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News & Editorials
Seduced by Prevention


by Michael Mitchell

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The old adage certainly has merit. After all, if we can prevent destructive or negative occurrences, rather than clean up the mess afterward, shouldn’t we? However, there is a hidden danger involved whenever we turn prevention into the Holy Grail we’ve made it out to be here in America.

In order to prevent an incident or behavior from happening, it is first necessary to identify the precursors. In other words, when we set out to prevent some occurrence, we must review past occurrences and determine what actions, events, or conditions led up to the occurrence. It’s a sort of ‘lessons learned’ attitude.

Sometimes, the precursors are easy to identify, and easy to correct. You cut your hand with the knife because you were pulling the blade towards you rather than pushing it away. Therefore, in the future, to prevent a similar injury, you are mindful of the direction in which you are pushing the blade. Easy, simple, quick.

Unfortunately, identifying the precursors and correcting them is not always so easy. The trap lies in assuming that a particular, obvious association is necessary and sufficient to create the negative occurrence. In other words, there is a temptation to grasp the obvious correlation and attribute to it a causality that may not exist. If that is the case, we may inadvertently prohibit or control a behavior or condition that not only did not cause the negative situation, but is potentially beneficial.

That idea needs further explanation. For example, in the above mentioned cut hand incident, let’s assume that, instead of noting that the direction of the cut was responsible for the injury, we instead attribute the incident to the fact that we were using a sharp knife. We theorize that, if the knife had not been so sharp, the injury would not have been so severe. Therefore, in the future, we choose a knife a little duller, and feel much better, even though we haven’t really addressed the root cause of the problem.

The preoccupation with prevention has led to the passage of numerous laws aimed at controlling precursor behaviors or conditions in an attempt to prevent other, more harmful crimes from being committed. We pass laws against loitering because armed robbers and burglars often ‘case’, or study, a potential target. We pass curfew laws, theorizing that persons - especially young persons - on the street after a certain hour are planning mischief. And we prohibit the possession of weapons in a variety of situations, presuming that those who carry weapons have the intent to harm someone. In many of these cases, there has been no establishment of causality. There has simply been an association observed. It’s the same thing as observing that obese people disproportionately buy diet drinks, and, therefore, diet drinks are a precursor to obesity.

Such laws are fundamentally wrongheaded for two basic reasons. First, they cannot reasonably be expected to be effective, and may even contribute to the commission of the very crimes they were intended to prevent. And, secondly, they do grave damage to the civil liberties of the people living under them.

Most precursor activities which have been prohibited are, in and of themselves, harmless. For example, who is truly harmed when someone else is loitering? The simple act of a person being in a public place for some period of time has no negative consequences. Similarly, if a person has a weapon, there is no harm in that condition alone. Therefore, the penalties associated with such violations are typically (but not always) significantly less severe than those for the crime to which they are precursors. For example, carrying a concealed weapon is typically a misdemeanor[1], while murder may even be a capital crime.

From a behavioral standpoint, such laws are doomed to failure. Why? Because, as I’ve discussed before, people obey laws for one or both of two reasons: Because they respect the law, or because they are afraid of the punishment provided by the law. If an individual is willing to commit murder, then he obviously has no respect for the law. Additionally, if he is unafraid of the death penalty, why should he be afraid of a six-month jail sentence? The law against carrying weapons will not affect him in the slightest.

However, such a law will affect the peaceable portion of society, the people who do respect the law and are afraid of its punishments. Therefore, these ‘preventive’ laws disproportionately affect the upstanding members of society by criminalizing actions which are, in and of themselves, harmless, without affecting those in society who are most likely to commit crimes. In the case of carrying of weapons, it has quite clearly been demonstrated by Dr. John Lott that facilitating the carrying of defensive weapons has an immediate, positive effect on crime. The obvious explanation is that doing so restores the balance of power between the upstanding citizens and the criminal element. It’s true today, and it was true 200 years ago, as documented by Thomas Jefferson:

“False is the idea of utility that would take fire from men because it burns, or water because one may drown in it...Laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes...”

In this case, a ‘preventive’ law has the exact opposite effect from its stated intent. It is not only ineffective, but harmful. (This is why I call ‘gun control’ by its proper name - crime facilitation.)

Another angle of study for these laws is in the realm of cost-benefit analysis. In virtually every case, the cost involved with enforcing the laws against harmless precursor activities exceeds the benefit. It is difficult to quantify how many of the people caught loitering or out after curfew were actually intending some harm, but it is reasonable to assume that they are in the minority. The police are left trying to chase down significant numbers of harmless citizens when they could be pursuing those who harm others.

Since ‘preventive’ laws run counter to basic behavioral models, they will never be effective tools in preventing criminal activity. They can, however, be extremely successful in subverting civil liberties and increasing governmental power. How so? They invert the presumption of innocence.

The cornerstone of American jurisprudence is “innocent until proven guilty”. Our legal system demands that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a citizen is guilty of wrongdoing. If the government cannot establish proof of criminal activity, then the citizen is presumed innocent. That presumption is the only way to guarantee that the government does not begin charging citizens with crimes and forcing the defendants to prove their innocence - an often impossible task.

Preventive laws change all that. They presume that because an individual is loitering, that he intends to commit armed robbery or burglary. They presume that, because a teenager is on the streets after 10 pm, he is involved in gang or drug activity. And, they presume that anyone carrying a weapon intends to commit a crime with it. Such a presumption is deadly to civil liberties. It gives government the authorization to harass anyone, at any time, for any act which is fundamentally harmless, but which has been associated, however weakly, with some criminal act. And, while the police are ticketing the local teenagers for violating curfew, someone else on the beat could be victimized.

Such policies surrender control over a society to the criminal element. How? The fundamental philosophy behind these laws is that it is acceptable to curtail the freedoms of all of society because of the misbehavior of the criminal element. In other words, the politicians who pass these laws are defining what freedoms the upstanding citizen is allowed by the behavior of the criminal element. It’s what I term the “tyranny of the minority”. Because a small minority of the population who loiter do so as a precursor to criminal activity, we disallow everyone from standing around in the parking lot after the movie. Because a small minority of those who carry guns have criminal intent, we prohibit everyone from carrying them. In other words, we are allowing the one rotten apple to poison the whole barrel. We are giving up our freedoms - you and I - because a small, antisocial minority is abusing them. Everyone is being punished for the actions of a few.

Governmental agencies are always lamenting prison overcrowding and police resource shortages. Perhaps the best way to solve these problems is at the source. By turning off laws that criminalize harmless behavior, we could better focus our resources on those actions that are truly harmful, without causing mortal injury to the American citizens’ freedoms.

Whenever someone suggests that some harmless act be criminalized to prevent some other, more serious crime from being committed, be wary. You are being seduced by prevention.

Copyright 2001 Michael A. Mitchell. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this article in its entirety, including this copyright notice. Mike writes for; read some of his other work at You can contact Mike at

[1] - [There are now quite a few cities and even areas within cities where carrying a concealed weapon without government permission is either a "floater" -- can be punished either as a misdemeanor or a felony -- or is a mandatory felony. The criminal havens of New York City and Washington, D.C. are but two of several examples.]

Also Available from Mr. Mitchell


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