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February 20, 2014



I agree that faith (in oneself, in some greater power, in the existence of certain absolute values like justice or fairness)provides a lot of value by removing the sense of uncertainty. I disagree with the conception that we can objectively label a belief "rational". This seems to be based on the notion we can conduct a trully objective cost/benefit analysis, but I find that belief to be lacking in evidence.

To take your example, its not like older people act based on greater knowledge of political issues than the young. I work in politics, and I can tell you that age makes no real difference regarding the general level of ignorance regarding issues of political policy. And while it is correct to state that in an electorate of millions, the individual has little effect, this is just as true for the old as it is for the young, so why would it be reasonable for the old to vote, but not the young?

I would postulate that the reason older folks participate in the political process more than the young has more to do with their status quo bias and becoming inculcated in the culture of democracy than with them having conducted any sort of analysis (even a cursory one) regarding the costs and benefits of participating in the body politic.

Beliefs are judged "reasonable" or "rational" by an individual when they fit within our prescribed world view. As an atheist, I find the concept of "god" utterly illogical and unreasonable, and yet the majority of the population, including many people who can be all other means be called "reasonable" strongly believe in that idea.

Chris Purnell

There is tension in the concept 'choosing' when applied to choosing irrationality. Would you be obliged to take up a rational position first and then do the opposite?

Frederic Mari

I don't think that the fact that politics play out in favour of elders has much to do with their knowledge of politics/political matters.

Indeed, on the substance, I wouldn't be surprised if they were more often wrong that the young.

But they come from a time where voting was strongly encouraged, some form of social cohesion (unions, notably) also etc. They're the status quo (i.e. the least disturbing political option).

And they're just numerous.


We pensioners-who-vote do seem to have excessive influence and yet represent a group ripe for plucking taxation-wise. A political party that dared to pluck the pensioners would seem to be irrational but once done I doubt the deed would ever be undone.

Christiaan Hofman

Isn't this basically the same as the paradox of thrift, and several related paradoxes, that what is rational for an individual can be irrational for a group?

Bill Ellis

With this post is it starts off by missasining what is rational and what is not.
For an individual to choose to not engage in politics is not "quite reasonable" just because no individual has much influence upon political outcomes. The obvious communitarian nature of representative government has to be ignored to reach that conclusion and that would not be rational. And to say that understanding that is beyond most young people sets the bar to low.
If scholars have long thought this they need to stop it and rethink it.

It is simply rational for young people to be active in politics. and irrational for them to neglect it.

Simon Reynolds

Some good thoughts, Chris, into whether it is paradoxically irrational (or not) to engage with politics.

The ONS publication referenced -- Measuring National Well-being - Governance, 2014 -- shows: "twice as many 16-24 year-olds [42%] express no interest in politics than do over 65s [21%]."

That "no interest in politics" level for 16-24s in the UK is reflected in another survey (of whether young people actually had voted recently), conducted in April 2013 by Eurobarometer, referenced in the same ONS publication:

Respondents aged 15 to 30 were asked: "During the last 3 years, did you vote in any political election at the local, regional or national level?"

The "did note vote" figure for the UK was 36% -- the highest of the 28 EU countries surveyed. The lowest "did not vote" percentages were for Malta (4%), Belgium (7%), Denmark (7%), Sweden (9%).

Some caveats. Obviously 16-24 is not the same age range as 15-30. Also, in the Eurobarometer survey 26% of those surveyed in the UK were too young to vote, so the 36% "did not vote" figure represents roughly half of those eligible to vote.

So maybe 50% of the UK's young people are rational and 50% are irrational in this context, whichever way you look at it?

But, I suppose asking people what they did does not always reveal what they did. The ONS adds that: "IPSOS MORI estimated that 39% of registered young people aged 18 to 24 voted at the 2001 UK general election with 37% in 2005 and 44% in 2010 (MORI,2010)."

So, in the UK, more young people voted in the 2010 general election than in the previous two.

Kris Knott

Pensioners 'Benefits', can I respectfully remind everyone that most Pensioners have paid for these through taxes and National Insurance throughout long working lives and that they are not 'gifts' from the Government stolen from the mouths of the young please?


«no accident that the government has protected pensioners from its austerity policies* but has inflicted them upon youngsters by, for example, closing EMA in England and raising tuition fees - it's because pensioners are more likely to vote than youngsters.»

That's simplistic, really very simplistic, and it is far more interesting to drill down a bit better.

Pensioners in the North for example count for absolutely nothing in elections. Male voters count for little because they are usually not swing voters, they tend to always vote for the same party too. Both Northern and male voters tend to vote "tribally".

The most precious voters are South East older working and retired property owning women, marketing classes B down to C2.

They vote their wallets, not "tribally", so they can be easily bribed with lower interest rates for themselves (higher house prices, lower cost of re-mortgageing) and lower benefits to men.

Also they are numerous in marginal seats and indeed they sort of define marginal seats.

Most of Cameron's and Osborne's policies are designed to favour South Eastern older property owning women, and to hammer Northern men (or sometimes women) in work or out of work. If you look at the where the biggest cuts to local council grants are scheduled and where the "bedroom tax" is expected to fall most heavily for example the target is obviously the North.


«older people have suffered from low interest rates. But as these are set by the unelected Bank of England, I think my point holds.»

That point and the «unelected Bank of England» point are both ridiculous.

Most pensioners today have investment portfolios long property, not cash; and residential property prices and resulting tax-free capital gains are massively boosted by low interest rates. Also cashing in the capital gains without selling thanks to remortgaging is much cheaper with low interest rates.

Besides a lot of pensioners today are long another form of property, they are on defined benefit pensions, as they worked or retired before most workers were put on pensions worth a third of those, with the switch in value masked by the switch in nature to defined contribution.

Sure, pensioners whose retirement portfolio is long cash get hammered, but they are a minority compared to property owning rentier pensioners, especially older women living in the often large property they took from their husband at divorce or his death.


«most Pensioners have paid for these through taxes and National Insurance throughout long working lives and that they are not 'gifts' from the Government»

That most pensioners paid a bit or some of the costs of their pensions seems a thin excuse.

Most pensioners have not paid the full cost of the benefits they get. Most of those benefits are the indeed a gift.

In particular to women pensioners: they live far longer than men and usually have worked and paid contributions for far shorter periods than men.

A significant majority of pensioners are women, and probably the vast majority of them contributed rather less than half of the cost of their pensions. The rest is a gift, mostly from young male taxpayers.

To a large extent the modern welfare state is a huge system to redistribute from men to women, and in particular from young men to older women; in other words it is a state-enforced system for sons to support their mothers in their old age.

But more interestingly since it gives the same to every women it is a way for women who did not invest effort and money in having children to get an equal share of the income produced by young men as the women who had sons, and for women who only had one child to get the same as women who invested money and effort in raising several.

So ultimately it is a way to redistribute from women who spent their youth and efforts raising their sons to those women who spent their youth and efforts having fun and spending money on themselves.

But the first category of women in particular matters a great deal in the South East marginal seats determinant to a majority, so they get what they want (generous benefits plus massive tax-free capital gains plus cheap remortaging for example).


«to those women who spent their youth and efforts having fun and spending money on themselves.

But the first category of women in particular matters a great deal in the South East marginal seats»

Oops, I miswrote: the *second* category (childless or one child typically) that matters.

Also BTW the first category get a lot of support from the state via the NHS and the school system in raising their sons, but that has been dialed back.

Daniel Earwicker

"You might object that older people have suffered from low interest rates. But as these are set by the unelected Bank of England, I think my point holds."

Ahh, but who appoints the people on the MPC? Who tells them what inflation rate to target? Who tells them what measure of inflation to use? To whom must the governor write a symbolic letter of apology when the target is missed?

Not that this really affects your point either. The politicians - if acting rationally - don't need to *actually* help the elderly voters and hurt the young non-voters. They just need to give out that impression. Hence the the truth behind your other example: tuition "fees" and "loans", all made up to seem like an up-front fixed cost imposed on those grubby students, when in reality it approximates to a graduate tax that will eventually be paid (if at all) by older, wealthier graduates, decades after today's politicians have retired and whose future votes have a value today of about zero.

Same for the examples discussed by other commenters: welfare benefits to the young and pensions are not that far apart in costs, but all the talk is of young scroungers. Northern pensioners hate immigrants, so all the politician-talk is anti-immigration (while in private they all know it isn't worth doing anything about). As ever, it is only clear what politicians want us to think they think.

With so many layers of cunning lies forming the environment in which we reach our decisions, who is to say what behaviour is rational?

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