Amish communities practise the institution of rumspringa. At 17 their children, until then subject to strict family discipline, are set free. They are allowed, solicited even, to go out and experience the ways of the modern world – they drive cars, listen to pop music, watch TV and get involved in drinking, drugs and wild sex. After a couple of years they are expected to decide: will they return to be full members of the Amish community or leave it forever and become ordinary American citizens?
But far from being permissive and allowing the youngsters a truly free choice, such a solution is biased in a most brutal way. It is a fake choice if ever there was one. When, after long years of discipline and fantasising about the illicit pleasures of the outside world, the adolescent Amish are thrown into it, of course they cannot help but indulge in extreme behaviour. They want to test it all – sex, drugs and drinking. And since they have no experience of regulating such a life they quickly run into trouble. There’s a backlash that generates unbearable anxiety, so it is a safe bet that after a couple of years they will return to the seclusion of their community. No wonder that 90% of Amish children do exactly that.
This is a perfect example of the difficulties that always accompany the idea of a “free choice”. While the Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they find themselves in while they are making that choice make the choice itself unfree. In order for them to have an effectively free choice they would have to be properly informed on all the options. But the only way to do this would be to extract them from their embeddedness in the Amish community.
So what has all this to do with the French no to the European constitution, whose aftershock waves are now spreading all around, immediately giving a boost to the Dutch, who rejected the constitution with an even higher percentage?
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on June 4th 2005.]