Sunday, February 14, 2016

Magic Numbers

     [I’ve received some requests to repost the following piece, which first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason on June 5, 2002 -- FWP.]


     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?

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