Efforts to understand, improve, or do less harm to the world around me.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Pennsylvania allows 11 year old to vote, drive, drink?

This headline is accurate only in that 11 year olds are increasingly treated as adults in only one aspect.  So while society has decided that children are fully responsible for their actions in one department, they have decided the others remain absurd.  Children must still attend school, must wait 7 more years to drive, and on no account will be allowed to join the military.

Yet the military is the perfect place to describe how responsibility and freedom are connected: those with great power have greater responsibility and those without power have much less.  A private has only one task: to do as he or she is told and nothing else.  A person with a low rank is not rewarded for doing anything but the task assigned and not accorded with any extra responsibility.  As a person rises in ranks, his responsibility increases as does his freedom.  A General of an army has great freedom to decide the actions of 1,000s and will be held responsible if he or she makes a mistake in judgment.  Thus, judgment and freedom must be proportional.

Additionally, the state frequently takes away the rights of adults as well as their responsibility.  A person who loses their license to drive should never be charged with another crime that would require them to get behind the wheel: that would be contradictory.  Similarly, the mentally ill are disallowed from purchasing firearms, driving, or other activities that a responsible person can be trusted with.  When they violate the law, there is legal recourse to protect them: not guilty by reason of insanity.  So the state takes away the rights of adults and protects them from the full rebuke of the law because they are not responsible for their actions.

So children are responsible for their actions when those actions bring about grievous harm and suffering, but not when for example a child genius solves major world problems.  They cannot drink, cannot drive, and are not treated as adults, and cannot go to college without supervision.

This is a distinction without a difference: Pennsylvania treats 11 year olds as adults only when he or she acts with exceptional violence, not exceptional gifts.  Elsewhere 11 year olds remain as helpless and incapable as they have ever been.  Therefore, the state thinks whoever you are at age 11, you are and must be for the rest of your life.  Yet it does not follow that the decision-making mechanics that put a gun in a boy's hand are and must be the same that in all cases create killers later in life.

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