The Public Choice of Harassing Free-Range Families

State officials are following the incentives voters created

Over at [email protected]Walter Olsen has dinged Montgomery County, Maryland, police and Child Protective Services for (once again) clashing with “free-range” parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv and detaining their children Rafi (age 10) and Dvora (6).

This time, the cops held the Meitiv children for several hours after a tipster reported that they were walking home alone from a nearby park. CPS is now (again) investigating the parents for neglect.

Pundit and public reaction to the news have been sharply critical of county officials. WaPo local columnist Petula Dvorak points out that childhood development experts considered the Meitiv kids’ independence to be healthy just one generation ago. Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle notes that “those of us over 30 recall [that independence] as a normal part of childhood,” and message boards are blowing up with people haranguing the police and CPS.

Those reactions are a replay of the response to the first clash between county officials and the Meitivs last year. Many of the current comments include the subtext, “Why did the cops and CPS do this again?”

I doubt the police and CPS “have it in for” the Meitivs, nor are the officials “dummies” who “didn’t learn last time.” Rather, they’re simply obeying the larger incentives that the public has given them. Voters shouldn’t bash them for doing what, essentially, we’ve demanded.

As we well know, public officials aren’t motivated solely by altruistic concern for the public good. Rather, public employees have private motivations just like private workers, including desires to keep and advance in their jobs, earn a decent living, and have a pleasant workplace. That doesn’t mean they have no concern for the public good, but rather – just like private workers – government employees’ behavior is shaped both by self-interest and personal morality. This understanding is the foundation of Public Choice theory.

Now consider again the Montgomery County 911 dispatcher who received the tipster’s call, and the police officers who investigated it. The tipster gave the dispatcher clear reason to call the police; not doing so would have been a dereliction of duty that could have jeopardized her job.

The police officers probably quickly realized that the children were in no danger, but they had to wonder what would happen to them if they were wrong. After all, there are plenty of examples of cops exercising discretion, with tragic consequences. Montgomery County police had to wonder, "How would it look to the public if we did nothing and these children were hit by a car, or it’s discovered that their parents are horribly negligent?"

Rational self-interest dictated that they detain the kids and call on CPS to investigate — not to mention take some time to figure out exactly how to handle the matter. (Such considerations also underlie many of the troubling examples of police use of force.)

Each step of the way, officials did exactly what they were expected to do, with absurd results. So why do we give government agents such incentives?

Part of the problem is public misperception of risk, thinking that the world is far more dangerous for children than it really is and that children are far less capable of avoiding danger than they really are.

Part of the reason is desiring to avoid Type II errors at all cost; we’d rather investigate (and penalize) a lot of cases of non-neglect than fail to identify a single case of real neglect, even though the false investigations and groundless penalties harm people.

And part of the reason is “competitive parenting”: the en vogue desire to demonstrate one’s superiority as a parent (or just a caring person) by minimizing risk and providing advantages to children, no matter how small or how costly. We all know these folks; even a government PSA lampoons them.

Combine those cognitive biases with public choice dynamics, and the result is police detaining children for walking home from a nearby park, or suspending children for chewing Pop-tarts into the shape of a gun, or whatever government/child/risk incident makes the news one day, is forgotten the next, and then repeated the following day.

Those dynamics likely tell us what will likely result from the latest Meitiv incident. Public officials will defend their actions (which protects them), but will assess only a token penalty against the Meitivs (which will hopefully quiet the firestorm). Everything will blow over, for now.

But since the incentives haven’t changed for the government, and the Meitivs have an interest in allowing their children to free-range (and other parents may too), what will happen the next time police and CPS are called? Public Choice gives us good reason to think that, despite public outcry, we'll keep seeing these stories.

A version of this post was first published at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Learn more about promoting free enterprise, limited government, and civil society in Maryland at MDPolicy.org.