State-Assisted Parenting

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