Mar 142003

It had to happen. Elizabeth Smart’s father, Ed, calls for “Amber Alert” — a program to notify the public of child abductions that is used in 38 states — to go national, at a cost of a mere $25 million. “There is no question that Amber Alert is a necessity,” says Smart, with the usual combination of good intentions and bottomless economic ignorance. “Having it saves children.” Since Amber Alert, by the reckoning of one of its proponents, has been responsible for the apprehension of 47 criminals, whereas America’s Most Wanted has nabbed 746, it might make more sense to call for a national law to broadcast it twice daily, or perhaps a special cable channel all local providers will be required to carry — all America’s Most Wanted, all the time.

Bad luck, it seems, confers instant moral authority. A hitherto obscure person, granted his day before the TV cameras, permitted to say anything he likes, demands — a new law! What could be more American? We need a name for this phenomenon, previously observed in anti-gun crusader Sarah Brady; Richard and Maureen Kanka, parents of Megan and Megan’s Law; and Linda Campion, the motive force behind a pointless New York law allowing relatives of crime victims to testify at sentencing hearings. (There are other instances I’m too lazy to look up, but Kaus says three is a trend.) Any suggestions?

(Update: Paul Dubuc proposes “tragislation.” Not bad at all.)

  11 Responses to “There Oughta Be a Law”

  1. First of all, you’ve committed the sort of elementary math error for which you usually take others to task. Amber Alerts have only been used, and even then fitfully, in 2/3rds of American states for around 6 or 7 years. America’s Most Wanted has been on the air, and repeatedly, in all 50 states, for 15 years. Little wonder that the show has nabbed more criminals than the alerts.

    Ultimately, though, they come down to the same thing: using mass media to enlist the public in nabbing criminals. The differences? In the case of Amber Alerts, it’s public spending, but if that $25 million figure is accurate, a fairly small amount of said spending, toward the undeniably positive goal of better law enforcement. As a Californian, I’ve heard a lot about Amber Alerts in recent years. They work. Just a few months ago, a couple girls who were kidnapped somewhere in L.A. were rescued by cops who, due to citizens calling in about having seen the kidnapper’s van, were able to find the guy, by all accounts only hours before he planned to kill his captives. I absolutely think Amber Alerts should go national; the fact that an unqualified individual said so on TV is irrelevant.

  2. I wished to demonstrate only that America’s Most Wanted has been far more effective than Amber Alert. Your figures show that it’s only five or seven times as effective, instead of 15 or 30. Nonetheless I was remiss in failing to mention them.

    Smart argues that Amber Alerts save children. You argue that Amber Alerts, um, save children. The difference between you, so far as I can tell, is that legislators listen to Smart but only I listen to you.

  3. I have to agree with Michael–assuming, of course, he has his facts right–about the value of a national Amber Alert. $25 million seems like pocket change if it saves real lives–and doesnt just make people feel better, which I agree with Aaron (if I understand him right) is all or almost all such laws often do.

    But there is a much larger issue here. Isn’t the moral authority of unqualified individuals the essence of democracy? Ultimately, this country is either governed by us amateurs–however professional our chosen representatives–or we live in a tyranny of one sort of another. These sort of laws get passed because what the unqualified individual says strikes a resonant chord in their fellow unqualified individuals and because the professional lawmakers 1) see the light or 2) are too obsessed with holding on to their phoney-baloney jobs to practice their profession and risk trying to explain to the aroused mass of unqualified individuals why the law they want won’t do what they think it will.

    The real sad thing is that these days us unqualified individuals have to be a (telegenic) victim of ill luck in order to have any real influence on the laws that govern us.

  4. I remind you both that it isn’t your pocket change, or Ed Smart’s either. It’s money forcibly extorted from your fellow citizens. We all have a great talent for spending other people’s money. What sum would you consider unsuitable? $100 million? $100 billion? Why?

    The essence of democracy, as an acerbic Scot once remarked, is people voting themselves (or their pet causes) largess from the public treasury. Such is the present case. Had Elizabeth Smart been raped instead of kidnapped, the $25 million would be going to rape crisis centers.

  5. I’m more than a little suspicious about the alleged $25,000,000 price tag (and, far too lazy to do any research regarding the details of Amber Alerts.) I saw electric signs though, in the California cases, on freeway overpasses and shoulders. I’ve never seen signs like that in, for example, Florida. How much do they cost? I also suspect that, as Amber Alert systems become more widely used, they will be over-used. How many minors ‘go missing’ in the US annually? How many of those incidents involve runaways or custody violations? Exactly how many successes are attributed to Amber Alerts? How would an Amber Alert have helped in the Smart case anyway? It seems to me that competent police work would have been more effective. The only successful Amber Alert Im aware of involved the two teen-aged rape victims in California. Ironically, had those girls been a few months older, they wouldve been on their own. And, if my recollection is accurate, the sighting was made by a state employee who had access to police radio reports. I guess Im something of an ogre for suggesting that a cost-benefit analysis is needed here, but, there you have it.

  6. Isn’t public order/crime prevention/criminal apprehension one of the only uses of public money that even purist libertarians approve of? Well, seems to me that Amber Alerts, or some system like them, surely qualify. And one point that’s very much in their favor is that, in many such cases, the victim may still be alive, and so getting leads however one might can is about as high a law enforcement priority as one might imagine…

  7. Again, I agree with Michael. The Amber Alert is a law enforcement mechanism, and if it makes sense in that context, then you do it. "Makes sense" here does include some sort of cost-benefit analysis–does the return on the investment (of the public treasury) make sense in terms of the amount in the treasury and other claims on it. Off the top of my head, I’d say it looks like the answer is probably yes, but if I was actually in a position of responsibility to make such a decision, I’d have to know a lot more than I do now.

    And yes, democracy often–maybe regularly–devolves into various self-parodies. But to treat those as the essense of democracy is disingenuous, or suggests that you might have so little hope that democracy can ever be anything but a parody of its promise that you’d like to see some other form of government. Personally, I’m not there yet–and not just because I can’t think of any other form of government that would likely be better for us in the long run.

  8. Michael, no libertarian of my acquaintance supports federal programs in the name of “crime prevention” (slum clearance was supposed to prevent crime, remember?) or, God forbid, “public order.” You need to trim your rubric down a lot.

    However, Amber Alert conceivably falls under the legitimate powers of the police. We’ll suppose it does and do a little cost-benefit analysis. Stranger abductions on the Smart model are extremely rare. According to the FBI numbers, there were 93 in 2000, 134 in 1999, 115 in 1998, and no more than a couple hundred annually even during the peak years of the 80s. These numbers may be understated, but not by an order of magnitude. (I’ve even troubled to download the best statistics for you.)

    It is absurd to use tax money to disseminate information on the one class of crimes that, on a per-case basis, gets far more publicity than any other. You may recall that you knew Elizabeth Smart’s name even before she was found. Why do you suppose that is? It is doubly absurd when there is already a national TV program that does the same thing. It is trebly absurd to do this at the federal level when 38 of the 50 states do it already and a tiny minority of the already minuscule pool of cases ever cross state lines.

  9. "Tragislation"

  10. ellie: “I’m more than a little suspicious about the alleged $25,000,000 price tag (and, far too lazy to do any research regarding the details of Amber Alerts.)”

    Dang, another job for me to do!

    For Munice, Indiana: “The initial cost for setting up the Amber Alert system is $15,000, along with an annual upkeep cost of $4,000. Funding will not cost the taxpayers, however. The city has budgeted the money from the general fund.” Found online at

    The $25 million dollar figure may have come from here:

    “Passed only one week after being introduced, the AMBER Alert Act will provide $25 million in federal matching funds to states. States deciding to implement AMBER Alert systems will receive funds to pay for electronic highway signs and emergency-alert systems that broadcast or display messages about abducted children.”

    Note this 1) matching funds and 2) only an allocation (not that is how much has been spent on it. It seems highly doubtful that all $25 million will be spent given:

    “On January 14, 2003, Delaware became the 34th state in the nation to fully implement the AMBER Alert system, which cost the State about $64,000 to install.”

    Finally, since the link ab’t stanger abductions don’t work, I found this: “According to the Justice Department, as many as 4,000 children are abducted by strangers every year.” found online at

  11. Q: How do you spend money on a government program without taking it from taxpayers?

    A: You budget it from the general fund!

    There are distinguished economists who have publicly doubted the possibility of getting something for nothing. They should be promptly alerted.

    I apologize for the broken links, which now work. My link refers to an actual study of missing children from 1997-1999, which states:

    “Such [stranger] abductions are rare enough that the estimates of the number of caretaker missing and reported missing children abducted by a nonfamily perpetrator are not very reliable and have very large confidence intervals. Stereotypical kidnappings are the particular type of nonfamily abduction that receives the most media attention and involves a stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child. They represent an extremely small portion of all missing children. (The Law Enforcement Study found that an estimated 115 of the nonfamily abducted children were victims of stereotypical kidnappings and that 90 of these qualified as reported missing.)”

    Your link refers to a press release, which attributes to “the Department of Justice” the belief that “as many as” — which is what you say when you mean “I haven’t the faintest idea” — 4,000 children are abducted by strangers every year. I leave the assessment of the evidence as an exercise for the reader.

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