Groucho Marx’s quip is funny, but not what most of us believe. Those who are parents or grandparents—and many who aren’t—believe we should balance the welfare of the next generation with our own. For a prospective democracy, it is a matter of equity that we should not take advantage of children simply because they are too young to vote.
How should we balance the interests of children, who are politically powerless, with those of us who can vote, lobby and hold office? Many parents make extreme sacrifices for their own children, but it would be unrealistic to think that most people would do the same for all children. Is there a middle path between an “everything for the kids” stance and Groucho Marx?
One possible model for prospective democracy is a legal standard that has developed over hundreds of years for trustees who manage the affairs of minor children: the prudent person rule. When legal disputes arose about the management of trust funds, judges had to find a middle way to determine if a trustee was being reasonable. Sometimes, trust funds had losses on investments—was the trustee being reckless in their investment decisions or doing the best they could with the information they had at the time? Did they take reasonable steps to check on potential investments? Judges realized that trustees did not have god-like foresight, so they would ask if the trustee was making rational, intelligent decisions—were they acting as a prudent person would?
The prudent person rule could be a key guideline for policy-makers in a democracy that cared about the next generation of voters. If they were acting in good faith to protect the interests of those who are politically powerless, prudent policy-makers would ask about the potential eighteen year effects of a proposed policy, evaluate the evidence from history and research, and make sure that multiple voices are heard. We can’t ask that policy-makers always be right in their judgements, but a person of average intelligence should be able to review their work and conclude they made a reasonable effort to avoid harming the next generation—they did what a prudent person would have done.