First right-familism, then left-familism, and now demo-familism, with Victorian multi-millionaire father-of-three Labor MP Evan Thornley proposing that parents get votes they can exercise on behalf of their under-18 children.
Given Thornley’s narrow victory in the 2006 Victorian state election I can well understand why he might want an extra three votes. But what are the in-principle arguments for his proposal?:
Families are currently underrepresented in our democracy. They pay but don’t have a say. A family of five or six has no more say in our democracy than a couple of two — yet their needs and potential contribution are greater.
“Electorates with large numbers of families can have up to 30 per cent more people in them than ones that don’t. As a consequence, issues of long-term concern to families like early childhood development, education and the environment don’t get the priority they deserve in our democracy.”
The idea of plural voting has a long history. In the 19th century John Stuart Mill favoured it, on the grounds that intelligent people would cast better-informed votes:
A banker, merchant, or manufacturer is likely to be more intelligent than a tradesman, because he has larger and more complicated interests to manage. In all these cases it is not the having merely undertaken the superior function, but the successful performance of it, that tests the qualifications; for which reason, as well as to prevent persons from engaging nominally in an occupation for the sake of the vote, it would be proper to require that the occupation should have been persevered in for some length of time (say three years). Subject to some such condition, two or more votes might be allowed to every person who exercises any of these superior functions.
More recently, Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter suggests extra votes for those with greater economic literacy.
Mill and Caplan think that public policy would be more improved if voters knew more than they do. Caplan provides survey evidence showing that educated voters’ views on various economic issues are much closer to those of people with economics PhDs than the opinions of the uneducated masses.
Certainly knowledge is better than ignorance on all issues, but I think Mill and Caplan overstate the problem. Public opinion is more influential on the general goals of government than it is on the detail of policy. This is why over the last 25 years politicians largely ignored public opinion on many economic policies and instead focused on achieving, by other means, the outcomes the public wanted. Even now, Labor is making populist noises on prices while carefully avoiding promising price policies it knows full well would cause more problems than they are worth.
Consistent with this, Thornley’s proposal is based not on improving voter quality, but on changing priorities. But can we seriously say that family issues lack priority? With every political party falling over themselves to win the ‘family’ vote, it can hardly be said that families are a neglected political constituency. State and federal governments have been pouring billions into education and family payments have boomed under the Howard government.
His proposal also assumes that families vote differently from the general population. The 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes suggests that this may not be the case.
In the sample as a whole 40.6% said they voted Liberal, 4% National, 34% Labor, 7.4% Green, and 3.2% Family First. There are no direct questions on whether the respondents have kids, but of those living with a child 41.8% said they voted Liberal, 4% voted National, 33.5% said they voted Labor, 7.1% voted Green, and 4% voted Family First.
So the numbers are actually very similar, though with the living-with-child group slightly to the right of the general sample, even though the Coalition is less-preferred on the nominated family-future issues of education and the environment (I can’t recall specific which party is best polling on early childhood issues).
The similar vote shares are not very surprising – parents are already a large part of the electorate, and so will influence the total vote a lot. Given parents’ existing considerable voting strength, perhaps we should be more interested in another John Stuart Mill concern, the tyranny of the majority, with families using their already very considerable voting power to transfer income from singles and couples to themselves.
Thornley’s proposal has practical problems absent from Mill and Caplan’s plural voting ideas. Parents don’t always vote the same way, so who gets to vote on behalf of the children? Would the Family Court have to award custody of voting rights when couples with kids divorce? And what if the kids want their parents to vote for someone other than who the parents prefer? Can we assume that parents are always better judges of issue priorities than their teenage children?
So I don’t think there is much that can be said in favour of Thornley’s idea. Whether the voting age should be lowered is another matter. There are 16 year olds who are more informed on political matters than most adults will ever be; why are they prevented from voting while the know-nothings decide elections? Perhaps the right to vote should be aligned with the school-leaving age, when people have acquired the minimum permissible level of education. It keeps some of the Mill/Caplan notion that education matters, while not putting the priorities of the educated above the priorities of everyone else.