"Society is joint action and cooperation in which each participant sees the other partner's success as a means for the attainment of his own. Social cooperation has nothing to do with personal love or a general commandment to love one another. People do not cooperate because they love or should love one another. They cooperate because this best serves their own interest.
The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation and the division of labor are universal. They immediately benefit every generation, and not only later descendants. For what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages. His sacrifice is only apparent and temporary; he foregoes a smaller gain in order to reap a greater one later."
~ Ludwig von Mises
I saw a very interesting op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution just the other day. It was written by former congressman Bob Barr and was entitled, "Seeking quality of life at the point of a gun?" The article struck my fancy for several reasons. First of all, as anyone who has read a good cross section of my pieces can attest, I have a special interest in violence, specifically state-sponsored violence, and how it affects the individual, and with him, society. I believe, wholeheartedly, that the "way to peace," if it (the way) exists, is via self-government, as counter-intuitive-to-mainstream-thought as that premise may seem. I'm on record with Robert Higgs in stating that an anarchic society will generally and necessarily be more peaceful than a statist one, ceteris paribus. That there exist ostensive libertarians who might debate this point is to be expected; however, the undergirding logic remains convincing.
But let's forget all that stuff. Let us not be bogged down by theory and logic and other academic whatnottery. Let us instead reason this thing through with common sense alone, aided by just a modicum of observation. Certainly there must be obvious, repeatable, and universal justifications for the spread of policies like "zero tolerance" throughout the US schools, right? There must also be ample objective evidence, easily called upon and shared, that suggests that harshly punishing minor offenses leads inexorably to fewer instances of more egregious ones.
The popularity of policies supported (or popularized?) by people like Rudy "Jailiani" would seem to indicate that such data exists. I suspect that more than a few conservatives would argue that harshly penalizing bums in Manhattan leads inexorably to fewer rapes. Still, I'm left with a rather obvious question: Where the heck is it?
It does not exist. According to a report from the Indiana Education Policy Center, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence," not only are zero tolerance policies in schools ineffective in reducing alcohol abuse or other problems, such aggressive policies result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.
Similar conclusions can be drawn regarding zero tolerance in society at large. The recidivism rate of people initially jailed for non-violent offenses, which can be as high as 70% within three years of release from prison, speaks volumes here. If a person who is convicted of a non-violent offense such as drug possession ends up back in prison 7 out of 10 times, I'd say putting them in jail isn't working, unless it works for someone other than the inmate. (That's likely another essay!)
Before we spend just a few minutes examining the general folly of zero tolerance, let us make sure we're not overreacting. Former congressman Barr could be mistaken right? If only. Examples of knee-jerk pseudo-totalitarian behavior abound. Here's a brief, and far-from-exhaustive smattering:
- An 8th-grader in Phoenix was recently suspended for drawing a picture of a gun. Apparently doodles qualify as hate speech nowadays. I guess 9/11 did change everything.
- A Virginia theatre patron faces a year in jail and $2,500 in fines for filming part of "The Transformers." He supposedly only recorded a few seconds of the film and claims that he only wanted to use the clip to convince his brother to see the movie.
- A Florida woman is being prosecuted for questioning a police officer, in connection with her chalking some sidewalk. Apparently she had the gall to question the police officer about what law she was breaking.
- A couple of German tourists, members of the running group known as hash harriers, face felony charges for spreading flour in an IKEA parking lot. The employees of the establishment thought they were terrorists. I feel safer already.
- A thirteen-year-old was suspended for the rest of the year when school officials found a potato chip canister containing match-sticks in his locker. Although it was simply a model rocket, it was classified as a "weapon" and was therefore against the strict school policies. Thank goodness they caught him before he ate more chips.
Is There Any Successful Analogue for Zero Tolerance?
No, there isn't. It may live in the fertile minds of the "law givers" mentioned in the links above, but it doesn't exist in real life. Former congressman Barr lays this fallacy bare, but maybe a few questions are still in order. Before we examine human behavior from a common-sense point of view with regard to humans, let's start with animals.
Most people I know have owned a pet. Many of them have been dogs. If you punish your dog harshly for something simple, does it make him less likely to do something worse? If you punish the animal more and more, does he get better and better? With apologies to partially appealing to the No True Scotsman fallacy, is there anyone who thinks that harshly punishing a pet results in demonstrably better behavior? (Yes, I know Homo sapiens are generally more psychologically complicated than canines, but humor me, okay?) In fact, is it not true that the more harshly you punish an animal, the more likely that animal is to react in a less-than-positive way? Not to put too fine a point on this thing, but didn't Mike Vick go to jail for treating his dogs poorly? I'm certainly no dog-fighting expert, but I suspect that getting a dog to fight to the death involves a higher measure of pain than comfort. I don't see a lot of nurturing being involved.
So, what about children? Is there any parent — any sane parent — who figures that whipping a child severely with leather straps for not washing the dishes results in an adult who welcomes the challenges of a job well done? I certainly hope not. While we could very likely investigate the output of psychological journals to obtain data, I posit that such a study is not necessary. The argument from effect is simply not needed here. This is about morality and the argument from morality informs this discussion completely. There is no scenario under which authority trumps morality.
If we want a society wherein universally preferable behavior — behavior based upon ironclad universality and complete consistency — is the rule and not the exception, we must model such treatment for those who are using our example to inform their future choices. We must treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated, not treat them as harshly as our authority allows. Violence begets violence. It always has. It always will.
The zero tolerance we impose upon a child today becomes the lack of remorse in a terrorist or serial killer tomorrow. Putting people in jail for infractions barely worthy of mention does not result in enhanced safety; it results in increased fear and decreased compassion. Responses to fear are seldom positive. Lack of compassion seldom leads to increased morality.
Others have illustrated the virulence of the pending police state, where people like Jonas Phillips can be arrested for displaying a pro-impeachment sign. I just hoped — in vain I guess — that we would not let the power-mad desires of a few convince us that we must also punish our youth with swift, harsh, and decisive action regardless of supposed offense. At what point do we realize that you don't get better quality of life by kicking more rear ends more quickly?
For better or worse, people's future behavior is often shaped by that which is deemed appropriate by those in authority over them. This is the awesome challenge faced by every parent. At the risk of repeating myself, allow me instead to repeat myself repeating someone else! In a previous essay I quoted one of my fellow posters on Stefan Molyneux's Freedomain Radio Discussion Board, a poster known to me only as “John.” His words are still some of the very best I've ever heard on this issue.
"A society ignorant of the fact that violence is only capable of generating evil will accept the expansion of violence as the u2018logical' remedy for the failure of violence."
How many serial killers, at worst, or mindless robots, at best, will we create — not only in our schools but also abroad — before more people understand this powerful truth?
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.