Teen Curfews Are More Absurd 'Nanny State' Rules

The restrictions on young people are inconsistent, if not bizarre.


Imagine that a city council decided that one racial or ethnic group was making way too much mischief, far more than other groups. The police didn't seem to be able to control it, and the groups appeared to be more criminally-inclined when they were together. So the local government, bent on controlling crime, decided to ban that group from associating on the street during certain hours.

There would be an understandable outcry, complete with accurate accusations of discrimination and racism. But this is, in fact, exactly what is happening in towns and counties around the country—except that the maligned group is young people.

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In Kansas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, lawmakers have approved or are considering public curfews for teenagers. The argument is that when young people congregate—especially at night—they tend to behave badly, even violently. But punishing an entire age group for the failures of the criminal youngsters (not to mention their parents and law enforcement) is an outrageous violation of rights in a free society.

We have other laws that set minimum ages for certain activity, and that is often sensible. But the rules are often arbitrary and inconsistent. Studies had shown that teenagers were less responsible with alcohol than older young adults, so states (under threat from the Reagan administration, which was prepared to deny highway funding) raised their drinking ages to 21. This is a questionable strategy, since most college students will reveal that when drinking is taboo, young people are more likely to binge drink, which is far more dangerous. New drinkers often make mistakes, but learning how to drink while in a semi-controlled environment might make more sense.

[Check out the U.S. News debate: Should the drinking age stay at 21?]

And if young people can't drink alcohol until they are 21, why do we let them go to war when they are 18? That carries far more inherent dangers, and requires far more mature judgment. Even more bizarrely, we let people get married at 18, or even at 16, with parents' permission. Surely making a lifelong commitment to a spouse and possibly children is a far bigger responsibility than figuring out how many beers one can drink without throwing up or being unable to drive.

The small-government activists who rail against the "nanny state" should be appalled at the curfews. Parents should impose curfews, not governments. And the towns are counties are doing it mainly because they can, because the people affected are not old enough to vote them out of office. By the time teenagers are old enough to vote, they are no longer subject to curfews—just the possibility of a draft. And that would be a military draft, not a bar beverage.

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  • See a slide show of the 10 worst states for teen driving.