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No Limit to Limits

Philip Burrowes

It could be said that this nation is fond of age limits. There are little to no merit-based requirements (depending on one’s definition of “merit”) for Congress, for example, but minimum ages of 25 and 30 are needed to join the House and Senate, respectively. Undergraduates probably care most about, that’s right, being over 18 so they can vote and join the military. A few adolescents passing through these hallowed halls right around now may even be glad that they’re past the various ages protected in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (or corresponding state ordinances).

Some may want to rush to the defense of the discriminated by denouncing such provisions as “age-ist” and unconstitutional. People like that are stupid, considering age limits show up in the third sentence of the Constitution, not counting the delusional preamble. They do, however, realize that there is often little concrete evidence to back up established age limits besides the fact that, hey, they’ve been established.

To underscore this, simply observe the rationale behind the voting age. Twenty-one was originally chosen because the prevalent social notions dictated that maturity was achieved by that time. Only adults would be generally responsible enough to vote deliberately and of their own accord. Children might not only lack the mental faculties to properly choose candidates, but could also be heavily influenced by their parents; a similar argument was advanced concerning women and their husbands prior to the 19th Amendment.

Where is the age minimum for members of the Electoral College, however? At first it might seem that Article II is deferring power to the states in some sort of appointment quid pro quo. Upon further inspection, that seems dubious, as even the pre-17th Amendment Constitution spends the entire first article telling the same states exactly how Congress is to be run. Presumably an elector’s stature is validated because he is appointed, but that mandate does not render moot the minimums for Congress. Nor does it hold that age doesn’t matter, because obviously if younger voters could be bullied, younger electors would be just as -- if not more so -- susceptible.

For those who think such seemingly arbitrary provisions are relegated to obscure federal laws and Constitutional clauses, take a look at the world of professional basketball. The collective bargaining agreement between the National Basketball Association and the players’ union actually does set a minimum “age” for the athletes, under which they cannot be signed if their high school class has not graduated. Primarily, it seeks to ensure a modicum of physical and emotional maturity because presumably teams could bully prodigies into joining their organizations. Either that or, akin the voter and his congressman, teams would be better off with older players.

Like the ages required for federal office, neither contention is supported by evidence. Young athletes are far more likely to fall victim to agents, economic pressure, or their own inflated egos than a general manager, and a player’s actual ability does not seem to map conclusively to age (take Tracy McGrady, 22, and Nick Anderson, 33).

People who complain about this tend to favor an increase in the minimum age, considering the glut of NBA players without college degrees. Where are these people to decry the absence of experience or education in politics? Granted, the ramifications on basketball seem to be more pronounced than the current state of government, but the train of logic is the same.

Basketball also displays perhaps the main problem with age standards, and that’s their disjunctive nature. Lobbyists seek a return to the pre-American Basketball Association days of early entry lockouts while teams become all the more willing to draft “youngsters.” Going back to the government, the higher the political office, the higher the required age, yet some of the most memorable officials have been young ones. The clincher for foreigners is the difference between drinking age and voting age, a byproduct of the 26th Amendment. It’s irrational, it’s unwanted, and it’s without good intention.

MIT has it right. Here, it is not out of the question to have proctors or even TAs who are your junior. The fact, however depressing it may be, is that there are people who will be smarter yet younger than you, and you will be more capable than many older than you. It is not so much that admissions evaluates on a case-by-case basis, but that it maintains some sort of identifiable standard -- in the Institute’s case hopefully intellect. Age in and of itself, to paraphrase the lyrics of the once ambiguously-aged Aaliyah, is nothing but a number. Nobody should suggest a test to vote and the like, but it couldn’t hurt to know where you stand and why.