should kids vote? or: what kind of prison is a high school?

March 15, 2009


look - a young Alicia Witt!

look - a young Alicia Witt!

Scott Aaronson – the quantum complexity theorist of record – has a really stimulating post on whether we should give children the right to vote.


Scott has in mind kids aged 12 or 14 up, especially those who have passed some kind of citizenship test. As he says, this is not the kind of thing Obama needs to burn political capital on. But it’s something he feels strongly about. 

As he should. Scott is what you call a wunderkind.  He graduated from Cornell at age 18 (- I wonder if it bothers him that Cornell is NBC’s favorite whipping child -) and is now an assistant professor at MIT at a tender 27. So he’s probably got a better idea than most of us how adults treat kids.

Quoting him:

As John Stuart Mill pointed out in The Subjection of Women, it’s not clear how you make an affirmative case against a form of discrimination: pretty much all you can do is stand around, wait for people to suggest pro-discrimination arguments, and then answer them.

You should read his whole post to understand the context and acquaint yourself with his nerdy sense of humor. His argumentation is rhetorically beautiful in a Tom Paine sort of way.

If minors could vote, wouldn’t Bush have almost certainly lost both times—thereby averting (or at least mitigating) the global disaster from which we’re now struggling to recover?  Or was that a fluke: a case of the young disproportionately getting the right answer by accident, while the older and wiser made one of their rare mistakes?


People say: but children only care about the present; they lack foresight.  But isn’t it children pressuring their parents to worry about climate change and the Amazon rainforest, more often than the other way around?  […] So if—like me and many others—you see excessive short-term focus as the central tragedy of politics, then shouldn’t you be chomping at the bit to let more young people vote?

Now comes the part of the argument that most interests me:

People say: but only a tiny minority of precocious, high-IQ children could possibly care about voting—and while you might have a point in their case, you ignore the 99% of children who only care about the latest Hannah Montana accessory.

And as Scott says, we don’t rescind rights that only 1% of adults choose to exercise.

To me, the interesting part of this argument is that it forces me to try to put myself in my own former mind and that of other teens, which raises a series of questions that would take some reading on my part to sort out. Foremost for these purposes: At what point is a kid’s mind sophisticated enough to model sufficiently many other minds around her to glean the rules of authority in the family unit? among her playmates? school administrators? the larger world?

I’m not sure I want to hazard guesses. Let’s say that on any given level it only takes her a year or so, assuming she’s correctly interpreted the dynamics on the next simplest level, and that at any level she can be thwarted, encouraged or anything in between. And let’s say that if she’s thwarted long enough, she has two options, either 1) try to convince everyone around her who’s abusing their authority that they are wrong, or 2) give up and go with the flow, trying her best to preserve a sphere of mental autonomy. And maybe the struggle of (2) uses up a lot of bandwidth.

Here’s where I fetishize genius so that someday I may learn to stop fetishizing it. I think of Alia Atreides, the child character in Dune who acquires sentience in the womb when her mother, the Lady Jessica, is forced to undergo an awkwardly-timed Spice agony ritual. <cough>nerdgasm</cough> Basically, Jessica ingests an ass-ton of drugs and has to ride the trip until she either mind-melds with her ancestors or dies.

Imagine if the stork delivered you a peanut-shaped hairless ape that had already mastered language. How rapidly would a kid like that acquire Wikipedia-type knowledge? Would they view high school as even more of a prison culture than some of the rest of us did? (I never got beat up; I was too good at policing myself.) It’s interesting to keep that point in mind while watching these videos of Intel “Science Talent Search” finalists.

Now to what extent is Scott’s case unusual? I’d expect “brainy” kids – the Alias, the Doogie Howsers, the Intel winners – to be better at articulating feelings that might be more or less universal among teens. And to the extent that those feelings really are universal, then on some level any kid has a more or less accurate mental representation of the social structure and the reality they find themselves in. I’d be interested to hear more from someone who knows developmental psychology – i.e., who has kids or has worked with them.

Now for the fun digressions! 1) Are teenagers buck wired to go buck wild? I.e., are they impulsive? Science says: probably. If so, then what about brainy kids? To further reify the child genius, might they have more “meta”-level connections, such that they are better able to analyze and control their alleged impulses? I have no idea.

Do I agree that if teens are more free-wheeling than adults, then it’s solely physiologically ordained – the result of the pace at which brains of that age form new connections? Not necessarily. I’ll have to read more Pinker. Until then, get your own blog. I’m not even sure it matters for Scott’s argument, which is why this is a digression.

2) In the comments to Scott’s post, somebody mentions Ender’s Game  – the short story and novel by Orson Scott Card about children recruited by the government to attend an elite military school, where they train to be officers in the ongoing human-v-insectoid-alien war. And their training consists of video games! I imagine something like the heads up display from The Last Starfighter – more Tron than Galaga.

There’s an Ender comic book and a movie version seems to be lurching along. I’m too much of a tease to divulge the plot twist, which Shyamalan himself should be recruited to direct. Big Hint: It’s spawns a series of hand-wringing sequels.

The big finish: I’ve now proven – for the umpteenth time in this post alone! – that science fiction is for spoon feeding nerds the same insights that could have been gained from sitting through a few good humanities classes. And that blogging is a tool for discovering the right straw man to knock down.


5 Responses to “should kids vote? or: what kind of prison is a high school?”

  1. Patrick Says:

    I think we all agree that the freedom of a republic varies negatively with degree of suffrage. To, illustrate, imagine a Society Score ranging from 1 (unimaginable utopia) to 0 (wherever the Event Horizon went). Observe:

    Voting Population——————–Society Score
    I Alone 1
    I + Capt. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds .5
    All Men – Reavers 10^-10
    All Men + Some Women 10^-100
    Universal Suffrage – Kids 10^-1000
    Truly Universal Suffrage hoo boy

    Kids are natural liberals. They think the world is perfectable. Their world usually is. Their teeth fall out then grow back stronger. They can’t read then they can.

    When I was 10 I *knew* that reefer smokers should go to jail. When I was 15 I *knew* that The Progressives saved America from The Robber Barons.

    Not everyone knows better once they’re 18. But they’re more likely to want to be left the hell alone.

  2. JR Says:

    Patrick, I see we agree on both counts of interest – first, that the absolute numerical difference between 10E-4 and your “hoo boy” construct is relatively small, indicating the change to teenage suffrage would have little effect on your subjective experience of the world – and second, that the votes of tooth-regrowers could be a useful antidote against the votes of those who take the emergence of a few gray hairs as sign that potential perils to the republic such as climate-induced conflicts between bordering states and ethnicities are inevitable and therefore that nothing need be done about e.g. climate change.

  3. Patrick Says:

    Oh, good… we have credible strategic planning scenarios for international conflicts decades in the future? And widely accepted climate models that predict specific local conditions that would precipitate such conflicts? And a set of ecological/economic policies that, if undertaken now, would perturb those climatic trends and avoid those outcomes? That’s great news!

    And here I was, worried that we might make political/economic policy based on something other than the environmental movement’s storied reliance on cool, detached analysis of scientific data and sober cost-benefit calculations (and the media’s never-hysterical reporting of thereof). I feel like such an uninformed old crank! If only I had some adolescents armed with the covers of Time magazine and Natl.Geographic for KIDS! to circle this square.

  4. JR Says:

    So we’re agreed, then.

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