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We can blame old people for Brexit, but we shouldn’t take away their votes

Reuters/Neil Hall
To the victors go the spoils.
  • Jason Brennan
By Jason Brennan

Associate professor, Georgetown University

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“The UK’s old decided for the young in the Brexit vote,” TIME magazine recently declared. Young voters largely wanted to remain in the European Union, while old voters overwhelmingly voted to leave. Many people have since claimed that the young were “screwed by older generations.”

The fallout has lead to some controversial theories. Some political philosophers argue that instead of giving each person one equal vote, democracies should weigh votes in proportion to how much of a stake citizens have in the outcome. Pundit George Chesterton goes further, and demands we disenfranchise anyone of retirement age.

The anger over the results of Brexit is understandable. But selective disenfranchisement is a dangerous proposition.

Anger over Brexit is understandable. But disenfranchisement is dangerous.

Some people worry that because old voters have little stake in the future, they have little incentive to vote in ways that reflect a country’s long-term interests or to think carefully about their decisions. After all, the theory goes, an 85-year-old retired man and a 21-year-old fresh out of college will be affected differently by electoral outcomes. The old only have to live with the results for a few years; the young, for decades. The old aren’t looking for jobs or opportunities to emigrate, but the young are.

This argument seems reasonable at first glance. But when we think more carefully about the mathematics of voting, it doesn’t hold up. Yes, it’s true that the old have less of stake in the future than the young. But the problem with this argument is that no one has a stake in her own individual vote. No voter, old or young, has an incentive to use her vote wisely.

No one has a stake in her own individual vote. No voter, old or young, has an incentive to use her vote wisely.

An individual vote makes a difference only when it changes the outcome of an election, that is, only if it breaks a tie. The chances that an individual voter will break a tie in a major national election, such as the US presidential election or the Brexit vote, are about the same as her chances of winning Powerball or EuroMillions.

Had any individual Brexit voter abstained or voted the other way, the results would have been the same. In the same way, winning Powerball can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but an individual Powerball ticket is worthless.

The problem, then, is that voters have no incentive to be informed or to process information in a rational way. While the young and old do tend to have different policy preferences, these preferences do not generally reflect selfish behavior. As I explain in my book, Against Democracy, one of the most important and surprising findings in political science is that few voters vote their self-interest. Instead, most voters vote for what they believe (perhaps mistakenly) to be their nation’s common good.

When we talk about taking away one group’s voting privileges, we open ourselves up to an incredibly slippery slope.

Since people are generally selfish in their daily lives, that seems strange. But it is less strange when you think about the incentives voters face. If you were a perfectly selfish person who just wanted to help yourself, you wouldn’t vote selfishly; rather, you wouldn’t vote at all. You better serve your self-interest by watching TV than by spending twenty minutes of your time casting a vote that has less than a 1 in 100 million chance of making any difference.

The differences between the young and old voters do not reflect self-interest. Everyone votes their conscience. Neither do they reflect degrees of rationality; most voters from any demographic group are ignorant and biased, though some groups are on average better than others. Instead, they mostly reflect genuine differences in ideology, and ideology cannot be determined automatically by age, race or gender.

When we talk about taking away one group’s voting privileges because we don’t like the way they voted, we also open ourselves up to an incredibly slippery slope. Where would one draw the line?

Ultimately, if the young want to exercise more influence over elections and referendums, the main solution is for them to start showing up. The old turn out to vote at higher rates than the young (perhaps in part because they aren’t as busy), which is why the old tend to dominate.

This concern isn’t special to the UK. In the US, the old and young also tend to have different policy preferences. And it’s true that American politics would probably look quite different if millennials voted at higher rates than the elderly. We can debate whether that would be a good thing or not. But we don’t have strong grounds for disenfranchising the elderly or reducing the weight of their votes. It’s true that they have little stake in their votes. But then, that’s true of all of us.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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