Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Candidate: Freedom and Collective Action

I have a plan for balancing the budget.

That plan is to abolish the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice - including the FBI and CIA.

After all, we all know - or, at least, a certain segment of the population has been telling us for decades - that government bureaucracies are the worst possible ways to deal with social needs. They should all be handled through individual action and initiative. So, instead of a national defense, and instead of a system of police and courts, we are going to abolish these things. We are going to close down these agencies, open up all of the prisons, and let free enterprise handle the problem.


You don't think that is a good idea?

Do you think there might be cases in which a government agency might actually serves a useful purpose? To you think that, sometimes, collective action can accomplish positive ends better than individual action?

Obviously - again, we we have been told for decades - that make you a freedom-hating anti-American socialist who should pack up and leave this country as quickly as possible. Get out. You are not wanted around here. Not if you believe that there are social concerns best handled through government agencies.

Or . . . Not.

Let's put aside this nonsense.

I have argued that we should have a strong presumption for freedom. The presumptive vote for any limitation on freedom should be a strong "no" vote. The burden is on those who would limit freedom to overcome this presumption - and we shouldn't make it easy for them to do so.

They can overcome this presumption by showing proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a form of behavior is harmful to others. We may legitimately deny people the freedom to rape, or to abuse children, or to poison others either by slipping arsenic into their drink at an office party or be filling the air and water with pollutants.

Another area that I want to focus on now where the presumption of freedom can be overcome is in areas like national defense and police protection where cooperative action produces better results than individual action.

Imagine a system of voluntary contributions to national defense. Instead of a bloated government agency living off of taxpayer taken from people by force through acts of the legislature, the military will have to live off of voluntary contributions and on the basis of services sold to individual subscribers. "For $39.95 per month we will defend your home, but not the home of your neighbor - not unless your neighbor also pays $39.95per month."

Similarly, the police and court system, rather than being taxpayer funded, will be bought and paid for by those who the money, and who exist to serve those who have the most money to spend. If somebody burns down your house, the police look on their records and determines whether you are up to date on your payments. If you are, then the police investigate. If not, then they do not.

Furthermore, of course, the private military and the private police and court systems will make sure that the people with the most money are happy with their services. It does not matter that those who pay little or nothing are unhappy. It matters a great deal that those with a lot of money are happy. Consequently, defense and court systems will be geared to producing these results.

Unfortunately, letting an arsonist run around loose creates a risk for the company's paying customers. While, on the other hand, finding and arresting the arsonist would make it possible for people to benefit even if they did not pay.

So why pay?

The major reason why we take collective action on matters of national defense or the police and courts is because these areas create "free rider" problems. People can harvest benefits without paying. Consequently, if pay is voluntary, why pay?

In order to eliminate this free rider problem, we say, "No. You must pay. Here is your tax bill."

We see this most easily with respect to national defense and a system of police and courts. However, this is not the only area where collective action produces wide-spread benefits. Environmental protection - which I wrote about yesterday - is another.

Yet another area where collective action matters is education.

We are, each of us, better off to the degree that we are surrounded by people who know what they are doing.

Here are some obvious examples.

If, six hours from now, you were to have a heart attack, you have reason to be grateful if somebody nearby could recognize a heart attack and take quick life-saving action. You have reason to expect that the chef who prepares your food knows that rhubarb leaves make a poor salad and cyanide is not to be used as a food flavoring.

We need to be surrounded by people who know and understand the real-world consequences of their real-world actions when they act. We need an educated population.

We need everybody to know how to read - because knowing how to read means knowing how to find the information one needs when one needs it. We need them to know how to do math.

They need an understanding of history, geography, and culture. They need to know about nutrition, the importance of exercise, and the ways in which different chemicals affect the body. They need to know this, not only to take care of their own health, but to help take care of others such as their own children or elderly parents - or neighbors and friends who are in need.

They need a basic understanding of physics, chemistry, and - in particular - biology, because biology is the science of living things. They need to know the law and how their government works, or doesn't work. They need to know how to use basic tools.

They need these things, not only because of the benefits that they acquire from having this knowledge, but because of the benefits that we acquire from being surrounded by people who understand the real world that we share.

Another part of education that we currently neglect is teaching how to recognize the difference between sense and nonsense. Children need to be taught the principles of logic. And they need to be taught how to recognize and why they should dismiss fallacious reasoning. They need to know how to recognize claims meant to divert attention, support false premises, and muddy political waters, and those that actually go some distance towards supporting the conclusions that a person is investigating.

Another thing that people need to know - they need to know about people who are not like them. Isolation - locking somebody up in a particular community and putting up blinders against everything outside - against everything that is 'other' - is a shortcut to bigotry, intolerance, hatred, and - in extreme cases - violence. It is much easier to assault, and even to kill, people one has been taught to hate and fear - people one has taught to view as less than human and have never had an opportunity to talk to and interact with as a genuine human beings with human likes, dislikes, wants, needs, and fears.

These are all a part of education.

Like national defense and a system of police and courts, they provide benefits for the whole population regardless of who pays. Consequently, like national defense and police protection, they are things we have reason to make sure that people pay for, whether they want to or not.

There are some areas where collective action provides important benefits. Where this is true - and can be demonstrated on a reasonable doubt - there are areas where there is reason to demand collective action.

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