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Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

Voting rights for children

I was suddenly infamous in Belgium last month after an interview with a Flemish newspaper, and quickly felt sympathy for all those politicians who are hunted by journalists and ‘the public’.

Readers and listeners variously reacted: "I’ve never heard anything so retarded", "what academic drivel", "has he been smoking weed?" One Flemish celebrity found my ideas "too crazy for words", and even the radio journalist did a little research and discovered that in the distant past, the right wing extremist Flemish nationalistic party, the ‘Vlaams Blok’ had put forward similar ideas. Was I now supporting their ideas, she asked me in a disbelieving voice?  

Even my older brother sent me a bit of friendly fraternal advice: perhaps I should be a little more careful in what I say publicly. What was going on?

At the close of a weekend interview with a newspaper I had expressed some concern at the older generation’s increasing dominance of our political and economic life, especially the baby boomer generation. Myself included! Not really new ideas, as I had expressed those views already in a number of opinion pieces (see e.g. Trends article of 23 December 2010).  

The moment was certainly well chosen. Last weekend Belgium broke another new and unique world record: the caretaker government, still in power with no new government after 500 days of negotiations, had to take urgent measures to save one of its banks. In doing so it flew in the face of nearly all European agreements, increasing an already towering public debt by another 1% in barely a weekend, and having to spend 15% of it's national income on financial guarantees to bring the Belgian arm of the Dexia bank into state ownership. An old classmate of mine from Ghent, Bruneel Dirk, stated in the Dutch newspaper NRC that the new state-owned bank Dexia would be so profitable that it shouldn’t prove too difficult to turn around. I would love to believe him, but then again I also believed Georges Leekens, the coach of the Belgian football team, who before the game against Germany said that Belgium was fielding some very young and talented players. The problem was of course that the German players were even younger and more talented...

But let me come now to the issue which raised so much controversy.
Like Dutch Limburg, the whole of Belgium is ageing rapidly. This ageing process isn’t just an economically significant trend, it is also a politically important shift. The latter raises questions about the sustainability of our democratic system. What e.g. if in such rapidly ageing societies such as Belgium, the elected democratic majority gets older over time? Currently the average voter age in Belgium is around 50, but with increasing life expectancy this will rise to about 55 by 2030, the current average retirement age in Belgium. It can be expected that older people are first and foremost concerned with their specific needs and requirements: healthcare, income security and of course the purchasing power of their pension retirement. All needs and requirements which will have to be met mainly from annual tax revenues, partly because Belgium has few, if any, pension funds.

The next question is: how will a society, soon with fewer people working, be able to pay more taxes for the particular needs and requirements of the inactive (i.e. people who have retired)? The question posed to young people in Belgium, as well as in other ageing societies is what their future will look like in a society so economically and politically dominated by the elderly?

Politically, our democracy also seems biased because residents under 18 are not allowed to vote. Today this effectively means that the voice of a large minority in our society is not heard. And this minority is made up precisely of those residents whose lives in the not-too-distant future will be weighed down by the environmental / climate change problems created by previous generations.

My suggestion, to allow young people to vote, seemed at first sight a fairly logical correction to our ageing democracy. But of course the practical implementation raises many questions. In a slight variation would you vote to extend suffrage to young people from e.g. 14 years? It would certainly mobilize political interest among young people.

A more radical alternative would allow for working parents with children under the age of 14 to have a proxy vote.

The many angry responses from so many Flemish readers and listeners illustrate the familiar paradox of any proposed change in electoral rules: if a majority would vote for the proposal, there may be no need for it. In this sense it seems that in our aging society our vision for the future is already dominant and indeed not very far reaching.

To reverse a phrase by the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes, in ageing societies: "In the short run, most of us will be dead…".

Luc Soete

October 15, 2011


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