Too Young?


As discussed in this New York Times opinion piece, the age of the current Democratic primary candidates spans more decades than in any previous contest with Mayor Pete Buttigieg anchoring the bottom end of the age scale at 37, and Senator Bernie Sanders the top at 78.


Given that Buttigieg, if elected, would be the youngest President in US history and Sanders the oldest to ever take the Oath of Office (Ronald Reagan was five years younger when he was sworn in a second time), issues of age have come up as candidates continue to fight out who gets to take on Donald Trump (the oldest person to have ever been elected for a first time, BTW).


Unprecedented Youth?


In that New York Times piece, writer Frank Bruni recounts a set of arguments made by Mayor Pete regarding why his candidacy at such a young age makes sense. These include precedent having been set in other countries. Finland, for example, just elected its youngest Prime Minister who is 34, as did New Zealand and France who previously elected leaders aged 37 (Buttigieg’s current age) and 39 (the age Buttigieg would be when sworn in if he manages to win the nomination and election).


Buttigieg also cites historic precedent for young American leaders, such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison who were in their 20s at the time of the Revolution, as well as Martin Luther King whose nation-transforming accomplishments took place before he was assassinated at age 39.


In giving these arguments the logic-checking treatment, we could start out by simply using the facts Buttigieg lays out as premises to an argument that looks like this:


Premise 1: Other Western democracies, such as Finland, France and New Zealand, have elected leaders in their mid- to late-30s.

Premise 2: Several of America’s founding fathers were in their 20s and 30s when they created the nation.

Premise 3: Political leaders like Martin Luther King accomplished great things before they turned 40.


Conclusion: America should be comfortable electing a President who is not yet 40 years old.


Inductive vs. Deductive Argument


From what you learned by reading this last piece, you should recognize that this is an inductive versus a deductive argument. If it were deductive, then accepting the premises would require you to accept the conclusion. Given that all three premises are statements of fact, accepting them does not require much effort. But even if you do, there are a host of reasons why you could still reject the conclusion.


Some of these reasons are pointed out in the Bruni piece itself, including the fact that America is a bigger and more complicated society with different responsibilities than small more-homogeneous states like Finland and New Zealand, or even France. Also, while not ignoring the monumental achievements of the nation’s founders, running today’s America is a far more complex affair than it was in the 1780s.


If we treat the argument above as inductive, rather than deductive, however, we do not need to accept the conclusion with certainty once we accept the premises. Rather, we just need to decide if the conclusion is likely to be true if all the premises are true. If likelihood is high, then the logic behind the argument is strong, if low, the logic (and thus the argument) is weak.


In theory, we could do some public-opinion research to determine people’s comfort level electing someone as young as Buttigieg, or simply see how the nomination and election seasons play out. But given the number of reasonable objections to the conclusion already mentioned, I think it’s safe to say that the Buttigieg’s argument from precedent is not terribly strong.


Building a Stronger Inductive Argument


We could strengthen it by adding additional premises distilled from Bruni’s conversation with Buttigieg, to make a structured version of his inductive argument look like this:


Premise 1: Other Western democracies, such as Finland, France and New Zealand, have elected leaders in their mid- to late-30s.

Premise 2: Several of America’s founding fathers were in their 20s and 30s when they created the nation.

Premise 3: Political leaders like Martin Luther King accomplished great things before they turned 40.

Premise 4: It’s America’s style to be at the forefront of historic change, like the election of young leaders we have seen in other countries.

Premise 5: Every President so far, including many bad ones, have been at least in their 40s when elected.

Premise 6: Age does not always correlate with wisdom.


Conclusion: America should be comfortable electing a President who is not yet 40 years old.


These additional premises tackle some of the objections to the original three-premise argument and offer other points to support the conclusion. If one accepts these additional premises along with the original three, I think it’s safe to say that the inductive argument becomes much stronger.


Neither All nor Nothing


Before leaving behind the argument over young Mayor Pete, I should point out one additional difference between deductive and inductive arguments.


If you recall from this piece, a valid deductive argument (one in which accepting the premises requires you to accept the conclusion) can fail the test of soundness if just one of the premises is false (or at least something a reasonable person might reject). But in an inductive argument, one bum premise does not bring down the entire edifice.


For example, one can reasonably reject premise #4 if you believe the nation is not required to follow the lead of other countries, or see the election of young leaders in Finland, New Zealand and France as flukes, rather than an historic trend. While rejecting this premise would certainly weaken the six-premise version of our argument, it would not mean the entire argument fails (as would a deductive argument that fails the test of soundness).


We’ll continue this demonstration of the power of deductive and inductive reasoning next week as we look at the opposite question: can someone be too old to be elected president?

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