Saturday 10 June 2023

The Numbers That Matter.

Aristocratic Arithmetic: From whence comes the notion of “coming of age”. For many centuries, this was something men did at the age of 21. Why 21? Because it is 3 x7 – both of which are charmed numbers. Don’t laugh, for most of human history numbers have mattered – a lot. The tradition of holding 21st birthday parties is directly traceable to the computations of superstitious noblemen.

DID THE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL LAW REVIEW PANEL pause to wonder why New Zealand citizens become eligible to vote at 18? It’s a long and convoluted story, very little of which has much to do with cool, calm, considered cogitation. Like most of our constitutional milestones, the age of enfranchisement is the product of superstition, tradition, and political agitation. Rationality has only ever played a bit-part in this drama.

Let’s begin at the beginning with the concept of “coming of age”. For many centuries, this was something men did at the age of 21. Why 21? Because it is 3 x7 – both of which are charmed numbers. Don’t laugh, for most of human history numbers have mattered – a lot.

Among the medieval aristocracy, the journey towards “manhood” was divided into three stages. For a male child’s first 7 years, his life was centred on hearth and home. Upon turning 7, however, the custom was to have the little boy taken into the household of another aristocrat, where his education would begin in earnest. At the age of 14, the boy’s education would turn towards the arts of war and government, a process which often involved him becoming the esquire to a knight. At 21, these boys would finally enter “man’s estate” with all the privileges and responsibilities that entailed. The tradition of holding 21st birthday parties is traceable to this superstitious aristocratic arithmetic.

None of which applied if you were born a serf – a status that mandated very hard work, for very little reward, from a very early age, for the lords whose sons were learning how to become “gentlemen”. Since it was these same lords and gentlemen who wrote the laws of the land, however, 21 became the age at which full adult male status was bestowed.

It was a very different story for girls – isn’t it always? In law they were the property of, first, their fathers, and then, their husbands. For centuries the age at which a girl could be treated as a woman was 12. It was only in the Nineteenth Century that the Age of Consent was raised from 12 to 16 – a reform which was bitterly resisted by an disconcertingly large number of members of the British House of Lords, who seemed to regard it as an unconscionable curtailment of their pleasures.

Although in egalitarian New Zealand the voting age has been the same for men and women since 1893, the same could not be said of Great Britain. The initial enfranchisement of British women in 1918, saw their voting age set at 30. Full equality was not achieved until 1930.

What was it, then, that caused the voting age to be lowered from 21 – the generally accepted age at which people became fully-fledged adult citizens – to 20, and then, in reasonably short order to 18? The answer is to be found in the great “Youth Revolt” of the 1960s and 70s.

The huge “Baby Boom” generation, raised in the most economically and socially propitious circumstances in human history, demanded to know (at least in the USA) why it was considered appropriate to draft 18, 19 and 20-year-old males to fight and die in the jungles of Vietnam, but not to give them a say in electing the politicians who were sending them there.

It was a question their grandfathers and fathers had never thought to ask when their government send them off to World Wars One and Two. Young men had always been the first to follow their country’s flag. Too young to legally buy a beer, or vote, but old enough to kill and be killed.

Well, not any more.

The parties of the Left, seeing a huge pool of what all the pollsters were telling them were “their” voters, hastened to enfranchise these devotees of Peace, Love and Rock-n-Roll. Fifty years later, both here in New Zealand and around the world, history would appear to be repeating itself. Substitute Climate Change for Vietnam and the political dynamics are surprisingly similar.

Where the Greens are rushing-in, Labour will, sooner rather than later, cease to fear to tread – especially now that the Independent Electoral Review Panel has given lowering the voting age to 16 the thumbs-up.

There is, however, a world of difference between giving teenagers the vote, and persuading them to use it.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 June 2023.


  1. I admit my hypocrisy on this matter. I support the change to 16 for electoral purposes. "No taxation without representation" has been denied to some. More importantly, the growing realization that decisions made by one an older generation will have longer term consequences for a younger generation. There is a need for the elected officials to have accountability for their decisions by those affected.

    That said, I remember the old feminist mantra, that rights are measured by ticking three boxes - the ballot box, the jury box and the bullet box. New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, but it took another 50 years for women to serve in the jury. We have equality now in our armed forces, and we would presume if we had the unfortunate return to conscription this would be ungendered.

    While I support the 16 year old being able able to go to the ballot box, I am reluctant for a 16 year old on the jury or subject to conscription. I can live with my hypocrisy.

  2. Yes it' really the left who want to lower the voting age. After all we've seen the wisdom in the youth parliament of the boy from the fancy pants private (Dilmarth?) school wrapped in ancestral bird feather cloak bellowing in pain about colonisation or India Logan-Riley riding full tit down hill with a pronounced righteous swagger (UN).

    Paul Spoonley thinks old people are too dominant and the young should have more say.
    But the baby boomers are also Winston's crowd. Are they concerned about Super or is it the Burkean contract (the dead; the living; the future)?
    BTW my Step mother used to say to her bright duffel coated daughters: "you people who want to tear the world down; what will you replace it with?"
    You can see the difference here where Paul Spoonley and Arthur Grimes (Property Boys) claim "NZ used to be deadly dull and boring" whereas Auckland baby boomers say they were at the bottom of the world but it was the top of the world.

    Conservatism is hard to sell. I would go back to tribal society (gang life?). One released captive described life with the Indians as being continually on holiday. I think we have emotions to deal with everything it had to throw at us except (perhaps) enslavement (Augustus Earle described Maori slaves). Notice that the life the progressives are promoting is NEVER for them.

  3. I've had quite a bit to do with 16-year-olds in my reasonably long life to date. Many of those that I've come across have been reasonably informed, thoughtful and mature about politics and voting. Probably just as many are cynical about the whole process, something they probably inherited from their parents perhaps. But the thoughtful ones have been engaged – and they care, which is more than you can say about many of their elders.
    And it's their future let's face it not ours. So I'd sooner trust the them with the franchise then many of those who comment on the MSN website, that cesspit of ignorance and abuse.

  4. It makes much more sense to only allow those with sufficient intelligence to cast a vote, rather than those who achieve a largely arbitrary age. Giving a vote to anyone no matter how stupid they are is a recipe for disaster, which is the fundamental flaw in full suffrage. Achieve a given score on an IQ test, and you get a vote – even if you are 14, say. I'd much prefer 14 year olds with high intelligence getting a say, than some idiotic 35 year old who can barely tie their shoe laces. The aim is the best outcomes, not giving everyone a say and achieving sub-optimal outcomes as a consequence.

    Of course, we know why the political parties want 16 year olds to vote – because, generally speaking , they are not yet fully rational and are driven my emotion rather than logic (although plenty of older people feel rather than think as well) and so they'll more likely believe any nonsense they are indoctrinated with, no matter how illogical or irrational the idea is, nor what deleterious effects it will bring about for them in the future.

  5. Ask any young woman whether she thinks the 16 yr old boys she knows are in the slightest bit mature.

  6. Read Section 2 Ben Moore (Business Desk) Thesis.
    Forget about "Maori this; Maori that" it isn't about them.
    On That's a bit Racist (TVNZ) Spoonley confirms the theory that places scientific racism as central*; there is also an explanation as to why CCC opening ceremony is occupied by (about) 20 minutes of Maori ceremony.
    Te thesis concerns itself with Critical Discourse Analysis looking at whether this is represented as individual agency or "structural" white supremacy. It is the theory that what we take as normal (fish: "what is water?") is the wrong environment for other groups and cultures or (as activist Sue Boyde put it before blocking me on Twitter) "GET YOUR FOOT OFF MAORI's THROAT!")

    *The Great Debate - Xenophobia

  7. There's nothing 'superstitious' about multiples of seven in the ages of man. Almond’s and Apted’s Up series used this factor from the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". From parental dependency, peer influence, transition to adulthood, the hero’s journey, parental responsibility, individuation, and through to maturity, seven years is a useful if approximate period of classification.

    But using the adult transition phase to influence politics is a blatant Left-wing gerrymander, capitalising on children’s rejection of adult authority. With their reason slave to their passions, they have little invested in their own society; they are awash with presumptuous rectitude based on an unmediated child-like sense of fairness, they are less able to handle ambiguity and complexity, and are more likely to reject contrary observations. They lack a sense of balance of interest, have limited ability to discriminate between rule and exception; are unable to articulate opposing arguments, are more self-referential, are inclined to object on principle to the wisdom of the earlier generation; they lack awareness of consequence, they have an ingenuous openness allowing easy manipulation, their insight lacks significance, they have no understanding of the longue durée which leads to anachronistic moralising; they lack discrimination while they pick their way through a smorgasbord of ideologies; they are authoritarian and tend towards the messianic; and their instinctive collective nature leads to a manipulated sense of urgency and immediacy for change.

    The choice of 21 years of age may seem arbitrary, but does usher in the period of adult responsibility, to 'put away childish things’.