and the interests of society as a whole. (This is obvious in areas like health care, where those who are dying have every interest in unlimited public funding being devoted to keeping them alive.) Actually, this is a more general problem. An employee who knows he will be quitting in two weeks has little or no interest in the long-term health of the company. A tourist who is leaving a country in a couple of days has little interest in its long term health. Those who have little time left on the planet have every personal reason to support the pillage of the natural world, if it means their remaining time will be more prosperous and comfortable.

The young, by contrast, will be forced to live with the choices we make, right or wrong. If we do too little about climate change, they will suffer from all of the effects of that choice. Similarly, if we actually end up doing too much about climate change – scrapping too much fossil fuel infrastructure and building too much renewable energy capacity – it is the young people of today who will live poorer lives because of it.

The idea of weighing votes by age, even if it is philosophically and ethically defensible, is probably politically impossible. Older people are richer and more involved in the political process. They seriously outgun young people who are struggling to develop personal financial security and who are largely uninterested in voting. It may also be faulty to assume that young people will vote with their own long-term interests in mind. They may prove just as narrowly self-interested as older people have been. Instead of seeing policies developed that will encourage the emergence of a decent world for everyone in 2050 or 2100, they may just support policies that make the world of 2012 a little bit better for them personally.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

a_llusive January 23, 2012 at 9:48 am

Many younger people are less directly involved with or interested in child-rearing, workplace, or elder care issues. Should voting be reweighted on those issues accordingly? Need there be a referendum on every issue by affected, rather than funding, sector of the populace? I can see you’re trying to create a fairer mechanic for decisions involving long-term ineradicable wholesale degredation of the environment, but many of the young who have listened to and are convinced by the science supporting climate change predictions have a hard time translating appreciation of future ill-effects to present behaviour (smoking and drinking and exercise patterns are constant evidence of this), and as a sector they’re as prone to ignoring the message, being confused by astroturfers or focusing on their immediate problems, as many others. I neither think your suggestion is workable or would work. Trying to game the numbers to adapt human behaviour to the rational when they’re already demonstrating wholesale irrational behaviour is optimistic in the extreme, though the solutions-focus is to be applauded.

Milan January 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

Even if the idea is a no-hoper, it may be worth talking about.

I think many older people are living with the delusion that their choices so far have been good for future generations.

Based on their current platforms, it seems fair to say that a vote for any of Canada’s current major political parties is a vote against future generations. None of them has a serious plan for Canada doing its fair share in cutting global emissions.

. January 23, 2012 at 10:12 am
Anon January 23, 2012 at 10:14 am

Perhaps the formula should be much more aggressive: one vote for each probable life year remaining.

A young person might get 60 votes, while an elderly person would get just 10.

Byron Smith February 2, 2012 at 8:09 am

A 20 year old living today expecting to live to 80 on our current global trajectory is an optimist. Or very rich.

oleh October 9, 2017 at 12:46 pm

Your weighted voting idea is worthy of consideration, especially with the bit the formula that you are suggesting, with the example of 1.6 votes for a 20 year old and 1.1 votes for a 70 year old. The basis for such a weighting would that the effect could be greater on those that are young.

The challenge is how to balance long term interest of what is good for society in the long term and the short-term goal of getting elected

How do we in general encourage long tem considerations having more weight.

oleh October 9, 2017 at 12:50 pm

I question one assumption – that the older one is the less one aligns with the interests of society as a whole. I do not think that alignment comes from age but from the lens that one looks through and the tradition that one is brought up in.

Thank you for raising this discussion in your note of 5 years ago – and just as topical today.

oleh October 9, 2017 at 12:52 pm

I notice that there is a feature by which there is notification of followup comments by email. I am going to use this feature for the first time as I am particularly interested in what others may feel.

Milan October 12, 2017 at 2:35 am

This site gets almost no traffic now.

The most likely course of future events seems to be:

1) Humanity ignores the implications of climate science and keeps burning fossil fuels with abandon

2) The damage arising from climate change becomes worse and worse

3) Instead of cooperating and solving the problem, states focus on their short term interests and arming themselves further in a more dangerous world – there are many wars over water and refugees, many more states get nuclear weapons, there are wars where nuclear weapons are used

4) When the catastrophic consequences of climate change become obvious, states desperately try geoengineering

From there, it’s possible geoengineering doesn’t work at all, or that it works with terrible consequences. Based on what is happening right now, it seems quite likely that the whole world in 2050 will be like Syria today. The flabbergasting thing is how people with young children feel no strong obligation to do anything about the problem. I guess it’s too big for human psychology to grasp, and that may be why there will be no people (or very few) in 2100.

Milan August 5, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Another way this could be done is by giving everyone two votes: one for themselves and one to be cast on behalf of future generations. Parties could compete to appeal to people for their “future generations” vote specifically, and allowing two votes would reduce some First Past The Post distortions. As a bonus, it might encourage people to think about future generations when deciding how to vote.

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