What Do You Care?

August 30, 2013

So, why do you care about the behavior of others?  Where you are not concerned, why care about others having abortions, gay marriage, prayers in public school (or at high school football games in Texas), therapy for minors with unwanted same sex attraction, racial discrimination that does not harm you, laws in other states or countries, or anything else that would not affect your life specifically and personally?

Should any of us care about the plight of another so much that we would interfere with that person’s life (or the lives of those around them) through legal compulsion?  The answer seems to be “yes,” if we love justice, but who is this “we”?  Should “we” interfere with the behavior of others through our town’s local law, our state law, or our federal law, or leave law out of it and resort to other methods?  (One could “interfere” with the behavior of others without using law, via boycott or shunning.)  It seems more intuitively acceptable for us to interfere with or regulate the behavior in our own community based on our moral inclinations about the good of our community.  One’s interest in the behavior of the people in far away places seems more attenuated.

To push this point even further, should “we” as a society (small or large scale) interfere with other societies?  Can the people of Los Angeles decide they’ve had enough of the ridiculous laws in San Francisco and try to do something about it?  Yes, the people of Los Angeles lack jurisdiction to do anything about what happens in San Francisco, but the United States has no more jurisdiction over anything in the Middle East, yet there “we” are, interfering…

It strikes me that this is absolutely not a conservative or liberal question.  Conservatives will interfere with your ability to smoke pot.  Liberals will interfere with your ability to smoke a cigarette in a public restaurant.  Each will claim the high ground of “freedom” on one issue while claiming the high ground of “morality” on the other.  “Freedom” is just another buzz word like “equality” and “democracy” that people only invoke for convenience and sound bites, not because they are actually committed to those ideals.  It is the same with foreign policy.  Conservatives and liberals will walk the line between “respecting the sovereignty of other nations” and “taking a stand for the cause of justice” depending on the values or interests at stake in a policy decision.

So, do you care about the behavior of other people so much that you want to interfere societally?  Do you want to interfere with other societies (and do you want your own government to interfere in other societies for you)?  No doubt, there are numerous moral tragedies happening around the world right now and we are doing nothing about them.  Yet when discussing instances of interference in the past (like fighting the Nazis in WWII), people point to how evil the situation/government was to justify the U.S.’s behavior.  Wouldn’t that be like the people of Los Angeles pointing to how bad the laws of San Francisco are as justification for interference?  That doesn’t hold water unless we are going to distinguish between types of “bad” laws (whether a difference in kind or degree).  Certainly some silly laws that drive away small businesses in San Francisco would not justify usurping the authority of the San Francisco local government through force.

What kind of laws (if any) should invite the scrutiny and interference from other governments that have no jurisdiction?  What kind of behavior from other people in your community or neighboring communities invites your own scrutiny and legal interference?  Is there a difference between attempting to interfere (through force of law in matters in which you have no direct interest) with the behavior of your neighbor, or someone in a neighboring town, or someone in another state, or someone in another country?

If government A can usurp government B’s authority through force based on the bad laws of government B, can government B do the same to government A?  If government A is too strong for that, doesn’t that make government A a self-appointed “benevolent tyrant”?  What happens when government A turns bad and ignores its own unjust laws?  Would the citizens of the country of government A look kindly on the interference from the weaker government B?

America (and particularly the federal government in America) is government A.

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I was in the car with my niece yesterday and noticed two children wearing helmets ride by on their bikes.  I mentioned to my niece that when I was a boy, I rode my bike around town without a helmet because they were not required.  That prompted her very insightful question: “Why do they call America ‘free’ when there are a thousand laws?”

A “thousand” laws is a very modest estimate.  Ask any CPA about the complicated tax code.  Add to that the problems of the thousands of vague or unenforced laws, as noted by James Madison among the many threats to liberty:

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.  Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”
— James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

The helmet law is probably clearly written, but it is one of so many ever-changing laws that I couldn’t tell you for sure.  My niece’s question stands.  Can we continue to call our nation “free” when we live under a nanny state with an ever-increasing library of statutory requirements and interpretations?

A professor in the economics department at George Mason University has assembled a fantastic collection of quotes from central figures in American history regarding individual liberty and limited government.  Many of those quotes reflect a skepticism of the character of man.  While unregulated man might make evil choices, the governor with power over him is (allegedly) prone to even greater evil choices, and those choices will affect everyone.  Here is a sampling of the quotes that reflect this view:

[I]nstituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States . . . would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.”
— Thomas Jefferson

“All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
— James Madison in The Federalist

 “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
— Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854

“We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.”
— Thomas Paine

While I don’t share the view that government ought not regulate anything beyond the harm principle (the strict libertarian perspective), I share the view that man is so fallen that absolute power will always corrupt him.  Thus, limited government is a necessity for all, and the best way to limit it is to decentralize it as much as possible.  The greater the centralization, the greater the eventual evil.

An interesting post on the blog of a South African discusses what people mean when they assert that they have a right to believe what they want:

[C]an anyone actually believe something just because they want to? Go on, try it. Pick some belief at random, something silly which you never really took seriously before, and will yourself to believe it…

I doubt you had any more success than I did.

What we can claim is the right to express and practice our beliefs, whatever they happen to be, to the extent that our actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is these other rights which concern me most. Attempts to defend a belief which cannot be limited may infringe on a few of them, for example:

Freedom of expression: False beliefs can generally only be maintained by ignorance. If someone has the “right” to believe something then that necessarily means that we must loose the right to argue with them about it.

Equality: Many beliefs are discriminatory. So often the so called “right to believe” is used to justify acts of discrimination in all their various forms.

In conclusion, We need to stop assuming we can control belief and let free expression take care of defending rational beliefs and gradually dismantling the irrational ones.

I agree that many people misuse the term “right to believe” just as they misuse the phrase “stop forcing your beliefs on me.”  No one can really be forced to believe anything, although certainly propaganda and brain-washing do exist.  Some are better at guarding their minds than others.  Still, people generally use these phrases more as nifty sound-bites than intelligent arguments.

That said, after reflection, I do believe one can choose to believe things.  One may not be able to choose to believe a fact in the abstract, especially something we know is wrong.  No matter how much I close my eyes and insist to myself that Catalina Island does not exist, I cannot do so because I’ve been there and know that it does.  However, consider a situation where a friend claims to have visited an unnamed island in the South Pacific where there are beautiful mountains and waterfalls.  Depending on my friend’s propensity to tell the truth or exaggerate, I can make a rational choice whether to believe him or not.  In court, we ask juries to decide which testimony they believe based on the evidence.  Sometimes that requires a very difficult decision, but a decision nonetheless.

Even so, the right to decide what one believes does not in itself require action or inaction by any other private individual.  If I speak falsehood and deceive others into false beliefs, the correct course is not to limit the expression of false beliefs, but to respond with truthful ones (this is what the above post is getting at in the conclusion).  In America, that’s the whole point to the First Amendment:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

Now, with respect to freedom to follow one’s beliefs through actions, we have a much more difficult question.  I think there should not be a bald right to act on one’s beliefs however one sees fit.  You’ve got to have more.  When a bald right to act on one’s beliefs is respected, we get ridiculous statements like the following:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Come again?  We have a right to define our own concept of the universe?  And that right is supposed to be respected by law?  Of course, that’s nonsense.  The law will not permit me to define my concept of the universe if my concept of the universe claims that law does not exist.  Anarchy is not among my liberties.  There is no right to define one’s existence.  The Supreme Court was out to lunch in that statement, as the dissent noted:

A State’s choice between two positions on which reasonable people can disagree is constitutional even when (as is often the case) it intrudes upon a “liberty” in the absolute sense. Laws against bigamy, for example — which entire societies of reasonable people disagree with — intrude upon men and women’s liberty to marry and live with one another. But bigamy happens not to be a liberty specially “protected” by the Constitution.

As argued in the dissent, a government may make choices that intrude on the liberty to act upon one’s beliefs.  But when it does, the question is not whether it may intrude on such actions in the abstract, but whether the particular intrusion is just.  That will be a matter of politics.  But it makes no sense, in the public discourse aspect of the process, to assert that a law should be changed because it infringes on someone’s right to practice their beliefs.  The kind of belief and the kind of intrusion must be considered on their own.

Incidentally, to address the discrimination argument in the post, I’m going to disagree with the proposition that “acts of discrimination” are inherently a bad thing.  Lots of discrimination is beneficial.  We discriminate against minors when we do not allow them to drive.  We discriminate against those who commit crimes by throwing them in jail.  The question is not whether a law is discriminatory, but whether it is rationally discriminatory.  And of course, that will draw some really heated debates, hence the current climate of politics and the media.

Libertarians are commonly described as economic conservatives and social liberals.  They typically promote a deregulated, laissezfaire economy, along with a rather extreme (but not necessarily wrong-headed) view of social freedom that permits such things as prostitution and the most harmful forms of drug use.  Thus, many (and probably most) libertarians, as social liberals, favor the Roe v. Wade regime of “reproductive freedom.” 

However, libertarians seem to adopt J.S. Mills’ idea of the “harm principle” (also termed “aggression”) as the sole justification for criminal laws, rather than reference to the common good or a moral grounding for criminal law.  (It is unclear to me whether libertarians generally believe that God-given natural rights obligate the government to limit criminal law in this way, or if libertarians simply prefer this version of social freedom.)  This is why abusing drugs like heroin is legal in a libertarian world: it (arguably) does not harm anyone else, and the law is not to keep you from harming yourself.  This line of thinking, however, would seem to leave ample room for a libertarian to be pro-life, because abortion does harm another human being in the most vicious way imagineable.  Vox Day, a staunch libertarian, provides us with the pro-life libertarian argument:

The reason unborn children have human rights is that they are human. They exist, they are human, ergo they have the same right to life, liberty and property that their mothers and fathers do. As Ron Paul, a fine and upstanding libertarian, has pointed out, there are few acts of aggression more violent and unprovoked than those involved in murderously vivisecting an unborn child.

There is not a single pro-abortion argument that stands up to science and reason. Every single one is not only spurious, but easily demonstrated to be spurious. It is not necessary to bring religious arguments into the debate to conclusively settle the matter in favor of the pro-life position, in fact, the Bible-based arguments against abortion are, in my opinion, weaker than the rational and scientific arguments.

Criminalizing abortion is no more questionable from a libertarian position than criminalizing murder. It is an act of lethal, unprovoked aggression, often state-supported and sometimes state-dictated, of the sort that every libertarian, religious or secular, should vehemently oppose.

Incidentally, as a Christian, I absolutely agree with Vox Day that the Bible-based arguments are weaker than the arguments from nature and reason.  The Bible recognizes the same principles of moral reason that can be applied to the abortion question, but those principles of moral reason do not depend on the Bible.  It is possible to know that murder is wrong apart from the Bible (and indeed impossible not to know that murder is wrong), and it is possible to know that unborn children are human and therefore ought not be murdered through plain reason (with scientific factual support if necessary for rebuttal purposes).  Those who disbelieve in the Bible have no refuge against these arguments. 

(Additionally, note that there is an organization of pro-life libertarians.)