“Tell your men to sheathe their blades, my lord. Else I shall collapse the whirligig upon them, and Anam will be once more without a balance.”
The baron’s eyes lit with understanding. His hand retreated from his sword. “Practical considerations, sorcerer?”
“Will you take my realm from me, then?”
“I will not,” Gregor said. “I leave upon the instant. My word, you see, is good.”
Semmech’s jaw clenched. He raised a hand, and his men returned their swords to their scabbards.
[From The Warm Lands]
Would you like to know what gets a freedom weenie’s blood pressure up to moonshot levels? The sort of thing he simply can’t cope with no matter how hard he may try?
Yep. That’s it. That’s all. Tell a liberty-minded guy that “we can’t have that” because “it’s not practical” and watch him turn the most amazing shade of purple. And would you like to know why?
It’s simple, really. It’s because sometimes there’s no counter-argument. Some things, however desirable they might be in theory, are unworkable in practice. In operational terms, the cost of the thing would outweigh the gains from having it.
Of course, people can argue about costs and gains: how they’re assessed, in what coin they should be counted, the extent of the costs and gains spread over time, and so forth. But such arguments are by nature interminable. They eventually run down, and the decisions involved are made by a majority or supermajority consensus.
Here follows an old favorite essay. It first appeared at the Palace of Reason on June 5, 2002.
Twenty-one. Seventeen. Eighteen. Sixteen. Fourteen. Six. Twenty-five. Eight.
Feel the power rising yet?
I can’t imagine why not. The above are a fair sample of some of America’s most potent magic numbers. If they don’t cause you to swell with mystical potency like Gandalf facing the Lord of the Nazgul, at least they ought to make you tipsy.
Each of those numbers is part of a written statute, at the federal, state, or municipal level. The number controls what certain persons may do with the blessing of the law.
Twenty-one years is the legal drinking age in much, if not all of the country. A person below that age who knowingly imbibes alcohol has committed a misdemeanor. A person over that age who serves him alcohol has committed a felony.
Seventeen years is the minimum age of a capital offender in the state of Texas. Recently, Napoleon Beazley, who had murdered in the process of a carjacking just before his eighteenth birthday, discovered this to his dismay. The authorities put him to death despite protests that, at the time of his offense, he was “only a child.”
Eighteen years is the nationwide age of commercial consent, and of the franchise. An eighteen year old may enter into binding contracts, including labor contracts and contracts that would commit him to military discipline. He is deemed fit to help select our representatives in Congress and the state legislatures, and the occupant of the White House as well. His judgment doesn’t extend to the responsible use of intoxicants, but toting an automatic weapon and hurling grenades? Choosing the men who’ll run the country? Hey, who could be hurt by that?
Sixteen years is the legal age of sexual consent in the state of New York. A sixteen year old is deemed by New York law ready to decide about when, how, and with whom he’ll copulate, with neither parental veto nor legal consequence.
Fourteen years is the minimum age for a young woman to marry in several Southern states. A subset of those states require parental consent to the match; a few do not. I haven’t checked the statutes of those states for their ages of sexual consent. If any have it set higher than fourteen, it would have interesting implications for the child brides and their grooms.
We’ll get to the others in a bit. For the moment, I hope I’ve conveyed to you some sense of the ubiquity and incoherence of these magic numbers. They control access to many aspects of life, but neither they nor their rationales show any degree of consistency.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask for rational consistency in such things. Each of the numbers above is the product of a continuous, ongoing political struggle. The statute ages typically satisfy no one; in any particular case, about half the agitators wanted it to be higher, and the other half wanted it to be lower. Such processes are the reverse of rational, and cannot fairly be expected to yield rational results.
But what would a rational result be?
When the law partitions the citizenry into a portion that’s deemed responsible enough to exercise certain choices, and another that’s deemed unready, it’s making an arbitrary choice. There is no science behind a voting age of eighteen. There’s no study to reassure us that an eighteen year old will possess the necessary mature judgment to exercise the franchise. Considering how so many of them drive, the evidence is against it.
We are largely agreed that some of us are too young to be allowed independent choices about certain matters, such as sex and intoxicants. But when we get down to specifics, the final decision will always be a matter of political pressures rather than reasoning. There can be no reasoning on these matters; the varying rates of individual mental and emotional development guarantee this.
We are largely agreed that, after a certain age, individuals must be held to answer for the consequences of their deeds. But when legislatures and courts try to make rules, we reach the edge of our agreement. Political pressures take over. Some states will execute a murderer at age sixteen; others insist on a minimum of eighteen. Of course, still others won’t execute at all.
This is not an argument against these statutory ages. I cannot claim that any of these numbers “ought to be” other than what it is. Nor can I argue against the use of statutory ages in general. This is merely a reflection on the way they’ve proliferated and diverged, according to the topic they address.
It is in Man’s nature to study himself, and never to be satisfied that he knows himself adequately well. If it were otherwise, we could argue, as someone once did with the Patent Office, that the legislatures had completed their work and could be adjourned sine die. I regret to inform you that this has not occurred, not even in Rhode Island.
Part of our self-study is, of course, the study of our process of maturation, and the consequences of allowing the young access to the privileges and perquisites of the adult. From this, we produce statutory age thresholds, and adjust them over time. When our legislative process is working well, the adjustments are responses to the lessons of experience. When it isn’t, they’re determined by which pressure group has the largest PR budget.
Now, as to the last three numbers:
- Six months is the age of a developing fetus at which a mother’s decision to abort can be regulated by an act of a state legislature.
- Twenty-five years is the age in the state of New York at which a driver must be removed from his insurance company’s Assigned Risk pool, that he may keep a greater sliver of his laughably trivial earnings.
- Eight is the number of cats permitted to a single-family dwelling in the City of Yonkers, by court decision.
Didn’t expect that last one, did you?
I called them “magic numbers” out of whimsy, back then…but upon reflection there’s a deeper meaning to be had from the term, even if I didn’t grasp it at the time. The magic in them is twofold: first, they reduce contention; second, they excite dissension. The consensus that agreed to them was sufficient to give them legal staying power, which made them sound as practical considerations. However, no consensus is perfect; unanimity is unknown among us quarrelsome humans. And while it may seem paradoxical, it’s often the smallest dissenting minority that can excite the biggest noise.
Allow me two examples. Time was, a certain Peter Singer, who billed himself as an ethicist, tried to argue that “abortion rights” ought to extend beyond the womb. If memory serves, he thought a new mother should have the right to kill her baby for thirty days after birth. Why thirty days? Why not fifteen or sixty? Beats me. But that’s what he argued.
Singer’s notion didn’t get a lot of support, but it did get some. He got at least one quasi-favorable interview with a regionally important media organ. Since then – it was a number of years ago – we’ve heard little to nothing more from or about him.
For a more recent numerically based contretemps, we have this:
Stephen Kershnar is a professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, and a pedophilia apologist.
Here’s Kershnar on video saying that an adult male having sex with a 12-year-old girl is not obviously wrong, and that calling it wrong is a “mistake.” In the same clip, he refers to pedophilic rape as “adult-child sex,” another euphemism that, just like “minor-attracted person,” is being used in an attempt to run cover for evil.
It gets worse. Twelve isn’t young enough for Kershnar. He continues to defend pedophilia, remarking “The notion that it’s wrong even with a one-year-old is not quite obvious to me.” He goes on. “I don’t think it’s blanket wrong at any age.”
Note that, in the “Magic Numbers” essay, I admitted that the states have differing ages of sexual consent. This highlights the matter in a fashion that Kershnar and his fellow travelers would appreciate. Yet it doesn’t win the argument for them. There is an essential consensus that takes precedence:
Consent is essential to sex.
Sex without consent is rape.
Some persons cannot validly consent to sex.
Ergo, to impose sex upon them is rape.
The argument over who can and who cannot validly consent to sex gives rise not only to age-of-consent laws, but also to laws that protect adults who are deemed unable to consent: the comatose, the mentally ill, and the mentally feeble. Note that parts of this argument are still in progress, for example over whether a drunken or semi-drunken person can validly consent to sex. But more important still is this: The core of the argument is over practical considerations: i.e., how to design the laws so as to minimize the amount of harm done while minimally interfering with individuals’ rights.
When there’s no other way, we must fall back on consensus. Of course, a claim that “there’s no other way” is itself a trigger for dispute, but that’s an argument for a much, much longer essay.
Fran the Freedom Advocate has long wrestled with certain “practical considerations.” As I’m horrified by the evils to which governments give birth, I’ve strained for decades to find a way to defend a country without resorting to a government with the power to tax, or a way to enforce a uniform standard of justice in such a country without a unified system of courts, or a way to enforce acceptable standards of decency in public places without creating municipal police forces. These are the “public-goods problems” that have frustrated thinkers ever since the Enlightenment. And as much as I love Spoonerite anarchism in theory, I can’t find a way to provide for those things without exciting the very political processes that give rise to majorities imposing their will upon minorities…in other words, to governments.
Perhaps someone far wiser than I can solve those problems. In the meantime, we must use consensus…which means enduring the clamor from noisy minorities that scream that their rights and prerogatives are being trampled thereby.