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September 29, 2004

Exploration: Emancipation

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

The point of this essay is that it is not an essay; it is an "exploration". I don't have any outline going into this, and it's not meant to end up as something that other people will read. This is where I'll sort through my thoughts. It's like note-taking -- but in sentences and paragraphs, rather than in fragments. The idea is to just keep going forward, and not become recursive, trying to edit what I still haven't even thought through. I think I can trust that by writing "explorations" such as this one, outlines will naturally emerge -- if it turns out that I even have adequate material for an essay. [Discovering that I really don't have adequate material for an essay would be valuable in itself!]

So, although I already said some of this in my previous essay ("OUTLINE: Youth Are Nobody's Property -- Except Their Own", M 09.20.04), I'm going to recap where this train of thought began...

1. Teaming up with Older Voters?

There was a New York Times article that I read online about how there's new concern about the competency of older voters. Because vote-by-mail is becoming so common, there's concern that family members and political groups will wrongly use the ballots of older voters who are no longer legally "sane". Regardless of how you go about curbing fraud -- whether well-intentioned on the part of family members, or manipulative on the part of political parties -- this raises issues about how one tests for mental competency. ...Honestly, I haven't read the article thoroughly yet -- but it spurred another train of thought.

When YL activists have discussed how to win the vote, it's generally been a matter of youth winning it on their own. But what if YL teamed up? Older voters whose mental facilities have declined, as well as adults with various developmental disabilities, share issues in common with youth. What if youth could ride in on their coat tails? If there were a test for mental competency that was widely accepted, then shouldn't youth be able to take it too?

It's not so simple, of course. With elders, the issue is at what point a right that they already have will be taken away from them. While it seems like there should be a single standard, it's still a different thing when youth are petitioning to have a right given to them. It's strange: the barriers to youth claiming the right to vote are strong; but it sounds like the issue of removing the rights of the elderly is a fairly new concern. Depending on which way the political winds blow, this might not be good for youth at all -- perhaps restrictions on voting in general will become stricter!

2. Constitutional Concerns

There's another key difference between the situations of elders and minors. The voting age, 18, is named in the constitution. Nothing about an upper age limit exists there. What's more, the Twenty-sixth Amendment (our most recent amendment), which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, was only passed in 1971 -- it seems soon to revisit age and voting in the constitution.

In the fight for the vote, and in all other fights about artificial age lines, we must remember that this problem is rooted in the constitution. Change is therefore going to require a "yes" from two-thirds of both the House and Senate (Article V). ...Actually (I'm looking at the constitution now), this is interesting: the minimum voting age for citizens is not in the constitution -- it's in the Amendments. The constitution lists 25, 30, and 35 as the minimum ages for representatives, senators, and presidents, respectively. The voting age of 21 is created by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866. [I wonder what the story is, there? I have a suspicion that it might have to do with changes in the electoral college system.]

So the constitution is where the fight for the vote ultimately must take place. For several years, my thinking has been that we don't have a shot at the vote until we make progress on a more local level. We need a cultural shift. I see two avenues to work on. First, we need to create democratically run schools. Youth must have hiring, firing, and funding powers -- not just puppet "student councils". Schools are the arm of the government most intimate to youths' lives; if we win the schools, then it will seem more natural for youth to have the vote at the national level. [The difficulty with this is that teachers' unions are powerful; and teachers have a vested interest (their jobs!) in not letting youth have hire/fire power.] Second, we need to establish more youth-led lobbying groups in order to demonstrate (and instigate) youth having an interest in politics to begin with. I know there are models in existence already of organizations that find out what youth care about, and then take those concerns to legislators (generally adult-run, but steered by youths' actual voices).

When I read the NYT article, I got all excited because I thought I finally saw a way to deal with the vote now -- rather than having to wait for cultural shifts to become mainstream. Actually, my brainstorm resulted in two distinct ideas. First, what if youth could ride in on the coat-tails of other groups with similar competency issues? [I've already discussed this notion, above.] Second, what if we circumvented numerical age lines by instituting a different standard altogether?

Put differently, what if instead of trying to subtract the 26th Amendment, we added a 27th Amendment that dealt with "emancipation"? This notion is a pretty radical departure from my previous thinking. What we would do is leave 18 in place as a default -- but strengthen youth's ability to self-emancipate. If you're emancipated, then, you get to vote -- regardless of numerical age. ...The idea has both pros and cons; exploring them is the meat of what I have intended to do with this essay ("exploration").

3. Pros and Cons of an Emancipation Amendment

First off, I have to confess that I failed to really realize during the initial glow of this new plan, that adding a 27th Amendment is likely to be just as hard as striking down the 26th. Not that just striking down the 26th would be enough -- if we did that, presumably we'd revert to the 14th Amendment! It's a rather odd situation, that the 14th Amendment remains in place in the Amendments, even after it's been changed. I suppose the 26th doesn't really change the bulk of the 14th... Nonetheless, it's an interesting approach to maintaining this document, that rather than editing the original language, all changes get tacked onto the end. It highlights how every change is a moment in history where the political parties, and the house and senate, come into agreement. Rare, indeed.

Pro: Leaving 18 in place as a default: it recognizes that we are building on top of an existing history, rather than starting from a blank slate, or somehow magically erasing the past. This isn't a very palatable realization, but perhaps a necessary one. It's tempting to stay in the fantasy world of utopias, imagining a perfect plan without compromises. ...But is leaving 18 in place a compromise we can live with?

Con: I've been invested in an "ageless society", "abolish adulthood" model for years now. Maybe we can shift culture so that people only see emancipated and non-emancipated people. It seems unlikely, though. It's more probable that a distinction between people (adults) and non-persons (youth) will continue to exist, just with redrawn lines.

Pro: It's not bad to suggest that if youth want to vote, they should choose to emancipate themselves. Having a voice in decisions that steer society is a responsibility; I don't mind there being a formal moment when young people say "I now take responsibility". I don't think the test should be difficult, however. Basically anyone who's intelligent enough to know that they want to vote, should be allowed to.

Con: Any test at all -- whether it's for elders, developmentally disabled adults, or youth -- opens up the possibility for abuse. I'm thinking about Jim Crow laws: how literacy tests, etc., were used to keep blacks from voting. Always remember: elections are a war where the two sides vying for power have agreed to abide by certain rules. It is within political parties' self-interest to use all legal means at their disposal to win. If youth are more likely to vote Democrat (hypothetically), then it is in Republicans' interest to prevent them from voting at all.

Aside: On the other hand, if youth were voters, it would open up a whole new demographic. In the first all-ages election [**nice phrase!], there would be a massive battle to get the new youth vote. Presidential candidates would probably package themselves differently to appeal to youth; political ads would run during the Saturday morning cartoons and other non-traditional advertising time slots. Or maybe the parties wouldn't focus too heavily on youth during the election. Currently, young adults have very poor voter turn-out. If everyone could vote, though, there might be a move to set up voting booths at youth-friendly sites -- like at schools -- which might improve turn-out.

[Digression: Part of why youth aren't very interested in elections may be because they aren't property holders, and don't tend to have much control of their money. I've recently learned that the labor laws that restrict both child labor and senior citizens were created as part of the New Deal, in an intentional move to shrink the labor pool during the Depression. One could argue -- though perhaps not convincingly -- that youth regaining a strong right to earn money is a precursor for them to become invested in winning the vote.]

Pause: I realize that I haven't really said what I need to say about emancipation. I should go into it before I continue on.

"Emancipation" is a powerful word. It invokes images of the Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves in the United States. That's an appropriate image: to a large extent, youth remain in a property-like status, essentially owned by their parents. [In the NYT article, there was an intriguing sentence about how some states disallow anyone who has a legal guardian from voting. I hadn't realized that "guardian" was a term that might also apply to caretakers of elderly or adult persons.]

What does it buy a youth to become emancipated? Not necessarily as much as it should! Even though you sever ties with your parents, you're still a minor in almost all other respects -- suffering the discriminatory laws that are imposed upon minors. How does one become emancipated? Right now, it sounds like it's a damned difficult process, which involves petitioning a judge. From a very cursory peek into my books on youth-related law, it even looks like youth may be prohibited from "divorcing" their parents on their own initiative; the petition must be brought by an adult.

"Emancipation" as it currently exists is watered down, and too difficult to access. What youth need is to be able to self-emancipate on demand. It is wrong that they should be treated like property. Perhaps it is fine for parents to be the default care-givers; but if it really is about care-giving, rather than possession, then youth should be able to sever the tie at will. The fact that it is very difficult for youth to become independent suggests that this is really an issue of property rights -- parents, as property owners, want laws that make it difficult for anyone to take what belongs to them.

It seems like we should put emancipation at the heart of the YL agenda. If the rights conferred to a youth upon emancipation were equal to those that adults enjoy, then it would be eminently acceptable to focus on winning this key right. However, if that were the only thing that we worked on, we would be essentially abandoning un-emancipated youth to their fates. Thus, we need a second, additional focus: we need to strengthen the ability of youth to leave bad guardians (or proxies, such as teachers) at will.

What I'm saying is that I think the whole youth agenda may boil down to two points:

1) Let youth assume responsibility as soon as the desire / are ready.

2) Let youth escape bad guardians and proxies at will.

OK, I think I've adequately outlined what I'm thinking about emancipation now. Back to the pros and cons.

Con: Emancipation is not so simple as just getting the right to vote, although that may be an important application. Guardians oversee "dependents". I've frequently discussed three levels of dependence: (a) for physical survival, (b) for navigating through social institutions, (c) for financial support. While it seems like anyone who's willing to say "I want to be emancipated" is probably able to take care of the first two of these, the economic issue is likely to remain a problem. Does claiming intellectual independence necessarily have to mean severing financial ties, as well? It seems like these two things should be separate. [Somewhere in my writing, I talked about how parents fulfill three jobs: (a) physical care-giving, (b) assistant / counselor for navigating the adult social system, (c) financial patron.] ... [While I'm at it, I should at least mention how unfair it is that financial aid for college is often based on your parents' salaries -- even if you are receiving no support from them.]

Pro: Having a line between the emancipated and un-emancipated in YL theory would affirm the importance of parents /guardians in care-giving. My "ageless society" writings have often garnered criticisms that I undervalue the importance of parents. I don't mean to; good care-giving is incredible important. What I'm trying to do is extract the portion of "parent" that is equated with "property owner, owner of a person". Toward that goal, I've had questions about how people understand the identities "adult" and "parent". Although "guardian" invokes bad images in my mind of people who want to be omnipotent and hero-like, turning my emphasis onto that word might alleviate some of the shear that I'm getting from parents and parent wannabes.

Pro: I have a notion that creating an Emancipation Amendment might give us a new tool in fighting the proliferation of artificial age lines. We might be able to say in its language that there shall only be a distinction between emancipated and un-emancipated people (who are cared for by guardians). No numerically-age-based law may created that restricts an emancipated person.

...This would leave room for practical rules that are based on physical ability, e.g. "you must be this tall to ride this attraction", or strength requirements for people who sit in the exit aisles of airplanes. You probably wouldn't have to explicitly say anything about this loophole in the Amendment itself -- but might want to say something at some point, to prevent height from becoming the new covert way to discriminate against youth -- and incidentally against midgets, too!

...The Emancipation Amendment, it seems would have several parts. (A) The creation of a new status: anyone who is emancipated shall enjoy the full privileges of citizenship (unless convicted of crime). (B) Persons who are under the control of a guardian may self-emancipate at will. (C) The financial patronage of a guardian shall not be automatically severed upon emancipation. (D) No numerically-age-based law may be created that restricts an emancipated person; however, rules may be created if they are upon the need for a physical ability.

Con: I think that laws against age discrimination already exist at the federal level. Numbers such as 18, 21, 25, 30, and 35, proliferate nonetheless. Perhaps enforcing age non-discrimination is really a matter for the courts. If so, it's a Supreme Court level decision that is needed -- there is precedence for artificial age lines in the constitution itself. It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would invalidate age-based lines. Firstly, their main job (as I understand it) is upholding the constitution -- such a broad reinterpretation would amount to rewriting it.

Question: My thinking here has been that by strengthening the emancipated / non-emancipated distinction, we might have a shot at bundling up all of the various age-lines and wiping them out all at once. It's like saying, "hey, we have this new category -- you don't have to use numerical age anymore". This maybe overly optimistic, more than you can do in a single Amendment. ...So are age lines really a separate issue from emancipation? Or are they implied when I say "1) Let youth assume responsibility as soon as the desire / are ready"? Maybe I'm trying to squish a lot of assumptions under that heading -- after all different people could certainly have different interpretations of what emancipation should look like! Still, in terms of reducing a 10 or 15 point agenda down to two principles -- I'm fond of the simplification, and think the inherent ambiguities are forgivable, if it really does touch on YL's essence.

Pro: Leaving 18 in place as a default for emancipation might help get parents on board. I mean, could youth decide that they don't want to ever be financially independent? --Living in the parent's basement until they're 30, as the stereotype goes? It seems like it might be a fairness to parents to allow them to shed their responsibility after 18 years... But I'm uncertain.

...The question of how to fund childhoods is tricky. The "you made it [the child], you pay for it" principle is intuitive. Yet, there's so much injustice that flows forth from whether a person's parents were rich or poor -- or what the parents choose / don't choose to gift the youth with. Plato thought we should go for a radical socialism, where children are put into a pool, each being supported by society equally. While technically just, I can't approve of the human cost, tearing infants away from their birth mothers. There is a human experience associated with birthing and parenting that should be protected, as much as possible -- that is, until the youth objects.

Contradiction: I've pinned some hopes for eliminating all artificial age lines on strengthening the status of "emancipated". However, at the same time, I'm seriously contemplating leaving 18 (the 26th Amendment) in place. That sets a very bad precedent. It's not even just leaving 26 has a historical place holder -- I seem to be building in dependence on it, as a way to protect parents against unreasonable financial responsibility [**another good phrase!].

Problem: In terms of the age-lines portion of this, I'm not sure that I've addressed what needs to be addressed. In previous work I've identified four varieties of age lines:

  1. No line should exist [e.g. all people in society should have a vote]
  2. A test will suffice [e.g. anyone should be able to take the test for a driver's license]
  3. Preventing damage / vice [e.g. prohibitions on cigarettes, alcohol, porn]
  4. Protection from adults [e.g. age of consent, labor laws]

...It's easy enough to say that we should dismiss the 1st and 2nd varieties of age-lines -- but I don't have good alternatives for the 3rd and 4th. I might with further thought. I know that a notable book, "Harmful to Minors" by Judith Levine, has come out recently that might be pertinent. In the past, I've escaped the issue by not trying to get rid of all age lines at once -- I've told skeptics that this movement is about youth activists, and until they actually start organizing on an issue, there's no reason for me to have to defend a hypothetical position on such things.

4. Summaries

Summary re age-lines: I'm beginning to think that the age-lines issue is so complex that it's unreasonable to lump it in with the purview of the Emancipation Amendment. The Emancipation Amendment, might lay the groundwork for court cases that finally enforce the age discrimination laws that we have on the books. However, so long as we have artificial numbers in the constitution and its amendments, there will be a problematic precedent.

...It may be that before we can really make headway on 18, we need to get rid of 25, 30, and 35 -- freeing up people of all ages to serve in the government. With 18 as the last numerical age in constitutional law, the stage would be set to wipe out numbers entirely.

Summary re getting the vote via emancipation: Because 18 is so specifically named, we're not going to be able to coat-tail our way to the vote with elders, regardless of what competency tests are established. Pursuing an Emancipation Amendment strictly as a means to getting better access to the vote is too narrow a vision. Emancipation raises a host of thorny issues -- such as parental financial responsibility and when it's to be severed -- which need plenty of attention. If there were an amendment granting youth the right to self-emancipate at will, it might open new avenues for winning the vote -- but the emancipation struggle must be more than just a vehicle for getting at the vote.

An Emancipation Amendment for its own sake: I haven't come up with a convincing reason why the goal of strengthening emancipation must be done via a constitutional change. Constitutional change, requiring a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, is a very difficult route to go. If we can achieve our goals via the courts, then we should pursue that route.

The only question this really leaves, then, is how central emancipation should be to the YL movement's agenda. That, I guess, and what strategies might be effective in bolstering it, based on the actual history of case law.

Posted by Sven at September 29, 2004 12:00 PM