Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Limits to Freedom - Harm to Others

Freedom is a very important value.

As your representative in the legislative process, my default vote will favor freedom unless strong arguments can be presented to the contrary.

What types of arguments can overrule the presumption of freedom?

The first is obvious.

Freedom does not entail a right to do harm to others.

When we prohibit rape, for existence, or the abuse of children, somebody might accuse us of being anti-freedom. After all, we are taking a set of behaviors that some people value and saying, "That is prohibited. If you do rape, or if you abuse a child, you will be punished."

In a perverse, oversimplified kind of way, it makes sense for them to accuse us of being anti-freedom. We are limiting their freedom to engage in these types of behavior.

Indeed, we are.

In principle, I doubt anybody in this room actually believes that being pro-freedom means legalizing that type of behavior, or that a person who wishes it banned is some sort of anti-freedom tyrant. There is no legitimate sense in which a love of freedom requires a hatred for laws banning rape and child abuse.

However, there are some who do not think through the implications of this principle. Or, if they do, they seek to bury those implications under a mountain of campaign contributions and political advertisements.

May I casually slip a poison into your drink that causes you kidney failure or cancer? Or that kills you outright?

If somebody were to stand here and tell you that you may not slip poisons into their neighbor's drink, would you accuse him of being anti-freedom? Would you accuse him of being somebody who hates America and all that America stands for?

I doubt it.

Then, what about the person who slips poison into a community's water supplies or into the air that they breathe? I stand here as somebody who says that this is no more legitimate than slipping a poison into your drink when you are not looking.

Many people who profit from poisoning your air and your water spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into trying to convince you that anybody, such as me, who denies their their alleged right to poison you for profit is anti-freedom. They protest these government regulations as obtrusive and socialist - the way, I assume, a child abuser might find government regulations against child abuse to be intrusive.

At this point, many will likely be ready to protest that my analogies here are hyperbole. They are "over the top." But, think about it. Those who poison our air and our water are also poisoning the children in our communities. Is that not the moral equivalent of child abuse?

One of the things they tell us is that these environmental regulations - these prohibitions on poisoning others - cut into their profits. They say that it is bad for business. It costs jobs. They cannot compete against companies elsewhere that poison the air and water around their factories with impunity. Because of this, we must grant them permission to profit from poisoning others free of any type of cost or penalty.

However, if we accept that argument, and we want jobs so badly, we can probably create a lot if jobs by legalizing child abuse.

I understand that some forms of child abuse can be quite lucrative. When we prohibit those things, we are driving the people who would profit from these activities to other communities that are more tolerant of such things - or less able to enforce their prohibitions. These entrepreneurs are taking their money and their jobs elsewhere.

Should we be legalizing child abuse so that we can keep those jobs here? Should we be legalizing acts of poisoning others so that we can keep those jobs here?

Somebody with a lot of money can afford to buy a lot of advertising, influence a lot of columnists, and groom a lot of politicians into accepting their position. "Allow us to poison others with impunity, and we will bring jobs to the community." This argument is going to work on some people - when it is repeated often enough and from enough different directions, by those who can afford to pay for that kind of advertising. When they get the liberty to poison others with impunity, they become wealthier - while the rest of us become poorer as we have to struggle to cover rising costs for health insurance. This means that the poisoners can pay for more advertising and grooming more politicians - which will make them wealthier still.

Now, there are two sides to this coin.

There is a legitimate complaint to be made against much of our regulation. A lot of these regulations are not, in fact, prohibiting actions that threaten others. They impose costs on businesses that produce no real benefit. They exist because some over-anxious regulator was convinced that some action might possibly perhaps contribute to harms suffered by others and must be prohibited. Or, more often than not, they have been convinced that some regulation will funnel money into the pockets of a friend or valuable campaign supporter, and act to funnel that money into those pockets.

We are told that it is better to be safe than sorry. However, if that is our attitude towards freedom - that it may be discarded at the slightest chance that good might come of it - why not throw people in jail if they might, perhaps, possibly be guilty of a crime? It is better to be safe than sorry, right? This is an attitude that puts very little value on freedom - and putting so little value on freedom will have some very significant costs.

Limiting freedom requires a lot more than, "It might, perhaps, possibly do some good." It requires, "We have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it is necessary to prevent serious harms."

A huge number of our regulations to not meet this criterion, and those who are burdened by this excess in caution are right to complain about them.

However, they are not right to demand the freedom to put money in their pockets by engaging in activities that we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, poison, maim, and kill others. Freedom, however valuable, does not extend so far as to allow the person who would harm others to claim that those who would stop him are anti-freedom.

Finally, we must acknowledge that there is no bright line between these two types of examples. There will be cases in which some will be convinced that the harms are clear and the actions are permissibly prohibited. At the same time, others will insist that the case has not been proven and that the presumption of freedom still wins. Of course, the accused will seldom believe he is guilty. Even when we show the video of him holding a gun on the store clerk and demanding money, he will insist on his innocence, or on special circumstances that justify his actions. However, in spite of this, there will be legitimate cases of disagreement.

In the same way that we are fools to pretend that freedom implies a right to harm others with impunity, or that actions may be prohibited whenever we suspect that they might perhaps possibly do some good, we are fools to believe that all of the questions that come before us can be easily decided. There must be some room in the middle for civil disagreement - cases where it is hard to know on which side of the line the truth falls. That is just a fact of the world we must all live in - together.

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