This article is republished with permission from the Foundation for Economic Education.
The New York Times and FX recently released a new documentary on Hulu called Framing Britney Spears, and it has quickly catapulted the pop singer back into the news. The show presents a harrowing tale of the Princess of Pop’s precipitous fall from grace circa 2007-2008 and reexamines the events that led to it.
Britney was once one of the most famous people on the planet. Her success was jaw-dropping. She graced countless magazine covers, paparazzi followed her every move, and even Americans uninterested in the pop scene found it difficult to avoid knowing intimate details about her life.
But, following a very public mental breakdown in 2007, Britney’s life began to unravel. Her father, Jamie Spears, obtained full legal control of both her finances and her personal life alongside another attorney. And from that point on, Spears has been heavily guarded and controlled. She lost primary custody of her children. She is reportedly given an allowance every week and required to log all of her expenses. She is not allowed to make unilateral decisions about her dating life, her business arrangements, or her property. Essentially, she has been stripped of her freedom and the bulk of her civil liberties.
It’s distressing to think that such a fate could befall anyone, let alone a person who once held so much influence. And in response, many fans have united in the #FreeBritney movement that seeks to influence her legal battle. The documentary has served as a rallying cry for this base, which includes a growing number of other celebrities.
It’s distressing to think that such a fate could befall anyone, let alone a person who once held so much influence.
Primarily, the movement seeks to bring awareness to the nature of conservatorships (often referred to as guardianships), which is the legal arrangement Spears has found herself in. While Britney’s case may sound unusual to the general public, conservatorships have been around for some time, though they are typically geared toward the elderly or people with developmental disabilities.
A conservatorship is when a judge appoints a guardian to oversee the financial affairs and/or the daily life of another person due to physical or mental limitations. That person is then referred to as the conservatee or as a ward—a legal status similar to that of a child in relation to his or her parents.
Essentially, conservatorships are intended for those whose cognitive functions make them vulnerable to being taken advantage of. They can help families ensure their loved ones are not scammed out of money, that they receive the healthcare they may need, and that they are not duped into other situations, like marriage, by people who seek to take advantage of them.
Arguably, there is a place for this measure in a free society. When children are growing up we expect their parents to meet their needs, guard them from malicious people, and protect their well-being. But once a person turns eighteen in this country, families are stripped of this ability regardless of their loved one’s mental state or capacities. So it’s easy to imagine why conservatorships could be a needed legal intervention for an adult who has dementia, psychosis, or a traumatic brain injury.
But, as the documentary shows, these cases are not always so cut and dry.
As a new generation is confronted with the information in the film, people are grappling with Spears’ plight under a new light—one that is informed by our modern day understanding of mental health issues, female autonomy, and the mistreatment by the media of many young celebrities. The documentary explores the question of whether what happened to Britney would ever happen to a man in America.
It presents a number of old media clips that will turn your stomach. Older male journalists ask a teenage Britney about her breasts and her virginity. Comedians and talk show hosts riff on her mental health struggles. Maryland’s former first lady publicly states she wishes Britney dead. A younger Justin Timberlake jokes on air about taking Spears’ virginity and smears her reputation to sell albums. And a relentless media stalks Spears and pushes her to the brink as she desperately tries to shield her young children from their cameras.
The documentary explores the question of whether what happened to Britney would ever happen to a man in America.
It’s easy to see how anyone might crack under such treatment.
In light of these circumstances, supporters of the #FreeBritney movement believe Britney has been wrongfully placed in her conservatorship. Many argue that such drastic, long-term measures were excessive and suspect Spears was simply suffering from postpartum depression at the time of her breakdown, resulting from back-to-back pregnancies, the break-up of her marriage, and her treatment by the media and society at large.
Others question whether her medical condition warrants the permanent removal of her rights, pointing to the fact that the singer continues to work at a very profitable and prolific level. Indeed, her estate is currently valued at $59 million, largely as a result of multiple new albums, tours, TV appearances, and even a smash Las Vegas concert residency over the past twelve years.
Ultimately, the general public does not know the details of Spears’ mental state, since the records in her case have been sealed at her father’s request. What we do know is this.
In 2020, Britney petitioned the court to remove Jamie Spears as her conservator and requested a financial institution at the helm instead. She has refused to perform until such a change occurs. And through her attorneys, Britney has indicated that she does not want the secrecy surrounding her circumstances.
“Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret,” her lawyer wrote.
Spears’ conservatorship may or may not be warranted—that remains to be seen. But her case has shined a spotlight on a system that is ripe for abuse, and Spears would certainly not be the first victim of a conservatorship.
In 2016, a special committee on aging for the US Senate found nearly thirty cases of conservatorship abuse covered by the media in the past year alone. Most of the victims were women, and half of them lived in care facilities. According to a 2013 AARP report, 1.5 million Americans are under conservatorships at a given time, and many of those people end up being victimized. A 2010 Government Accountability Office guardianship review found that $5.4 million in assets was stolen from 158 victims after its review of only 20 cases (court appointed guardians often oversee multiple wards).
Spears would certainly not be the first victim of a conservatorship.
In Ohio, Paul Kormanik served as a professional conservator for over 400 individuals. He embezzled $40,000 from four of them. One of the victim’s children claimed he never even met their mother, and another of his wards was denied medical care because Kormanik failed to complete the needed Medicaid forms. In California, Thelma Gums was placed under a conservatorship overseen by her daughter, who then signed her property over to herself in an attempt to cut her siblings out of their inheritance. And these are just a few of the stories.
It is tragically ironic that a system intended to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable is in many cases enabling it.
The risk of abuse coupled with the very grave nature of removing a person’s rights underscores the importance of treating conservatorships as a last resort. And when implemented, they should be accompanied by rigorous review, checks and balances, and pathways for individuals to regain their liberties. But seeing as these processes are not currently in place, it is clear that this system needs reform.
A conservatorship is an almost complete negation of the natural right to self-ownership—which many philosophers hold to be the most fundamental of our rights. In his seminal work, Two Treatises on Government, John Locke discussed this bedrock principle and argued that every individual has a right to decide what would become of themselves, what they would do, and the right to reap the benefits of those choices. Locke’s ideas deeply influenced the American tradition of freedom and rights, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in our Constitution and legal system.. You have a right to craft your own destiny. Is there any concept more dear to our values than that?
Conservatorships present and highlight deeper problems beyond the possibility of abuse as well. Too often, our society’s response to vulnerability is to “protect” individuals from themselves by stripping them of their rights and freedoms. It displays a paternalistic mindset that says it is justified to treat adults like helpless children so long as it is “for their own good.”
Too often, our society’s response to vulnerability is to “protect” individuals from themselves by stripping them of their rights and freedoms.
This troubling societal attitude is visible in more places than one. Consider our readiness to incarcerate those with drug addictions, upending their lives and locking them away in wretched conditions to “protect” them. Or look at our leaders’ response to the pandemic, confining people in their homes and destroying their livelihoods, to “protect” them from a disease they can only pretend to control.
These examples portray a concept we have long known to be true: power corrupts. And the more power people are given over the lives of others, the more debasement we can anticipate.
The near total power that conservators have over their wards has led people to exploit and victimize even family. And the near total discretionary power over our lives that we have given the government in the age of mass incarceration and lockdowns has led to horrific abuses and tragedies.
In his book Democracy in America, Alexander de Tocqueville warned Americans against such overreach, writing, “…an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood…”
Too much authority over the lives of autonomous individuals leads to a despondent and dependent culture where humans fail to live up to their full potential. Removing the self-ownership of adults is a slippery societal slope that ultimately leads to the erosion of liberty and justice for all.
The #FreeBritney movement gets a lot right, and I join them in their fight for individual liberty. But we also need to extend that fight for freedom to all of America by re-elevating the principles of self-ownership and independence that this country was founded on.