Posts Tagged ‘individual freedom’

Britain, where prostitution is now legal, wants to turn back the clock and criminalize it again. And like the Swedish, they have taken a bizarre but politically correct position — it will now be illegal to pay for sex but legal to sell it.

As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it:

Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing.

Never mind the fact that you are preventing consenting adults from engaging in an activity that should be no one else’s business.

Smith’s statement also implicitly accepts the proposition that if something is ‘good’, the government ought to force it by law. This assumption is sadly, rather widespread, and goes to the heart of my post from yesterday. The basic premise of libertarianism is that while there may be various levels of ‘badness’, most of them do not qualify for state censorship. The personal is not the political. The moral is not the legal.

It’s funny how governments worldwide share a common disregard for individual liberty and a collective disrespect for reason in their glorious lumping together of the illegal, the immoral, the bad, the unpopular, the merely unpleasant and the illogical. Or maybe it is not so funny.

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And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.


That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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According to a draft bill, women in Netherlands who are deemed unfit to be a mother will be forced to take contraceptives.

The reports are vague about the criteria for “unfitness” but it appears that a wide range of issues, from actual disability to previous history of poor parenting will be considered.

How soon before teaching your children politically incorrect views gets categorized as bad parenting and a suitable justification for forced sterilization?

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After successfully combating the menace of smoking, he is now on a mission to eradicate the other great vice — alcohol.

Sometimes I wonder where we Indians would be without Ramadoss. It is abundantly clear now that we are simply incapable of taking good decisions for ourselves. We masturbate, smoke, drink, maintain poor personal hygiene and consistently elect the wrong politicians. Without his fatherly protection and control, we would soon become a bunch of wastrels.

There is only one thing I fear — what if Ramadoss gets tired of his mission and stops taking care of us? What will we do? Who will we turn to?

But, in my heart of hearts, I know he will never stop. His conscience will prevent him from doing so.

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Regarding my previous post, a reader writes:

Wearing a helmet reduces risk of damage. The cost of a helmet is moderate enough that most people, who can purchase a motorbike, can afford it. Besides, there are no problems with forcing people to wear helmets, except for the cost price and the price of “freedom”. Why do you advocate that compulsory helmet laws be revoked?

Well, the answer, in brief, is John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Of course, people disagree on what constitutes harm. Left-liberals often cite the indirect harm that certain business practices by large companies cause — in their view — to certain sections of the population. They use this reasoning to justify government regulation of corporations. Libertarians, on the other hand, take a much more restrictive meaning of the word ‘harm.’

However one defines harm though, it is hard to make the case that not wearing helmets harms others. If you are really adamant, you might say that that the increase in critical injuries might have an effect on everyone’s insurance rates. However, for one, the change will surely be negligible, and secondly, the obvious answer to this is to not subsidise health insurance with tax money. In any case, if helmet laws are repealed, insurance companies will probably charge higher premiums of those who decide to ride their bikes without an helmet.

Thus, mandatory helmet laws are not compatible with the harm principle. They directly run counter to the idea of individual freedom — the right to do with your life as you deem fit. They are by no means the only such laws. There are other laws that seek to ban behaviors that harm no one else. Some of them — such as Article 377 of the Indian Penal code that criminalizes homosexuality — are much more insidious.

However, anyone who is serious about defending individual freedom is obligated to speak out against all of these and not merely the ones that cause the most harm. For one, paternalistic laws such as those that mandate the wearing of helmets display a certain philosophy of governance that spill off into other issues. A government that does not respect personal autonomy in one sphere is unlikely to do so in another. As David Wiegel put it:

There’s no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. There is legislation that affects personal behavior a lot and legislation that affects it only a little. But it’s part of one continuum; the pol who believes he can enhance public health by limiting public choice believes he can fix many other problems by limiting that choice. One success follows another. The critics of one minor quality-of-life law wither away, and it’s easy to imagine the next round of critics meeting the same date with obscurity.

Secondly, costs and benefits, as I never tire of pointing out, are different for different people. It is therefore not entirely logical to dismiss the burden on freedom as small in the helmet case.  If you advocate helmet laws, you can use the same argument to ban any activity for which, in your opinion, the joy derived is low enough when weighed against the possibility of extreme harm. For instance, consider the act of having sex with a person you barely know. What’s there to prevent an overzealous paternalist from enacting a law that mandates the use of protection for such activity?  Wearing an helmet might seem like a minor inconvenience but so really is the act of wearing a condom. Turning this around, there are surely many people for whom the pleasure derived from the act of not wearing an helmet is at least as high as the pleasure certain others get from not having to bother about condoms during sex. Furthermore, the risk of contracting a serious venereal disease such as AIDS from unprotected sex — at least if you are promiscuous enough — is surely comparable to the risk of incurring a serious injury on account of not wearing a helmet. Think about it.

Thus it makes little sense for those who oppose government intervention into sexual matters to support mandatory helmet laws. And to see this, you do not have to believe in the harm principle.

But try explaining all this to the nanny-staters.

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“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.”

Thomas Jefferson.

(Hat Tip: Aristotle The Geek)

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France is perhaps the worst place in Western Europe for individual liberty — recall the recent conviction of Brigette Bardot for hate-speech — however, their courts do get things right once in a while. In a marriage annulment case, much in the news lately, the French judge did rule in favour of privacy and freedom. Here’s an excerpt from the Chicago tribune report (emphasis mine).

The bride said she was a virgin. When her new husband discovered that was a lie, he went to court to annul the marriage — and a French judge agreed.

The ruling ending the Muslim couple’s union has stunned France and raised concerns the country’s much-cherished secular values are losing ground to cultural traditions from its fast-growing immigrant communities.

Justice Minister Rachida Dati, whose parents also were born in North Africa, initially shrugged off the ruling — but the public clamor reached such a pitch that she asked the prosecutor’s office this week to lodge an appeal.

What began as a private matter “concerns all the citizens of our country and notably women,” a statement from her ministry said.

The hitch is that both the young woman and the man at the center of the drama are opposed to an appeal, according to their lawyers.

The young woman’s lawyer, Charles-Edouard Mauger, said she was distraught by the dragging out of the humiliating case. In an interview on Europe 1 radio, he quoted her as saying: “I don’t know who’s trying to think in my place. I didn’t ask for anything. … I wasn’t the one who asked for the media attention, for people to talk about it, and for this to last so long.”

The court decision “is a real fatwa against the emancipation and liberty of women. We are returning to the past,” said Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara,

“In a democratic and secular country, we cannot consider virginity as an essential quality of marriage,” said an expert on French secularism, Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux.

I am sorry, expert, but the question isn’t what you or I think are the essential qualities for a marriage. The issue is extremely simple — the two parties mutually agreed there should be an annulment on the basis there was a breach of contract, the annulment was granted and they are happy. Stop thinking for other individuals. The government has no business encroaching into private consensual affairs, whether or not those offend your fine sensibilities.

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