Why Are Juveniles Different?

This weekend I competed in a moot court whose second question asked whether the 8th amendment precluded a juvenile convicted of a violent, premeditated crime from being sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Interesting arguments abound, but one of the theories someone suggested was that the reason courts treat juveniles differently is that they have not solidified the concept of consequences. Young people live impetuously in the moment and can’t look ahead to what consequences might result in the long run. Therefore a minor who commits a violent crime did not semi-consciously fulfill her end of the social K imposing a given sentence — life w/o parole — on anyone who commits that crime.

This is far from the strongest argument when it comes to 8A, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Interesting primarily in a “meta” sense. Let’s talk about politics.

Here’s the thing:

Conservatives tend to laud Reagan, but no one is imitating his policies. What Reagan did was invest. He spent a ton of money at first, but he did it in such a way as to promote growth. His policies were no “create or save” jobs by smashing windows. Instead, he invested in slow-growth programs that permitted the government to shrink and keep its (filthy) hands off entrepreneurship, etc.

So here’s the connection: We’re at a sort of cross-roads in government. Obvi as soon as the Senate votes on health care next week we’ll have crossed the gauntlet and in some ways the threshold moment will have passed. But at this very moment we can speculate at the idea of investment, consequences, and trade-offs.

We’re still a young country in so many ways. We’re optimistic, still somewhat “shining” on the hill, and eminently interested in celebrating localized over centralized focus. So do we approach policy in a “juvenile” way, ignoring long-term consequences? Or do we look to invest, though it might spell hardship now?

Sovereigns age in a sort of inverse curve. At the beginning, nations acknowledge trade-offs and build, seeking permanence and sustainability. The framers of our Constitution asked: What will protect these principles, make this state last?

As nations age, however, they begin to cash in, instinctively and inevitably. Governments behave more like permissive parents, printing money to solve problems, without thought of consequence. Powers at be shift from a tight Framing cabal to groping factions, and everything begins to unravel.

It’s this “cashing in” that philosophers and the best politicians mean when they counsel against voting to empty the public purse into private pockets. This instinct to start unsustainable spending programs is the only explanation for a move to public health care, especially with so many dire examples demonstrating the limits of such a program.

Cashing in is the opposite of investment. Investment requires a look to consequences and a firm and immediate commitment, including a commitment to the relevant trade-offs. Do we then ask a population on the precipice of depression to accept a little more hardship today, for the good of the nation? It’s hard for a politician to do, unless he’s always been proud of his country.

Here’s what’s fascinating about this whole connection:

Civilizations move towards chaos. It seems that social instincts do not mature to investment. Instead, when it comes to social consciousness, we — politicians, The People — are all thinking in cacophonic chorus: Après moi le déluge!

It makes me wonder: Should we all think like soldiers, ready to sacrifice our instant comfort for the longevity of the state? Is devolution to chaos inevitable, so we might as well “get ours” now? Or is there something sacred and precious about this shining city that outlasts even the instinct to cash in?

Or is it just that “le déluge” is now? Perhaps resisting short-run trade-offs — staying committed despite daily compounding opportunity cost — makes it impossible to keep an eye on the ball in the long run. The best and most heralded recent example of this might be the decision to vote for the Stupak amendment, knowing the trade-off between winning a battle and losing the war.

Where the big question, of course remains:

Dear Conservatives,

Why only reactionary rhetoric? Please at least start talking to us about how you plan to invest!


And, peripherally related:


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