Liberty Isn’t Free

This is to think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions.

Locke, Second Treatise, para. 93. 

A case from Ohio making the rounds:

Cops Arrest Mom Working Evening Shift at Pizza Place for Leaving Kids, Ages 10 and 2, Alone

An Ohio mom has been arrested for leaving her kids, a 10-year-old and a 2-year-old, in a motel room while she worked her shift at a pizza shop.

A tip to the police led officers to a Motel Six in Youngstown at about 6:15 p.m. on Thursday night. The 10-year-old explained that her mom was working and would be home at 10:00 p.m.

The officers went to the pizza shop where the mom, Shaina Bell, 24, told them she usually has someone look in on the kids every hour. She was booked into jail on two counts of child endangerment and the kids were sent to their father. She got out on bail.

There may be more to the story, but as reported, this is a sad excuse for law enforcement.

The premise behind the arrest is the assumption that a ten year-old can’t adequately take care of a toddler. The assumption happens to be wrong. All over the world, children as young as nine or ten (usually girls) take care of toddlers and even infants without incident, and have done so for centuries. We seem to be unique in our anxiety-ridden belief that the best way to raise a child is to treat her as a perpetual incompetent.

So here’s the result, in a town called “Liberty,” no less. A mother leaves her kids in that most terrifying of places, an ordinary motel room, probably indistinguishable from a lot of living rooms in a lot of cheap apartments. Some of the reporting suggests that someone was checking in hourly, not that no one’s checking in hourly strikes me as that big a deal in this, our post-Alexander Graham Bell age of the telephone. Someone calls the cops, because they have nothing better to do with their time; the police come, exercise that “discretion” for which cops are so well known, and decide to ruin the mother’s life. Presumably Mommy will do a better job of mothering from some combination of jail cell and custodial supervision than she did before she entered Le System. Sounds like a plan–a seriously fucked-up plan designed to accomplish nothing but misery, but a plan nonetheless.

Cops keep demanding our “respect.” It’s hard to have respect for any of this–for the cops who made this pointless arrest, for the people who support laws enforced this way, for the broader conception of child-raising presupposed by the whole episode. Maybe you wouldn’t leave your ten-year-old alone to take care of your two-year-old. Fine. So don’t. But can you know, from an armchair, that someone else’s ten-year-old can’t? I doubt it. That’s not knowledge. It’s a bluff at someone else’s expense.

To see danger in leaving kids alone in a motel room but not to see danger in forcibly separating children from their mother, is a nearly perfect inversion of moral priorities. So here’s one more proof, if any was needed, that law enforcement without justice is injustice armed. Either we resist it, or it destroys us. Not much room for maneuver, or for unearned respect. 

9 thoughts on “Liberty Isn’t Free

    • I don’t think any amount of training could help cops who regard this as an arrestable offense. I’m curious to see how the prosecutor reacts, but I get the impression that cases of this sort have become very routine. Here’s a seven-year-old story I found (among dozens) while I was doing a Google search for the one discussed in the post. The best part is the arrant bullshit served up by the prosecutor:

      What I love about this story is that the kids were “ultimately found unharmed,” but that didn’t matter to the legal outcome. The prosecutor engages in the usual “whataboutisms” to clinch the usual half-assed case: what about the poor unharmed children? Of course, the mother likely left the kids in the car because allowing them to move about would have attracted attention to them, which would have increased the probability of someone’s calling the police. You can’t win. If there’s harm in a kinda nearby possible world, there’s harm in the actual world. Guilty! This is how a municipal court judge managed to find me guilty of “careless driving” in a case where no harm or danger had been asserted (much less established) as a result of the careless driving. They all think like this. Counterfactuals matter until they don’t.

      Kids still do plenty of marauding in the suburbs and in rural areas. They just don’t attract attention when they do. These cases aren’t a matter of marauding but of being alone while staying put. The real question is, why do they attract attention when so many instances don’t?

      Liked by 1 person

      • The rules are the rules are the rules! If the rule are laws, then even more so. If the laws are to protect children, then even more so again on top of the first even-more-so. If the laws are broken, enforce them mechanically (or so you might think, as bias creeps in). If there is resistance, double-down on the enforcement action. That a given law (or rule) does not serve its intended good aim — or requires discretion or judgment in particular cases — is lost. That seems like the attitude.

        The attempt to apply rules and laws in a merely-mechanical way is dangerous and potentially implicitly biased in various ways. One big, problematic motivation here is strongly desiring social order (clear social rules, strong authority enforcing them) as something like a reflex (or at least too strongly). This motivation, possessed systematically (across a wide range of cases), is one of the main elements in what we might call a broadly authoritarian or authority-loving mindset.

        Social order and what achieves it has an important role in securing conditions that facilitate human well-being, but the content of the rules and how they are enforced (and how consensus about them should and should not be allowed to evolve) is ignored at our peril. We should want rules and laws that promote conditions that facilitate human well-being (mostly through facilitating individual and community efforts at self-improvement and helping others). Similarly for discretion in application of rules/laws and for how enforcement occurs. The law enforcement action here is clearly ridiculous (kids in no real danger) and itself harms the kids (single mom in jail cannot care for kids). Shit, maybe use some discretion? I’m thinking lots of folks are authoritarians or authority-loving regarding laws and rules that are supposed to protect kids from supposedly real (but actually often not so much so) dangers.

        End of rant.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Agreed. That’s one reason why I’ve always thought that gen ed classes were a must for students in criminal justice. I taught a heavy concentration of CJ students for 15 years, and almost all of them had a “rule worship” mentality. A gen ed course was virtually the only place where that attitude was ever going to get questioned, if only for a single semester or so. When CJ students would ask about the point of a CJ major taking a gen ed course, I’d point out to them that police work involves as much reading, writing, and public speaking as it does take downs, compliance holds, arrests, or car chases. So why not hone those skills now?

          Student answer #1: “Oh, if I have to learn that shit, they’ll teach it to me in the Police Academy.” Response: if you learn it now, you’ll improve your performance in the Police Academy, instead of being the remedial education barnacle on the progress of the graduating class. Amusingly enough, police academies regularly run classes in remedial writing. But the remedy falls far short of the problem.

          Student answer #2: “I won’t need to read or write that much; I’ll just follow the law.” Note the metaphor: not read the law, but “follow” it. How do you follow the law without reading it?

          I used to get somewhat belligerent with these students, because I found that answer so fucking stupid that I felt the need to knock it out of them. How can people who refuse to do the simplest reading for a gen ed class hope to read through and understand a manual of criminal procedure? How would you “follow” the law if you hadn’t read the statutes the codify the law? They generally had no sense of the complexity of even the simplest law. I’d have them read the simplest municipal court decision on my careless driving case, and they’d miss even the basics of a two or three page decision (like: what are the elements of the offense?). When your reading comprehension skills suck that bad, and you suck that badly at thinking on your feet, “the law” becomes “a mindless set of rules that I apply in mechanical fashion after I consult a cheat sheet.”

          “But gen ed is irrelevant to my major!”–the confession of the person whose thoughts are systematically out of phase with reality.

          Apropos of the original item, you might find this of interest (or of irritation):

          I agree with a great deal of what Klein says, but at some point, I think someone has to point out that the easiest way to avoid the problems he wants to solve is for low income people to stop having kids they can’t afford. The more we give people subsidized child allowances, the more we encourage the thought that everyone, regardless of financial circumstances, ought to have kids. That’s the slightly propagandistic message behind this Pakistani movie, which would undoubtedly be attacked as “victim blaming” and “stigmatizing” if made in the US.

          The bad guy is a man who refuses to use birth control, so the underlying message is easy to handle: men are easy to regard as villains. But in this Lebanese film, the bad guys are a couple, indicted by their son for the crime of having him and plunging him into poverty.

          The mother is depicted as being as guilty as the father. Naturally, the film went nowhere in this country.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Just read a follow up on the case, which makes it even worse than it first appeared:


            So the complaint was made to the police by the childrens’ father, who seems to have gamed the system for his own purposes. I assume the mother and father are estranged, so it’d be worth knowing whether there’s a custody battle on. But if so, the police have just tipped the scales in the father’s favor.

            OK, so that’s the police. You’d expect a prosecutor to do better, to have the brains to avoid filing charges. But no, not so. The prosecutor seems to want to go ahead with the case. This is a guy who’s spent his entire life as a lawyer, doesn’t seem ever to have ventured out of the white collar world of high-paying jobs, courts, and office buildings. Does he really have the moral standing to judge in a case like this? I just find the total lack of common sense here astonishing, and it can’t be because the prosecutor lacks the education to see the defects in a rule-worshipping approach to the law. He just lacks the moral discernment.


            But he’s an elected official who’d held office since 1984, so evidently, he’s given the people what they want.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Generally, I like Ezra Klein. I often disagree with him, but he generally offers evidence and argument and generally gives points on both sides a fair shake. Only rarely does he annoy me.

            (a) I’m not sure what it means to say that not rewarding staying at home to raise kids is a “market failure.” Which market? The one between spouses? A larger one between members of an extended family? This is not a market good in the normal sense. There are more-straight-forward rationales for rewarding/paying child-rearers from the public purse. Starting with: having and raising children is a fundamental human good and, if conditions in society make this too hard for low-skilled wager-earners, the rest of us should (or perhaps are obligated to) offer them a reciprocal deal for wage or child-rearing subsidies contingent on their keeping a job, not abusing their children, sending their children to school, etc.

            (b) Everyone who can should be expected to work and, to the best they can, earn their keep. This is a matter of basic individual justice with respect to individual people in their lives (most especially their family) and basic social justice with respect to the rest of us (in the provision of all the things that government provides and needs to provide). If it is too hard for relatively unskilled workers to make ends meet (or have a family), we can subsidize work (but not via a minimum wage that forces employers to foot the bill and makes the economy less efficient). This too, at a certain point, is a matter of justice as well, but we should find a way to stress the reciprocity: you get this only because you are working, obeying the law, paying your taxes, generally pulling your weight. Same for subsidizing having and caring for children.

            (My brother Robb — half-brother, actually — is presently near-homeless, though working at $14/hr full-time job in Boise, ID. There is a lot to this story, including a lot of dysfunction, but my sister and I are presently subsidizing his housing, at a crappy hotel. He works his ass off as head of a janitorial crew and pays child support that is set way too high — amounting to almost 1/2 of his wages — and his ex-wife will not cooperate in getting it reduced. Because he is making these efforts, he deserves help (from us certainly but also from others and maybe also from the larger society with housing). Not, or not necessarily, in the sense that it would be appropriate for him to demand it, but in the sense of getting help in various ways contingent on his efforts. He is not, and would not want to be, a pure charity case.)

            (c) There are pure charity cases and some charity functions need to be public. These should be sharply distinguished from government benefits being one end of a reciprocal justice deal (where it is explicit and stressed that this is so). If someone needs and, in some weaker sense deserves, *simply getting help* then call it what it is, simply charity. Perhaps the state should have wards, but if you are a ward of the state (or your family) this should be explicit. (Though this kind of reasoning — insisting on the distinction between justice and charity — often serves cruelty, it need not. To my mind, making this distinction is pretty basic to moral thinking. I don’t get why the left so often seems to regard social justice as conforming to a simple abuse-style model of reciprocity: group X is getting screwed by society (usually in a way that is hard to distinguish from bad luck and bad decisions) and justice is their getting recompense. Maybe that is right sometimes, but I think it usually obscures a more-complicated relationship of appropriate reciprocity (often in the pursuit of optional, but still important, social goods).

            (d) At least largely, in this context, dignity comes with the justice, with being held to account by others and by society to hold up your end of all the basic and virtuously-constructed deals — and meeting these standards. And there are other sources of dignity in work as well. Many people, people who are not self-starters, more or less go crazy or become bad people if they stop working (my brother is one of them). The “let’s question how important work is for dignity” thinking-man’s question is not a good one. If you need better labor laws or wage subsidies to make certain work not too terrible for your average lower-skill worker, do it. Then you’ll get work, justice and strengthen one of the most viable, important forms of dignity that is generally available to all. If you just pay people from the public purse to have kids, be housewives or househusbands or not to work if they so choose, you undermine this source of dignity (and the justice that grounds it), gaining only the dignity that comes from eliminating drudgery. We can, and should, promote both sources of dignity (and not undermine justice).

            If the only alternative on offer is mythologizing the dignity of work (in such a way that even drudgery is a wonderful, unproblematic source of dignity — the more the better for all the proles!) and not being open to changing the social terms to strengthen reciprocal justice and dignity in work (in the context of global competition, increasing automation, and decreasing demand for lower-skill and lower-cultural-capital labor) then, well maybe just hand out more money and resources with little or no strings attached? However, as the Romney proposal shows, things might not be this bleak. In my ideal world, we would get something like the Romney plan, but without encouraging and unjustly rewarding people on welfare for having children. Encouraging folks with means to have kids seems fine, but we need to hold everyone (who is capable) to pulling their weight in society. So have a job, have kids and do a responsible job raising and educating them — and the rest of us will make sure that larger economic and social conditions do not make this too burdensome to the lower-skilled folks (though also we will hold people responsible for getting better skills, while making sure that their end of this bargain is not too burdensome).


            • I can’t respond to everything in your comment, but I think much of it, or at least some of it, misses Klein’s point.

              On “market failure,” I think we should stop genuflecting before economists’ technical conception of market failure, and be open to an intuitively obvious meaning that that phrase can have. It’s a failing in an economy (and a real failing in our market-based economy) that people can, through no fault of their own, work extremely hard and yet not be able to afford even the basics of life. Meanwhile, other people, often quite improvident, dishonest, lazy, and unjust, make huge amounts of money–and command huge armies of labor–by living off of inherited investment income, and other inherited sorts of capital. Whether that situation satisfies the economist’s definition of “market failiure” or not, it’s patently obvious what it means, and that it represents a moral failure of some kind.

              Klein is not disputing that people ought to work, or that work has dignity. What he’s disputing is the very common belief that the way to respond to poverty is to induce people to maximize their work hours, so that it’s somehow a success that someone gets by working 60-70 hours a week at two or three low-paying jobs. The assumption is not simply that work has dignity (which no one is disputing), but that work-hours maximization is dignity-maximization, which is really kind of insane. But there is no other way to explain the George Bush comment that Klein cites, and Bush is far from alone in having that belief. Spend a week on LinkedIn, and you’ll see endless iterations of that same mythology. Isn’t it wonderful that Jane Doe is working 80 hours a week at $12 an hour in order to feed her three kids and keep a roof over her head? Answer: no, it isn’t. Even if you take the three kids out of the equation, it’s an affront to human dignity that people have to work 80 hours a week at exploitative, mind-deadening jobs, to avoid sinking into oblivion.

              Nothing requires it but a bunch of unwarranted dogmas about the conceptual connection between liberty and property: e.g., liberty is indefeasible (or nearly so), and defined in such a way that liberty is violated when property is re-distributed–taking current property arrangements as sacrosanct (or nearly so). The anxiety behind all right-wing politics in America (let’s face it) is that every redistribution is wrong. Since every redistribution is wrong, but redistribution is too ubiquitous to be fought, the strategy becomes: let’s minimize redistributions. The result is misery, pure and simple. I tried to make this point in a diplomatic way to David Kelley et al back in the mid-1990s, when they got so gung-ho about welfare reform, but over the years, I’ve lost my patience and lost my willingness to be diplomatic. It’s time to call bullshit on the whole enterprise.

              When you look at the primitive quality of the literature on property–still stuck in the year 1687, fixated over Lockean dogmas about acorns, apples, and plots of farm land–and then come back to the real world and hear people talking such a storm about property rights and redistribution, it becomes obvious that standard-issue free market/libertarian/conservative politics is not just based on false assumptions, but a plain old scam. No one in 300 years has come anywhere close to justifying even the most conceptually primitive claims about property rights. I would challenge anyone out there to find me a single book or article anywhere that provides an iron-clad justification for large scale property holdings in unimproved land. And yet, when it comes to practical politics, we all act as though downward redistributions of income to the poor are somehow violative of rights violations. How, exactly? Yes, if you take current holdings and the existing rules of acquisition, transfer, and rectification as sacrosanct, perhaps they violate legal rights (and often they don’t), but what is the theoretical case? After decades of fellow traveling with libertarians, it’s finally started to occur to me that maybe there is no such case.

              Meanwhile, people like your brother are limping along as janitors at $14 an hour, which is exactly what I do and what I make. I don’t know about Boise, Idaho, but no one can afford housing in New Jersey at $14 an hour. And even if Boise is cheaper than Jersey, no one saddled with child support obligations at $14 an hour is going to make ends meet. The question is, why is he being paid $14 an hour for body-wrecking, back-breaking work? Like him, I do it 40-60 hours a week. People who don’t do it have no idea what it’s like to do it. Like him, I desperately need more income, and could probably get some by signing into the “labor pool” at my hospital, where they call you in to work on crews outside of your dept when someone in that dept calls out. So from working 40-60 hours a week at $14, I’d go to working 50-70 hours a week at $14 to $20. Will that improve my income? Yes. Is it, in human terms, a success? No. And I have a Ph.D, and am on my way to a second Masters, hardly the typical case. So this is just a temporary passage for me. Plus, I have housing. But for most people in this situation, it’s just endless misery piled on misery.

              Personally, I’m less enthusiastic about rewarding mothers than rewarding workers. I think there’s too much emphasis on mothers, and too little on people. Of course, single mothers are in a uniquely difficult predicament, in some ways far worse than single people without dependents. And the problem of saddling people with unrealistic or impossible child support obligations is under-discussed.

              But Klein’s underlying point strikes me as both untouched by your comment and irrefutable: we should stop pushing people into solving their financial problems with the pat mantra, “Just work some more!” Working some more not only doesn’t solve the relevant problems, but creates new problems. People can’t work long enough or hard to dig themselves out of the holes they get into (often through very minor peccadillos), and over-work just destroys their minds and bodies. White collar people congratulate one another all the time for working fewer hours, traveling in Europe, working from home while lounging a bit in one’s pajamas, letting their children “take some time off” from the nothing that they were doing in the first place. They simply refuse to cut blue collar or underclass people the same slack. For those people, the maxim becomes “who does not toil, shall not eat.” It’s a blatantly obvious, and rather sickening, double standard. It was obvious to me before I became a blue collar worker, and it’s screamingly obvious now that I am one.

              That’s my general moral take. If we want to narrow this to policy, one relevant one is the minimum wage. I’ve always been on the fence about the minimum wage, not knowing how to think about it. But at this point, the issue strikes me as pretty clear: a $15 minimum wage is basically a no-brainer, and the so-called “free market” arguments against it all fail. The rationale for it is far more obvious and defensible than the arguments against it. I’m with AOC and Paul Krugman on that, against every “free market libertarian” on my Facebook feed.


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