Curfews : It’s time to grow up

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Topic 4 :

Limitations or Protection : Do Curfews Keep Teens Out of Trouble ?

A historic tool

The first records we have of curfews being installed are the royal authorities in Europe of the 9th century. At the time, the curfews served the purpose of the general population being required to stay calmly in their homes while firefighters would put out devastating fires, which in the times of wooden houses, made considerable sense. Those familiar with the French language know that the word ‘curfew’ stems from its French equivalent ‘couvre-feu’, which literally translates to ‘covering of the fire’.

But history took a turn and instead of the hedonist rulers of before the year 1000, 11th century Europe was stuck with ruthless monarchs, self-absorbed and paranoid for the loss of their political influence. These authoritarians had discovered that the curfew was a brilliant tool to prevent riots, those acts of rebellions that would give ordinary citizens the power to stand up to those in charge and to those who sucked up to it in order to stay wealthy. Fear became the ultimate tool : the 9 p.m. bell ring symbolised the time to go home. The average citizen internalised this habit so deeply that even today many churches still ring the evening closure.

By now, those in power had grasped the effectiveness of this technique, and from then on every dictator, coup leader, American slave-owner and administrator of a Jewish ghetto in Europe made the curfew a memorable utensil of a violent regime. Now, why commence in this Godwin’s Law-like fashion in order to argue against curfews for the youngest in our society? For once, knowledge of the history of every societal function is important, because it provides context. But more importantly, there is a larger point between the history of the curfew from protection from a fire hazard to an authoritarian restriction for political goals : power prevails.

Without freedom

Children are by far the most unfree individuals in society : they are not allowed to work, invest, drive a car, drink alcohol, vote, smoke, have sex – and as far as their tutelage is concerned – no freedom of movement whatsoever. Being a teenager [1] means being terribly unfree, and as a result of that an interesting parallel society of ‘felt illegality’ arises. Children learn to apply secrecy for their actions, getting older friends to buy products they can’t access, lying to go to places they were not allowed to go to etc. By the time most teenagers in Europe are 18, they have already falsified their own ID in order to get into a club.

I'll fly you to the moon

Children and teenagers already have to follow an enormous set of rules that are not laws at all : they all come from their tutors. Being under tutelage couldn’t be more arbitrary, since your rules change depending on the mood of your tutor and they are always more restrictive than the law. Without any restriction by government, children first have to overcome the rules of their own parents anyway before they dive into the substance of figuring out federal, regional or municipal regulations concerning curfews.

Application of the law

Any student of Law can confirm that there is every difference in the world between writing a law and putting it into practice. There is no need to go into detail about the staggering increase of jurisprudence and difficulty of police field work in every European country ever since the professionalisation of politics, let us merely apply it to this case.

A country that has experience with implementing curfews for teenagers is Germany, in which the federal government imposes loads of restrictions, while the states and cities add additional ones according to their good will (or not). The federal government regulates for example that a teenager under 16 years of age can only go to a club until midnight, that under 18 years of age an authorisation from the parents is needed to go to a concert, or that under 18 year-olds can stay in the cinema only until midnight.

Jugendschutzgesetz

When it comes to private establishments, the German government is purely dependent on the law-abiding nature of the owner. But those cities who extend the curfew to simply being outside, find themselves in the long-lasting dilemma of helpless law-enforcement towards legislative inflation. Or to put it differently: the law in the case is simply non-enforceable. Interestingly enough we would not even want it to be, since on one hand we prefer police being driven by the need to stop actual violent crime (murders, rapes and the like) than to chase little Timmy being up at 0.30 a.m., and on the other hand because the prospect of paid government officials being on the watch for strolling teenagers on each of their steps after late hours is frightening to say the least. The idea of having trained police officers catching teenagers at night to then establish their age first (since it is of no teenager’s habit to carry identification around) to apply non-effective charges due to their age, is ultimately as sense-inducing as taking the time to establish who threw over whose sandcastle first.

Protecting whom from what?

There is the suggestion that curfews protect teenagers from potential dangers. And yes, that argument ultimately is true. If children stay locked away at home the chance of them getting stolen from, hit, stabbed, kidnapped or what have not, is 0%. The same way an indoor cat lives longer.

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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 does 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 up responsibilities for our actions is a virtue, that dealing with these responsibilities is part of growing up. What we shouldn’t do is give teenagers another set of tutors, that being politicians. The Nanny State is too intrusive, it tells what we should eat, smoke, drink, think, say ; the more laws the merrier, until we find ourselves surprised by the fact that our own government has become a danger, not the pickpockets in the streets. Then we’re back to the 20th century (and before) curfews, the authoritarian ones.

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 that they have finally grown up. Then, we might as well teach that to our governments.


Related read : My Parents Told Me To Grow Up, So I Became A Libertarian

[1] Differences in age restrictions obviously vary from country to country and depending on the specific action

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