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Freeman Essay #16: “Juvenile Delinquency”

In the November 1997 Freeman I argued that government brings out the child in all of us.  My essay is below the fold.

Government brings out the kid in all of us. This truth is key to political understanding.

Nanny-state activities are government’s best-known way of babying its citizens. States insist that drivers buckle up; the Clinton administration never tires of scolding cigarette smokers and tobacco companies; Congress now dictates the amount of time that women must remain in the hospital after giving birth, as well as the amount of water that we free citizens are allowed to have in our toilet tanks, and the Americans With Disabilities Act hovers over us like a diabolic schoolmarm made paranoid by the mistaken belief that her charges act with no purpose in life other than to commit malicious injustices to the handicapped. These are only a few of the tens of thousands of instances of how our nanny state abuses and insults us.

But the nanny state’s frightfulness doesn’t end with these particular abuses and insults. Its pernicious effects run much deeper. In particular, the more we relinquish decision-making responsibility to government, the more childlike we become.

Consider the response of a New Jersey woman to my suggestion that New Jersey’s prohibition on self-service gasoline stations be lifted. “Oh, no!” cried the woman, “that would be disastrous! People here don’t know how to pump their own gasoline. They’d spill it all over the place!”

As it happens, my wife hails from New Jersey. Until she moved to Virginia at the age of 26, she had never before filled her own gasoline tank. Sure enough, the first time she tried to gas up at a self-service pump in Virginia, she squeezed the pump handle before inserting it into her gasoline tank. The result was quite a mess—and, with fresh gasoline sprayed all about until the shop attendant washed it away, also quite dangerous.

My wife (who now regularly, and expertly, refuels her car herself) learned how to pump gasoline the hard way. Had she grown up in a state that trusted its citizens to pump their own gasoline, she would never have squeezed the pump handle before popping it into her tank. New Jersey’s prohibition on self-service gasoline stations prevents people from gaining useful experience. In its own (thankfully small) way, this prohibition keeps people from fully growing up.

While the nanny state stunts personal growth, the political process encourages childlike behavior in a less obvious and more pernicious way. A mark of immaturity is the inability or unwillingness to make sound decisions—failure to weigh carefully the present and future benefits and costs of available alternatives. Because children cannot be trusted to make sound decisions, adults don’t give them much decision-making responsibility.

Why don’t parents let eight-year-olds decide how to spend the family income? Because with eight-year-olds in charge, the family would vacation for months on end at Disney World—and be broke in short order. When spending their parents’ money, eight-year-olds ignore the costs and long-run consequences of extended stays with Mickey Mouse, focusing only on the immediate thrills of such vacations. People who consistently act in ignorance of long-run consequences are rightly called “childish.”

By this criterion most voters behave childishly. Citizens in the voting booth help decide a multitude of important issues. Should Congress increase subsidies to farmers? Should the federal government fund high-tech research? Should the state government pay for a fancy domed stadium to attract an NFL franchise? The idea of democracy is that citizens, by voting, collectively make such decisions.

But citizens have no incentives to make mature decisions in the voting booth.

First, voters are typically asked to decide how to spend other people’s money. Just as children have no trouble spending mom’s and dad’s money, voters have no trouble voting for pet projects to be financed largely by others.

Second, no single vote counts; no single vote decides the outcome of an election. So, no matter how a voter votes—no matter how absurd, unrealistic, or destructive a voter’s wish may prove to be—the fact that no single vote counts means that no single voter incurs any material cost of voting in whatever way strikes his fancy.

Imagine a child on the knee of a shopping-mall Santa. Because it costs the child nothing to request truckloads of playthings, the child asks for everything that pops into his mind, giving no thought to costs or harmful side effects. But because Santa forgets each child’s request as soon as the child leaves, the child on Santa’s knee is in a harmless fantasyland.

But suppose that all the shopping-mall Santas tallied up the wishes of all the kiddies and then tried to make these wishes come true. Society would be awash in toys, desperately short on many of life’s necessities, and drowning in debt!

Citizens in a voting booth are much like children on Senator Santa’s knee. Enter the voting booth and vote for the candidates promising the greatest amount of wizardry! Because your vote is not decisive, you suffer no personal repercussions in the voting booth of using your ballot to express all sorts of fantasies. Of course, every other voter is in an identical position.

Thus, democratic elections encourage voters to behave irresponsibly in the voting booth, just as sitting on Santa’s knee encourages little children to rattle off long wish lists of toys. But unlike shopping-mall Santas, voting booths tally up voters’ dream-world requests and pass these requests onto government. Politicians try in vain to satisfy these unsatisfiable requests.

Compare democratic voting with private decision-making. Perhaps a car buyer dreams of owning a car that gets 100 mpg, packs herds of horsepower, and is safe as a tank. Automakers will supply such cars to buyers willing to pay the price. But because such cars must be paid for by each individual buyer, no buyer indulges these costly fantasies. Each buyer settles for a less fanciful car because each buyer prefers to save the extra money it would cost to buy the fantasy automobile.

Such rational weighing of costs and benefits is the mark of maturity. Pathetically, democratic voting encourages too many otherwise mature adults to behave like spoiled brats propped on Santa’s knee.


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