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When do we acknowledge that they’re adults?

Christina Sandefur May 10, 2017
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It’s not a new observation that in their constant drive to force other people to make better choices, statists tend to infantilize people—treating them like children who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions.  Whether it be bans on large sodas and grocery bags, or subtler approaches like “nudging,” the pervasive nanny state is guided by the proposition that the unregulated life is not worth living.  But rarely has that attitude been more plainly on display than in a bill now pending in Texas to raise the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21.

You read that right: an 18-year-old can die in battle in Afghanistan and to vote for the President—but apparently isn’t old enough to decide whether or not to light a cigarette. 

It’s hard to find anyone nowadays who doesn’t recognize that smoking is bad for your health.  Yet as the Reason Foundation’s Brian Fojtik reports, the rates are declining.  In 2001, 28 percent of Texas high schoolers smoked, but this year that number is down to 10 percent. But there’s a big difference between teaching people the dangers of smoking, and outlawing it by categorizing people who are, in fact and law, adults as minors incapable of deciding for themselves.  Free people must be free to make bad decisions, and suffer the consequences—otherwise, they aren’t free.

Obviously, government must draw some lines.  But age-of-consent laws are supposed to be about protecting kids who can’t safely decide for themselves.  They’re not an excuse for making choices on behalf of grown-ups.  As the Supreme Court put it in Thompson v. Oklahoma, “[i]nexperience, less education, and less intelligence make the teenager less able to evaluate the consequences of his or her conduct while at the same time he or she is much more apt to be motivated by mere emotion or peer pressure than is an adult.”  But statist social engineers, seeing inexperience and less intelligence in everyone but themselves, treat fully independent individuals as children who should be protected by the state from making the “wrong” decisions.

This infantilizing trend isn’t just limited to smoking.  Recent years have witnessed a growing tendency to treat adults or older teens as though they were children.  Many colleges have passed rules prohibiting graduate students—that is, grown men and women—from having romantic relationships with their teachers, who are also grown-ups.  As Laura Kipnis observes, such rules regard adult students as “putty in the hands of powerful professors,” when in fact they are fully capable of making their own choices.  Since 2000, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and other states, have taken steps to raise the age of sexual consent to 18, as opposed to 16 or 17.  Given the risk that violating such laws could send a perpetrator to jail for statutory rape—and for a lifetime of opprobrium as a registered sex offender—this is a matter on which it’s important to strike the right balance.  But reclassifying a 17-year-old whose right to make her own choices was previously respected by the law as a child in need of legal supervision demeans her, as well.  The age of majority isn’t just about freedom: it’s about responsibility.  Depriving a person of freedom and responsibility means treating that person as a child.  That’s why efforts to deprive whole categories of people of their freedom—be it women or members of racial minorities—have often begun by relegating them to the status of children.  Yet as courts have often emphasized, even in the realm of medicine, the goal of protecting people from themselves cannot justify taking their freedom away.  Such a “highly paternalistic approach” must yield to the right of competent adults to make their own choices.

An 18-year-old Texan can make myriad decisions, many of which have more lasting consequences than the choice of whether to light up.  He or she can marry, drive, hold a job, join the military, serve on a jury, and decide whether or not to attend school, undergo surgery, get a tattoo, or vote.  To deny these adults the right to choose whether or not to smoke is obviously not about protecting them from childhood ignorance—but about imposing government’s preferences on their lives. 

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