Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Ethical Atheist Politician: Freedom

This week I am presenting the opening remarks for myself as a hypothetical ethical atheist candidate.

I started with the political bargain, "If you give me the power of elected office, then and I will use that power to make good things happen."

I then identified these "good things" by imagining a large group of people crash-landed on an island with no hope of rescue. The priorities are medical care for the sick and injured, clean water, nutritious food, shelter (depending on the climate), and security. I also mentioned the need for information - to know and understand the real world in ways that help us to acquire these other goods.

I did not mention freedom.

I wanted to give freedom some extra attention.

Many politicians use "freedom" as a feel-good word. They rob the word of any meaning, allowing the voter to fill in the blanks anyway he or she likes. They define freedom alternatively as letting a taxpayer keep his money, and taking it from him to give another person an education, or handicapped access, or medical treatment for an illness that limits the things she can do with her life.

For some people, "freedom" means a legal permission to act even in ways that maim and kill others without facing legal consequences. For others, it means protection from these harms.

"Freedom" is a word that everybody can cheer, even though different people are actually cheering for different and contradictory things.

I will do what no serious politician should ever do, which is tell you exactly what I mean by "Freedom". The serious politician gains no benefit from such a strategy. She will only lose votes from people who discover that the politician's definition of freedom is not her definition of freedom. She gains nothing. However, in this hypothetical campaign, I have freedoms that the serious politician does not have.

If you assign somebody to do a job, you want to assign the most knowledgable and least corruptible agent to do that job.

Now, the question is, who is the most knowledgable and least corruptible person we can assign to the job of running your life?

Is it the person standing next to you? Is that the person who is in the best position to know how to direct your life?

Think about something simple. Think about ordering a meal at a restaurant. Who, in this room, has the best chance of reliably ordering what you want to eat? Somebody else might get lucky and order something for you that you like. But luck, by definition, is not reliable.

Is it me? Do you think I am better at running your life than your are?

I certainly do not.

Is it some faceless bureaucrat that I would either appoint or confirm that does not even know your name?

If you give somebody else control over your life, that person will use it to advance his or her interests, not yours.

Some of those interests might be good and noble concerns. He might have an interest in world peace or curing cancer - along with his other likes and dislikes. He may have a genuine interest in your well-being. However, this will still be one interest among many - and all of his interests will be screaming for attention. I guarantee that there will be times in which he will sacrifice your interests - at least a little - in service to his other concerns.

Furthermore, for anybody else, understanding your life is, at best, a part-time job. And if she makes a mistake, she might not even know it. The fact of the matter is, that shooting pain in your arm will never be as important to somebody else as it is to you.

If we are going to assign the job of running each life to the most knowledgable and least corruptible person, then the person to whom we need to assign to the job of running your life is you.

There are some people for whom this is not true. Young children, for example, are not the most knowledgable as to their well-being. We must assign to each child a caretaker - the person or group that has the child's best interest at heart, and for whom learning about the child's future interests and how to protect them are important. Usually, this is the child's parents. Sometimes, it is not. We need to discover the cases in which it is not and get new caretakers for those children.

There are also people with brain injuries and illnesses that make them incapable of being the most knowledgable as to their own welfare. These people also must be assigned to caretakers.

However, among adults, this is a very rare and tragic exception.

The default has to be a presumption in favor of freedom. The default vote on any newly proposed regulation or control must be, "No."

This is true in the same way that the default verdict in a criminal trial before any evidence is presented should be, "Not guilty." It is the prosecutor who must prove his case, not the defendant. It is the person who would take freedom who has the burden of proof, not the person whose freedom is being taken.

And it is not enough to show, "We kinda think that maybe this might be a good idea," any more than it is sufficient to prove, "We kinda think that maybe the accused in this case might be guilty." The standard of proof must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt. With anything less, we should go with the presumption of freedom.

That is how I am going to vote as your elected official. You are the person best put in charge of running your own life. Not me. Not some faceless bureaucrat. You need the freedom to do just that.

Yet, freedom is not absolute. The clearest example is that your freedom does not include the right to rape any woman you might be interested in raping. Politicians who argue in favor of those types of laws are not properly called anti-freedom.

Next, I will look at some of the proper limits to freedom.

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