A few days ago, I found myself in a situation familiar to most youth rights activists. NYRA came up in the course of conversation, and one of my classmates asked me when I felt people should be granted the right to vote. I responded by stating that everyone who is governed by laws should have a say in how those laws are made. I went on to contend that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed; not the elders, the wealthy, the intelligentsia or any other exclusive group. Another individual told me that this position was asinine, and that ageism has rightfully existed since the beginning of time. This argument seems to come up rather often, especially when a disagreement arises from some radical abstract (in this case, suffrage for newborns.)
But is this a legitimate reason to perpetuate ageism? Should we hold true to all of our traditions, whatever they may be? If this line of reasoning is brought to its logical extreme it quickly becomes absurd. War has existed for as long as civilization but that does not mean everyone working towards peace is a lost idealist. The disparity between rich and poor has been with us for all of human history, but that does not make economic justice an impossible dream. Sexism and racial bigotry have been woven in to the fabric of our beings over thousands of years, but it is generally accepted that these are evils of which we must work to rid ourselves. Three hundred years ago democracy itself was regarded as a radical concept because autocracy had been the norm since Caesar.
As civilization moves forward, we must strive towards ideals and away from the unjust authoritarianism that seemed pragmatic in more primitive circumstances. The struggle between youth rights and ageism illustrates this point quite vividly. As the quality of life improves, it should become easier for us to do what is right in spite of some archaic illusion of practicality.
When politicians promote ageist policies, they often do so in an attempt to protect young people. In this age, these individuals should recognize that the best way to protect young people is to afford them enough liberty to protect themselves. The socioeconomic conditions that led to child labor laws, compulsory education, and other such institutions are no longer prevalent. It is time for us to admit that this form of protectionism is no longer necessary, if it was ever necessary at all.
Young people have the same birthright to self governance as the rest of us. There is nothing in Locke, nothing in the Bible, nothing anywhere in the great canon of human thought which endorses ageism as being inherently good. There are passages in the Old Testament, in the works of Confucius and elsewhere, that seem to promote ageism in order to address practical concerns. But in a modern and democratic society, we must realize that these circumstances no longer exist to the extent that they once did. We are rapidly progressing toward a point where that which works is indistinguishable from that which is right.
We have long held the notion that every one ought to be as free as their circumstances allow. Sweeping advances in technology, economics, and governance have permitted us to abandon this qualifier with greater ease. While the pursuit of comfort and safety should never have obstructed liberty anyway, it won’t be long until the day when we do not have to choose one over the other.