Show us ya pimples!

Brad Taylor doesn’t think that the government should be installing acne-revealing lighting to ward off teenage hoodlums. In the UK they’re installing special lights that highlight acne in areas where teenagers congregate to get drunk, intimidate people and write graffiti all over the walls. Apparently it’s been very successful at dispersing the crowds!

So crowds gather, litter, intimidate people and vandalise the area without actually paying for the cost of their actions. That’s an externality if ever I saw one! Ordinarily, people conform to social norms that prohibit such behaviour. When they refuse to do so there is a cost to others who are harmed by the behaviour, and a monetary cost to the local authority of repairing the vandalised property. We can’t make them pay for it and calling out the police is both expensive and often ineffective, since the police can’t be there every night. In the UK they’ve found a low cost, highly effective solution that mitigates the externality problem. I’m not really sure how one could reasonably object to such a solution, but I’ll be interested to hear Brad discuss it further.

  • I object to this sort of thing on non-utilitarian grounds, but I’m also unconvinced that the utilitarian case is as strong as you suggest.

    Non-utilitarian: I don’t think the government should take action to prevent activity which is itself harmless, even when there’s a correlation with harmful behaviour. There is nothing wrong with teenagers congregating in public per se, and any attempt to stop them will prevent many teenagers from having harmless fun. I wouldn’t be willing to support this even if it were clearly utility-enhancing. I realise this is a preference not everyone shares, but I think everyone has their limits. Would you be in favour of government installing similar lights which made Maori or Polynesians feel uncomfortable, on the grounds that these groups commit more crime, and (perhaps counterfactually) are more likely to do so when loitering in groups? I’m not suggesting that discriminating against teenagers and Maori is morally equivalent, by the way, but I oppose both on similar grounds.

    Utilitarian: I think the concern over teenagers causing trouble for good honest folk is hugely overblown, especially in the UK. I would suspect that only a small minority of loitering teenagers would engage in vandalism, and a few beer cans surely aren’t that difficult to clean up. If they’re hanging out in underpasses (which is the only location the article mentions), the social cost of graffiti will presumably be pretty low. Intimidation is a trickier issue. It’s impossible to know how intimidated people really feel. My suspicion is that people are more offended than intimidated by loitering teenagers. Concerns over loutish behaviour seem to me like a moral panic, just like the concerns over rock and roll corrupting the morals of our youth and turning them into dangerous psychopaths. The expressive, rather than instrumental, nature of political behvaiour means that people can express their indignation at something even if it doesn’t really have that much of an effect on them.

    I’m also inclined to move away from utilitarian considerations when considering intimidation. It’s obviously blameworthy (and perhaps punishment-worthy) for teenagers to intentionally intimidate people. If they’re just standing around minding their own business and people feel intimidated, however, I don’t think that’s the teenagers’ problem. Again, consider the analogy with Maori. If people find groups of Maori intimidating, is that reason enough to prevent them from congregating. I’d say that bigoted preferences shouldn’t (but will, of course) be admissible in political decision-making. I think concern over loutish teenagers is largely bigotry.

  • Oh, and on the utilitarian side, I think these sort of policies neglect the benefit that teenagers get from being able to hang out in public places. Teenagers are incredibly social creatures and anything which makes it harder for them to socialize imposes large costs on them.

  • goonix

    Great response. It reminds me a little of liquor bans, where one can get arrested for having a beer in a public place purely because of concern about how large groups of drunk people behave.

  • Well, if the harm done is largely illusory and the policy is simply bigotry then I certainly wouldn’t be in favour of it. I don’t know the harm done in this case or whether it is real. For the purposes of the post I assumed that there was a real net harm to the community. However, if one assumes that a net cost of the behaviour exists then I wouldn’t be opposed to targeting a highly correlated characteristic. There might be ‘collateral damage’ done by the installation of lights, but that needs to be weighed against any benefit. I’m not opposed to such a calculation and I think it should be done before any action is taken.

    Do I think that targeting drinking in an area where there is a lot of drunken violence makes sense? Definitely. If we could tell who was going to be a problem then that would be excellent; however, in the absence of that information, a policy targeting all drinking in public may have a net benefit.

  • @rauparaha
    That’s a reasonable view, but not one I share.

    I guess it comes down to how much collateral damage one is willing to accept from policy. I definitely accept some – people are sometimes wrongly convicted of crimes, but I think the balance between type I and type II errors in the justice system is about right, for example. More generally, it’s about how we weigh the rights of the individual against the welfare of others: not an easy problem to argue rationally about.

  • moz

    I’m against it on principle because it creates the same offence as it’s supposedly preventing – that of denying access to a public area. Sure, people are reluctant to walk past a bunch of teenagers loitering somewhere, but responding to that by making teenagers reluctant to loiter isn’t reasonable. Rather than negative reinforcement look for positive options. Also there’s a cost issue – loitering can happen anywhere, so policing “anywhere” is expensive.

    Also look at the power structure – rather than addressing whether some behaviour can be prevented and at what cost to all involved there’s often an implicit acknowledgement that it will always occur and the “solution” displaces the cost of it onto a group that doesn’t matter to the people making the decisions.

    In this case, rather than trying to address the problem of young people hanging around in groups making their elders feel uncomfortable[1] the decision is to keep pushing them out of areas until they arrive on the doorstep of someone who can’t push them away. Especially the case where I live and there are young people from a well off area who have strong sense of entitlement and few scruples when they don’t get their own way. A popular solution in the area is to encourage the kids to go somewhere else for weekends, and especially for parties. So the parents fund the hire of a warehouse, or purchase a “holiday house” in a cheap coastal area, and the kids go there to be young and stupid. Problem solved!

    In that sense Corey Worthington is partly the exception, and partly the obvious consequence – he’s used to parties being like that, he’s been trained to regard them as normal fun, so when the enforcement of the “not at home” rule is relaxed… bingo!

    [1] the problem here often being as much the intolerance of the elders as the behaviour of the youth.

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