Enforcing ‘Constructive Behavioral Change’

A group of college presidents has sparked debate by signing a petition urging the drinking age be lowered to 18, the legally recognized age of adulthood. They argue that “twenty-one is not working” because it has “not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

Several groups are opposing this campaign, among them Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The president of MADD complains that “it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our education leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science.” She and others deny that “studies did not conclusively show a benefit to raising the drinking age [to 21].”

Leave aside for now the factual claims of either side and consider the nature of the debate itself. On one side is a group arguing that current laws do not “work”, citing only empirical studies as evidence for their position. On the other side is a group arguing that current laws should be left alone, citing only empirical studies as evidence for their position. In fact, both sides have the same motive (reducing drinking), but only differ on what the “research” tells us is the best way to achieve it.

This debate offers a good example of a fundamental error being committed in nearly all public policy discussions today. In general, the process proceeds as follows:

  1. Determine desired behavior of populace.
  2. Conduct various studies in order to determine what government restrictions might bring about such a “constructive behavioral change”.
  3. Vote to decide which method seems to be the best bet.
  4. In a few years, repeat.

There is a glaring problem in the above: the question of whether the government is justified in using its power to bring about “constructive behavioral change” is never raised. It is simply taken as a given that what is determined in step 1 is legitimate so long as there is enough public or legislative support.

In short, there is no discussion of rights. Does a 20-year-old have the right to drink beer? Does an 18-year-old have such a right? Given that they are adults, is the State justified in forbidding them to exercise their own judgment about whether to drink? These are the questions that those debating this issue should ask. But such questions would likely strike advocates of either position as bizarre – there are no rights under consideration here, only desired behaviors.

To see the problem with this approach, suppose for a moment that the Founding Fathers had used it when developing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Should we have the right to free speech? Well, that would depend on what speech the public desires to hear or read–thus, some studies would have to be conducted to see what the effects of allowing any given type of speech are, and whether such speech is “constructive.” Should there be a law preventing unwarranted government search and seizure of private property? Who could say–there hadn’t been conclusive research to determine the effects of that kind of policy.

Thankfully, the Founders approached law in an entirely different way: as a matter of principle. They proposed that government be instituted in order to secure the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on the basis of fundamental principles of human nature, not as the result of a series of studies. When principles like individual rights are thrown aside, anything goes. When “constructive behavioral change” becomes the guiding standard of government policy, there is no room left for considerations of freedom.

If we want to see a principled approach to government and law, we must start by challenging the assumption that public desire for behavioral change trumps the rights of the individual.

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