State-Assisted Parenting

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Tonight
I happened to be in a room where a commercial for Fox News was on
the television. I heard a teaser for a news item – a curfew
has been proposed for teenagers in New York City. Appalled at such
an idea, I flew to the Internet to research the curfew. Surely Fox
News was simply trying to scare up some ratings.

Alas,
it was true. What’s more, there are already curfews, apparently,
in more than a thousand US towns and cities. What rationale lies
behind this madness?

To
a libertarian the fundamental wrongness of the curfew is obvious.
This
particular one
forbids people under the age of 18 from being
in a public space or private establishment into which the public
is invited (i.e., a store, theater, concert hall, etc.). In other
words, if a 17-year-old wakes up at 5 a.m. and goes to buy breakfast
at a diner, he can be ticketed, fined, and forced to do community
service, at the discretion of the police. That situation is absurd.
So are many other situations made possible by this law.

So,
besides the impracticalities involved in the law, and the arbitrariness
of using age 18 as the dividing line, what else is wrong? What’s
wrong with the ideology behind the law?

Well,
the first reason given for the law is that juveniles commit crimes.
Fine – so why not enforce laws against those crimes, instead of
targeting people who haven’t committed any crime at all? Because
that’s what a curfew does – it punishes people for being potential
criminals. They haven’t actually done anything wrong in being out
at night, but if they were allowed to stay out, they might. Looking
at the next paragraph in the bill, we find out that punishing actual
crime doesn’t work. Why not? Well, according to the City Council,
"the offensive activities of juveniles are not easily controlled
by existing laws and ordinances because the activities are concealed
whenever police officers are present…" In other words, New
York’s Finest, the police, can easily be outwitted by a bunch of
children.

This
is no surprise. Almost nobody is going to commit crimes openly when
police are around, whether they are over 18 or not. Given that less-than-startling
conclusion, maybe the City Council should increase police presence
in high-crime areas if they want crime to decrease. But what is
the City Council proposing to do instead? They are proposing to
divert the attention of police officers from criminals committing
actual crimes to juveniles who happen to be out past their bedtimes.
Every police officer escorting a 16-year-old home from hanging out
in front of the Quick Stop is a police officer who is not preventing
robberies, murders, or rapes. The City Council knows that police
presence deters criminal activity, so why are they diverting police
from being present?

They’re
doing it for fines and community service. A parent or guardian can
be fined up to $250 if he allows his child to be out of his supervision
past midnight. This lets the government make money from people who
not only did not commit any real crimes, but did not even commit
the supposed crime of being out late at night. In other words, peaceful,
law-abiding citizens who have decided that their children are mature
and responsible can be punished for raising their children well
enough to be out past midnight.

Sure,
the curfew is bound to punish deadbeat parents, and it’s likely
to just by chance punish juveniles who actually committed crimes,
but by restricting legitimate activity you’re throwing the baby
out with the bathwater.

The
next reason given in the bill is that juveniles are vulnerable because
of their young age. They are likely to become the victims of crimes.
So are the elderly. So are women. So are women who are provocatively
dressed. Is the government going to set a precedent for defining
and banning behaviors that increase an individual’s likelihood of
being victimized by a crime? I thought that the purpose of justice
was to punish criminals, not their victims. No one’s proposing a
dress code for women in America (although some nations have these,
for the same reason – that seeing women’s skin will lead men to
commit crimes) nor is anyone proposing a curfew for the elderly.
The government is not our mommy. This reasoning rests on the fundamental
idea that people cannot do what is best for themselves – a very
peculiar concept indeed in a democracy, because if we can’t be trusted
to keep our children safe from nighttime prowlers, how can we be
trusted to run the most powerful government in the world? Responsibility
and accountability come from the people, not from the government.

The
bill then points out that juveniles are likely to become exposed
to narcotics trafficking late at night. This begs a few questions
about the drug war itself. The subject is too extensive for me to
cover here, but let me point out two great articles about it: The
Drug Crisis
and The
Cocaine Price Support Program
. If there was no drug war, there
wouldn’t be drug traffickers targeting youngsters late at night
– just like there are no blue jeans salesmen now roaming the
near-deserted city streets peddling their wares to our nation’s
vulnerable youth. People instead buy these things in the light of
day, if they happen to want them.

The
last reason for the curfew given by the bill is that it "assists
parents and guardians in carrying out their parental responsibility
to exercise supervision of youths entrusted to their care."
That wording seems a bit peculiar. "Assists" is a strange
word choice for making the failure to do something punishable by
law. If I threaten to steal $250 from you if you don’t do your laundry,
am I actually assisting you in doing your laundry? Of course not.
So in what way does extorting money from the parents of innocent
teens constitute "assisting" those parents? When I was
young the only time my parents left me unsupervised was when they
both had to be at work. It seems to me that less government and
fewer ridiculous fines would assist parents in supervising their
children a lot more than half-baked regulatory schemes like this
one do.

I
don’t doubt that there is a problem today with children left unsupervised
getting into trouble. What I doubt is that the government can offer
a solution to the problem by channeling yet more money and power
from the individual into the endless bureaucracy that consumes 40%
of our income while chipping away at our rights and freedoms. The
more of a role government takes in raising America’s children the
less of a role the parents will take, and the less of a role the
parents take the more the government will need to step in to fix
the problems caused by lack of parental supervision. Will we break
the cycle or will we come to live in a police state?

Or
are we already living in a police state?

February
24, 2005

Neal
Zupancic [send him mail]
is a bartender in New York City. He moderates the Knowledge
Is Liberty weblog
.

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