Leave them Kids alone!
Minors are by far the least free individuals in society; depending on their age, they are not allowed to work, invest, drive a car, drink alcohol, vote, or smoke. And they have no freedom of movement whatsoever. Being a teenager means being terribly unfree, and as a result of that, an interesting parallel society arises.
Children learn to invoke secrecy to hide their actions, getting older friends to buy forbidden products or lying to go to forbidden places. By the time many teenagers in Europe are 18, they have already falsified their own IDs in order to get into clubs. In the US, which has some of the highest drinking-age laws in the world, fake IDs and sneaking around are a way of life.
Children and teenagers already have to follow an enormous set of rules that are not laws at all, generated by their guardians. Being under tutelage couldn’t be more arbitrary, since the rules change depending on the mood of their adult overseer — and they are often more restrictive than the law. Children first have to overcome the rules of their own parents before they dive into figuring out federal, regional, or municipal restrictions.
Application of the Law
Any student of law can confirm there is every difference in the world between writing a law and putting it into effect. There is no need to go into detail about the staggering increase in legislation and the difficulty of police field work in every western country since the professionalization of politics, so let us merely apply it to this case.
The US has some 500 curfews affecting youth, and they are mostly enforced by cities.
Germany, in particular, has extensive curfews for teenagers. The federal government imposes loads of restrictions on youth while the states and cities add additional ones according to their fancy. For example, the federal government decrees that a teenager under 16 years of age is barred from clubs after midnight, that youth under 18 years of age need authorization from parents to go to a concert, and that kids under 18 can only stay in the cinema until midnight.
When it comes to private establishments, the German government is purely dependent on the law-abiding natures of the owners. But those cities who extend the curfew to cover simply being outside find themselves with the plight of law enforcement attempting to cope with legislative inflation.
Or to put it differently: the law, in this case, is simply unenforceable. Interestingly enough, we would not even want it to be, since we prefer that the police work to stop actual violent crime (murders, rapes, and the like) rather than chase little Timmy because he stayed out until 12:30 a.m.
Further, these laws are better off unenforced because the prospect of paid government officials being on the watch for every step strolling teenagers take at night is frightening to say the least.
The policy of having trained police officers catch teenagers at night to establish their age (since few teenagers make a habit of carrying identification around) and then press charges ultimately makes as much sense as taking the time to establish who threw over whose sandcastle first.
If we give those adults who advocate for curfews the benefit of the doubt — and believe they aren’t merely fun-police — then are we really to believe that desolate streets make us safer?
A historic tool
The first records we have of state curfews are those imposed by the royal authorities in Europe during the 9th century. At the time, the curfews required the general population to stay calmly in their homes while firefighters put out devastating fires — a policy which, in the times of wooden houses, made considerable sense. Those familiar with the French language know the word “curfew” stems from its French equivalent, “couvre-feu,” which literally translates to “covering of the fire.”
But history took a turn, and in contrast to the hedonist rulers who reigned before the year 1000, 11th century Europe was stuck with ruthless monarchs who were self-absorbed and paranoid over their loss of political influence. These authoritarians discovered the curfew was a brilliant tool to prevent riots — acts of rebellion that gave ordinary citizens the power to stand up to those in charge, and to challenge aristocrats and special interests who latched onto rulers in order to stay wealthy. Fear became the ultimate tool, and the 9 p.m. bell ring symbolized the time to go home. The average citizen internalized this habit so deeply that even today, many churches still ring the evening closure.
By this time, those in power had grasped the effectiveness of this technique, and from then on, dictators, coup leaders, American slave-owners, and administrators of Jewish ghettos in Europe made the curfew a memorable utensil of violent regimes.
Now, why commence in this Godwin’s Law-like fashion in order to argue against curfews for the youngest in our society? For one, historical knowledge of every societal function is important because it provides context. But more importantly, there is a larger point between the history of the curfew as protection from a fire hazard and authoritarian restrictions for political goals: power prevails.
Protecting whom? From what?
Proponents of curfews argue they protect teenagers from potential dangers, and that argument is ultimately true. If children stay locked away at home, the chance they will be stolen from, hit, stabbed, or kidnapped is zero percent — much in the way an indoor cat lives longer.
There is a serious point to be made here: we can reach ultimate security if we give up all of our liberties. What applies to the debate about mass surveillance also holds true when it comes to curfews. Parenting is one thing, laws are another.
We should strive to teach our children the values of freedom — that doing whatever we want while not hurting anyone else is liberating, that taking responsibility for our actions is a virtue, and that dealing with these responsibilities is part of growing up. What we shouldn’t do is give teenagers another set of tutors — in this case, politicians.
The Nanny State is too intrusive; it tells us what we should eat, smoke, drink, think, and say. The more laws the merrier, until we find ourselves surprised by the fact our own government has become a danger, not the pickpockets in the streets. Then the curfews of the 20th century and before will be back, with the exact purpose.
Children and teenagers should be taught to question authority, not question those who question authority. They don’t need another nanny telling them when they can leave the house.
They need freedom more than anything else, so that one day they can come home and say they have finally grown up. Then again, we might as well teach that to our governments.
This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.