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May 7 / Great Apes

In Defence Of Youth

One would think that after an election in which the Conservative party comes to power as a majority government, the Canadian media might show a little bit of interest in figuring out who makes up the new governing party, and how that party might be planning on governing over the next 4 years. Alas, it seems instead that our media is more concerned with criticising a small number of MPs representing the official opposition, primarily on the basis of the fact that those MPs are fairly young in the political world.

It tends to be the case that no particular argument is made as to why we shouldn’t have young MPs. The criticism tends to be something along the lines of “several of the new NDP MPs are students at McGill”. There is almost inevitably mention of the fact that, if they remain MPs for the duration of this Parliament, they will collect approximately $700 000 in salary. No one ever specifically says why they shouldn’t collect the same salary as every other MP, but I think the underlying assumptions are well understood; namely, that:

1. Young people are inexperienced, and we want experienced people to run our government.
2. Older people deserve more money because they’ve worked harder to get to where they are.

I think both of those views are incorrect – or at the very least ill-founded – so I’m going to explain why I think having young MPs is great for our political system. I want to clarify here that I don’t personally know any of the people in question, so this is a defence of young MPs generally and not of any particular individual(s).

The first reason that people have been criticising our young MPs is the idea that we want experienced people running government, and youth are almost by definition inexperienced. Firstly, I reject that idea outright, because I want democracy not technocracy. Democracy means that we decide on the direction of society based on what the members of society want, and not based on what an educated elite tells them is best. More importantly, however, I think this is based on a very odd view of what “experience” means.

Here’s an invented profile for an imaginary candidate:

Jane Smith has been an active contributor to the city of Homeville for 20 years. She currently sits on the board of directors of the Homeville Chamber of Commerce. Prior to this, she spent 10 years as a trustee with the Homeville District Secondary School Board, where she helped ensure that a wide variety of healthy food options were available in high school cafeterias and fought to save the school board’s music program in the midst of budget cuts and heavy pressure to eliminate non-essential courses. Jane is a certified public accountant, and has been employed as an accountant for 25 years.

On the basis of that profile, which is pretty similar to the kind of profile political candidates often have, does Jane have the kind of experience necessary to run a large government? Well, that all depends on what she’s being asked to do. Her experience at the school board makes it seem like she might be pretty good at negotiating contracts (assuming her profile doesn’t over-state her impact). And as someone who serves on the board of directors at the Chamber of Commerce and has been an accountant for more than two decades, she may be very useful when it comes to things like keeping budgets balanced.

But what if she doesn’t wind up as finance minister, or on a finance committee? What in her profile indicates that she would have any skill at determining what makes for good environmental policy? Or that she understands digital technology sufficiently to ensure that Canada has useful and productive telecommunications regulation going forward? Or that she has any idea what makes a good fighter jet? Or that she could help develop a strategy to prevent the spread of gangs through Canada’s large urban centres? Or that she knows anything about how to effectively allocate international assistance so that it has its maximum impact?

Now here’s the profile for another candidate. This is for John Doe:

John Doe is a 3rd year political science major at the University of Homeville. While at the university, John became involved with the International Development Society; as a result of this, he has spent the past two summers in India, helping to teach under-privileged children in Kolkata how to read and write. During the school year, John plays drums in a jazz band called Theresa and the Molecule. They have played shows all across the province, and released two self-produced albums through local label Jazzheads.

On the surface, John’s profile probably sounds considerably less impressive than Jane’s, but let’s look at it in a bit more detail. John has lived in India for something like 6-8 months. He’s has experience not just with education, but education on a different continent where most people speak a different language. He’s probably far more qualified than Jane on issues like international development. And depending on what kind of research he’s done during his three years of university, he may actually know quite a bit about the current state of international aid, international trade, and diplomacy. He’s probably far more qualified to make decisions relating to those areas than most of the older MPs.

The second half of his profile may look mostly like filler because he doesn’t have the kinds of impressive experiences that Jane has. But it turns out that John’s experiences will be quite helpful in the House of Commons. That’s because, in addition to playing drums in Theresa and the Molecule, John is also the tour manager. He has booked shows for them in a dozen different cities across the province, which happens to involve things like taking care of scheduling, travel, food, and accomodations. In fact, in managing the band in this way, John has gained most of the experience that someone managing a small business would have gained.

But his experiences are even more useful than that, because John was also the primary person responsible for managing the band’s marketing and promotion. John helped to design the band’s web site with the band’s bassist. He also runs their Myspace page, their Facebook profile, and their Twitter feed. It turns out that John has a very good knowledge of Internet technology, business, and promotion. Isn’t he exactly the kind of person we want providing input into areas like copyright reform and telecommunications regulation? He certainly has much more relevant knowledge than someone whose Internet usage is restricted primarily to checking their e-mail and finding directions with Google Maps.

Of course, John might not be good at some of the things that Jane is perfect for. But that’s just the point – if we want government to be effective, it needs to be made up of people with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. As a student who’s lived in India only a year ago, John brings to the table capabilities that Jane simply doesn’t have, just as Jane can contribute in ways that John isn’t able to.

That brings us to the second point, which is that John hasn’t earned the position. This is based on a very strange view of what “earning” something means. It asserts that the way that you earn things in life is by not dying for several decades. It posits survival as the means by which someone has proved their worth to society. This article isn’t really the place to dissect that too deeply, but I think that sort of social Darwinism is something that most people reject. Surely the way to determine who we want in government is to examine their backgrounds, knowledge, experiences, and perspectives, and not to examine their birth date.

That’s because, at its core, this second criticism of young candidates is based on an irrational prejudice, the same kind that at various points in our history has kept other identifiable groups like women and visible ethnic minorities out of government (and, to a fair extend, still does). Let’s try a thought experiment. Here’s a hypothetical person explaining why young people shouldn’t be involved in federal politics:

“These kids, they’re so naieve. They don’t understand how the world really works, like adults do. These kids just don’t have experience in the real world. Adults have fully formed, rational minds, that can properly understand the sorts of complex issues that governments have to deal with. And besides, why do kids need that kind of money? Adults have mortgages to pay, kids to raise, and retirements to save for. Kids just don’t have those kinds of expenses.”

All right, so here’s the thought experiment – read that previous paragraph back to yourself, but this time replace the word “kids” with “women” and replace “adults” with “men”. Not only are those the kinds of arguments used against young people now, but they’re exactly the kinds of arguments that were used to try to prevent women from having a say in government too. Some people will see that and say, “Sure, we were wrong about women. But it really is true about kids.” Except that it’s not. It’s prejudice, it’s irrational, and it has no place in the politics of a democracy.

And, in fact, I think a lot of what this really comes down to is prejudice. If people, particularly in the mainstream media, really cared about whether or not candidates were knowledgeable and qualified for the position they’re in, then they’d be raising hell over the fact that the Science Minister under the previous Conservative government does not believe in evolution. This is a man who has considerable decision making power and is a part of the government, not the opposition, and he literally does not believe in the subject matter that he’s in charge of. This would be like having a finance minister who claims there’s no such thing as inflation, or a Minister for the Status of Women who insists that children really are delivered by storks. Even if these new young MPs really are unqualified, what’s really more damaging to our country – an unqualified backbencher in the opposition, or an unqualified cabinet minister in a majority government. Surely the cabinet minister is the one we should be focussing on!

But none of these other candidates are subject to the same kind of attacks that these young candidates have been, and the reason for that is that these other candidates are, for the most part, old white men. No one cares if there are unqualified old white men in power; they only complain when it’s young people, qualified or not. And that’s wrong.

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