Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The case against Elizabeth Miller" - and it's utter bullshit

I was looking for coupons when I came across the case of Elizabeth Miller, the manager of a Bed, Bath and Beyond in Kentucky, who refused to allow a man and woman to use the store's phone to call 911. Apparently they needed help after being stupid enough to lock their 3-year-old in the car. She was charged under an idiotic Kentucky statute that imposes upon private citizens the "duty to report dependency, neglect and abuse, a Class B misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of 90 days and a maximum fine of $250."

Most people, being shortsighted, probably think she was an idiot and should be thrown in jail. There's a practical reason she was right not to involve herself and her employer: it's best not to! What if it turned out to be a prank? Then Miller would be held at least partially responsible for causing a panic in the store, delaying customers who simply wanted to get checked out and leave. Worse, the police could have held her (perhaps her employer) partially responsible for wasting 911 resources and having someone dispatched. And heaven forbid it was a prank about someone else's car, meaning responders to the dispatch would break a third party's car window only to find there's no baby.

You just can't tell these days. No matter how extreme the emergency may seem, it's hard to take anyone's story at face value. We don't know. What if they were a couple of kids who looked straight from the ghetto, who ran into the store with their arms flailing about, ranting incoherently? Were I the manager, I'd have told such people to get the hell out if they weren't buying anything, regardless of the story.

But beyond the practical reasons is the moral reason that Miller had every right to refuse to help. As paradoxical as it may seem, there's a moral basis for her to have the right to refuse to do what most people deem a moral duty. But most people do not understand what individual rights truly mean. Maybe they'll quote 8th grade civics: "life, liberty and property." But they still can't fathom the real meaning: such sovereignty over your own life that the rest of society cannot compel you join against your will, regardless of how "noble" the cause, or how "helpful" or benevolent your participation may be to others. The only involvement with others is that which you voluntarily choose.

For the same reason, it's immoral for the rest of society to compel you, via voting that elects public representatives, to "pay" taxes that "help" others. (I enclosed "pay" in quotes because the proper term is "to be mugged of.") It wouldn't matter if every penny stolen from you was perfectly distributed to only the most deserving people. An immoral act cannot be excused or rectified by any "moral" use of the act's ill-gotten proceeds, regardless of the extent and/or success of the results. To say otherwise is to assert that the ends really do justify the means.

As "moral" as it may have been for Elizabeth Miller to help, it would have been immoral to force her to, and it's flatly immoral to punish her now. But even assuming this absurd statute is morally enforceable, it only reveals the hypocrisy of the district attorney: the parents should have been charged under the same statute, for endangering their own child by being such damn fools, and they should have their child taken away for its own good.

Update: what inane comments at Digg. To reiterate what I said above, most people are idiots who won't understand about forcing others to help. Also, the link to the Consumerist story is completely misleading. Bed Bath and Beyond wasn't stopping the people from calling 911. Elizabeth Miller was merely telling two people that she wasn't going to let them use Bed Bath and Beyond's property to call 911.

The most sensible comment is the one about breaking the car window instead of waiting, because you never know how long it will take for police to arrive. Absolutely: never forget the case of Hsiao Hsu, who was shot to death while on the phone with 911.


Blogger Striker said...

Really impressed with your clarity. We are so inured to all the intrusions upon ourselves that we completed lose sight of the real issues sometimes.
I went to the Digg link and agree, a huge batch of comments and almost nobody got the drift.

Monday, October 27, 2008 2:09:00 AM  

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