The Killing of Conscience

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June 16, 2008

It is a commonplace among libertarians that most people consider it acceptable for the state to do things that would land a private person in prison; indeed, this is the state's essence. However, the double standard does not just apply to matters of justice and property rights. It also holds for what people normally consider to be the demands of compassion and basic human decency.

As any libertarian who been following politics for more than a week can tell you, statist measures of all kinds are frequently justified with insistence that the proposed law or action is for the sake of children. Drunk driving is an excellent example of this, with groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving pushing a neoprohibitionist agenda by terrifying people into believing that their children will be mangled unless MADD's desires--greater police power, greater restrictions on alcohol--are fulfilled. They enjoy an almost unassailable position in the mainstream--what sort of monster doesn't want to protect children from drunk driving? What hooligan would attack public-spirited and bereaved mothers?

And yet, America is oddly incoherent about the young. On the one hand, perceived threats to them cause hysteria and justify almost any action that will calm people's fears; on the other hand, their suffering is often treated with indifference, or even amusement. Combined with the moral cloak the state provides and America 's often-unthinking faith in police, government educators, and altruistic-sounding activist groups, this can be a toxic combination. When trying to understand this phenomenon, it's important to look at actions that give insights into the character of the police and of 'altruistic' statist lobbying groups like MADD, even if they are minor in the greater scheme of things, because they provide insights into the nature of statism itself. Consider this story from the San Diego Union-Tribune, brought to my attention thanks to Radley Balko:

Many juniors and seniors were driven to tears ' a few to near hysterics ' May 26 when a uniformed police officer arrived in several classrooms to notify them that a fellow student had been killed in a drunken-driving accident'then left the class members to process their thoughts and emotions for the next hour.

The program, titled 'Every 15 Minutes,' was designed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving'

About 10 a .m. , students were called to the athletic stadium, where they learned that their classmates had not died.

This is what the efforts of the more-caring-than-thou defenders of children, unrestrained by any serious public skepticism or scrutiny, have come to: Mothers Against Drunk Driving has teamed up with law enforcement to psychologically torture high school students. You'd think a group with 'Mothers' in the title would be somewhat averse to the idea of tormenting innocent kids, but I guess not. Perhaps they could change their name to something along the lines of 'Mothers From Mommie Dearest Against Drunk Drivers.'

Much of the response has been an excellent representation of America 's conflicted attitude towards young people, especially teenagers. A number of people have said, in online discussions of the incident, 'Well, they'll get over it. Big deal.' Yes, they will. People get over much worse than this. What of it? Is the moral rule now that it's okay to inflict severe pain on someone provided it doesn't cause permanent, irrevocable damage? And if you don't think spending an hour believing someone you knew well--possibly someone you cared about--has died gruesomely doesn't constitute 'severe pain,' you've either attained kohlinar or you're a complete and utter moron.

Even sillier are the claims that people dismayed by this want to 'shelter' kids from reality or 'keep them in a bubble.' Apparently, lying to kids by telling them that their friend is dead and letting them stew in grief for an hour is the only way to teach the kids that the world is sometimes a harsh place. Anything else is just coddling them, and anyone who objects to sadistic treatment of children is keeping them from the real world and probably dragging America down into effeminate decadence to boot. The inability of some people to distinguish between honestly educating young people about a harsh subject and this sort of cruelty is saddening.

Still others have argued, 'Wouldn't you rather this be done to your kid than have him actually die?' The false dichotomy is one of the most common statist forms of argument, and it's especially likely to be trotted out for topics that have caused as much public fear as drunk driving has. We are meant to believe that telling kids cruel lies and seeing your child die in a car wreck are the only possible outcomes. There are no other conceivable means to discourage kids from driving drunk, and therefore anyone who doesn't support this specific program doesn't care about kids. Thus, morality not only allows but demands support for behavior that would otherwise be considered sadistic or outright sociopathic.

However, I'm not clear on how, exactly, this MADD program discourages drunk driving. The lesson the kids received wasn't, 'Drunk driving kills people.' No one actually died, after all. The lesson of this particular exercise is 'The people who insistently claim that drunk driving kills people are liars.' Sadly, that's often true, but it's more likely to lead to the natural but invalid inference 'Therefore drunk driving does not kill people' than to a keener appreciation of the real dangers. Aesop's story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf does not end with the townspeople developing greater vigilance against the threat of wolf attacks.

The article continues:

Though the deception left some teens temporarily confused and angry, if it makes even one student think twice before getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, it is worth the price, said California Highway Patrol Officer Eric Newbury, who orchestrates the program at local high schools.

'When someone says to me, 'Oh, my God, you're traumatizing my children,' I'm telling them, 'No, what I'm doing is waking them up,' ' said Newbury, whose father was killed by a drunken driver.

'If you don't do your job as a parent...the only thing I can do is either arrest them and take them to jail or scrape them off the ground and tell you, 'I'm so sorry.' '

'If I sit there and lecture somebody in a nice way, it's going to go in one ear and out the other,' he said' 'I want them to be an emotional wreck. I don't want them to have to live through this for real.'

And so here we are, with police openly boasting to the media about their desire to use deceit to turn large numbers of kids who have committed no offense into 'emotional wrecks' as part of a poorly thought out scheme that they hope will make the kids less likely to break the law in the future. What's most bothersome isn't really that he considers his behavior justified, awful as that is. What's most bothersome is that he clearly has no fear that bragging about it to the press will cause any trouble. And, of course, his confidence is quite justified, because people will tolerate almost anything if done by a government with 'good intentions.' The moral standards that otherwise govern human life are quickly forgotten, and so the moral degradation spreads from the perpetrators to the rest of society as people rationalize and accept reprehensible behavior.

Remember: Law enforcement feels no guilt about lying. The people who run MADD feel no guilt about lying. For all their proclaimed concern and compassion, they feel no guilt about causing extreme psychological pain to the members of society who are probably the most vulnerable and sensitive to this sort of emotional shock: teenagers. These are the people who are acting 'for the children.' These are the people who consider themselves entitled to raise other people's kids, and to do so with methods like these.

The sad thing is, when they say they are motivated by concern for kids, I believe them. People can do far worse than this when they're convinced that their cause is so holy that normal ethical concerns cease to apply. The state, by diffusing responsibility and presenting itself as an entity that really does have the right to do what would be immoral for anyone else, greatly amplifies this tendency and gives it free reign. Vile as this program is, its cruelty is but one relatively minor example. With the freedom from moral restraint that the mystique of the state provides, it's quite easy for people strongly driven by their cause to grow crueler and crueler--and still sleep soundly at night.

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John Markley's picture
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John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.