Monday, 1 January 2007

Ages of consent

The new year is clearly upon us. I’ve just watched the news and it’s full of substance, rather than the Christmas fluff that has predominated over the last week. Two stories struck me particularly: the accession of two new countries to the EU and Government plans to change the legal age of smoking.

I’m fairly agnostic about what the legal age for smoking should be. The precise point at which one becomes an adult, trusted to make decisions for oneself, is one I would be happy to debate, but it’s not going to fire my blood. However, it does raise two very interesting issues.

The first is the fact that the Government is moving the goalposts for existing smokers. There are people who are able at present to buy and smoke cigarettes, but who will shortly be temporarily banned from doing so, before they again become old enough. While I can see why the government may want to protect future seventeen year olds from nicotine – a policy which can only be justified by arguing that they are unable to make rational decisions for themselves, which is debatable that that age – changing the rules so that existing smokers are now forbidden to buy cigarettes until another year or two has passed seems arbitrary.

The second issue is the long overdue need to harmonise the various ages of consent. It makes no sense to me that a 16 year old may have sex but not buy alcohol; that a 17 year old can drive a car but not smoke a cigarette; that either can pay taxes but not decide how those taxes are spent; or that at 18 one can chose a representative in Parliament but may not stand for parliament oneself.

The only reason for having any age limits in society is to protect children (and sometimes ourselves) by restricting certain decisions to those who are mature enough to take responsible decisions in their own and others’ interests. In reality adulthood neither comes at a definable moment, nor does that transition occur at the same for all, but that level of nuance is probably beyond the law. The law will need to distinguish in manner. I believe that instead of randomly applying legal age limits to various activities, we should decide at what point a person legally becomes an adult and empower them at that point with complete freedom.

1 comment:

Jonny Wright said...

I agree with your reasoning, and my gut instinct is to suggest 16 as the standard age of majority for everything. Germany doesn't have a binge-drinking culture, and you can drink from 16 there. John Hemming raises the point that it's more complicated when you come to financial services, however.