Kid’s Rights

Scott Aaronson confesses:

Discuss: Should children have the right to vote?

The above is a question that’s interested me for as long as I can remember, though I avoided blogging about it until now.  See, unlike many libertarian economist Ayn-Rand types, I don’t actually like asking social or political questions the very asking of which marks you as eccentric and Aspbergerish. I’d rather apply myself to proving lower bounds, popularizing quantum mechanics, or other tasks that are (somewhat) more respected by the society I depend on for my dinner. And I’d rather pick battles, like evolution or climate change, where truth and justice have well-connected allies on their side and a non-negligible chance of winning.  For years, I’ve been studying the delicate art of keeping my mouth shut when what I have to say will be deeply unpopular—and despite lapses, I’ve actually made a great deal of progress since (let’s say) the age of 14.

There are times, though, when a question strikes such an emotional chord with me that I break down and ask it in spite of everything.  Such a case was provoked by this story in the New York Times a few weeks ago (registration required), about a 17-year-old girl who was jailed for creating a MySpace page. …

If I had political capital to spend, I would not want to spend it on children’s rights, just as I wouldn’t want to spend it on legalizing marijuana.  In both cases, I’m guessing that lions will embrace vegetarianism and the polynomial hierarchy will collapse to the 23rd level before American law changes significantly.  But I’ve also noticed an interesting difference between the two issues.  In the case of marijuana, almost every brainful person I’ve met (whether “liberal” or “conservative”) has agreed that the current American laws are an absurdity; that all the power is on one side of the issue while all the evidence and arguments are on the other side; and that eventually, one imagines this will all be as obvious to everyone as it’s obvious today (say) that contraceptives should be legal.  It’s just a question of time, of the regrettable generations-long delay between the inarguable and the acted-upon.

By contrast, when it comes to granting legal rights to children, people whose intelligence I respect seem compelled to give really bad arguments for the status quo—arguments that (so to speak) a 12-year-old could demolish.

Scott likely has me in mind as one a "libertarian economist" type, and considers this conversation one of his previous Aspbergerish mistakes.  He's right that anti kids' rights arguments are unusually weak, but I'm surprised he thinks it such a lost cause.  Age rules change quite often, and in 1971 the US approved a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18. 

I could easily imagine, and support, new laws to lower this age to 16.  I could also support Scott's proposal to use a "a test of basic civics knowledge" as the cutoff, and while this is less likely than an age-based reform, it seems quite well within the realm of feasible outcomes.  This sounds like a good use for a betting market, to convince people that certain reforms are likely enough to be work working for.

Added 14Mar: This post is mainly about kids' rights in general; voting rights is just one example of a right.  I have already said I'm in general willing to limit the franchise to the more informed.  Re worries about test coruption, we now have a test for citizenship, so we should either dump that or accept tests for voting rights.

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