Thursday, May 24, 2007

On fighting for "petty" freedoms

Russell Roberts at Café Hayek raises an interesting question: are defenders of freedom picking the right battles? Roberts says:

Their argument goes something like this: there are so many important issues to fight for, why fight over these nanny state issues? What's the big deal about mandatory seat belts or motorcycle helmets or the ban on trans fats. They basically do more good than harm, goes the argument, so why get worked up over something so trivial? Plus, they say, it turns off those who are skeptical about freedom. They think I'm crazy for getting excited over something so innocuous.

I disagree with these arguments. I think it is a big deal for many reasons. But before I make my case, I'd like to hear you make yours on either side of this issue. Is this kind of seemingly petty regulation worth fighting? Or should we just ignore it and save our breath and energy for more what are perhaps more important issues?

This is something well worth discussing.

First, I would dispute the notion that these sorts of nanny statist measures are in fact "petty." The right to eat or smoke what you want, or other rights to do as you will with your own body and health may not be as glamorous as free speech, but I would argue that they are far more important than people usually acknowledge, because they are pervasive in people's lives in a way that the sexier freedoms usually aren't for most people. The rights interfered with by nanny state laws, such as the right to consume what you want, are rights exercised (or infringed) virtually every single day of every person's life.

That aside, though, there is another point. Big oppressions don't arise from nowhere, especially in a country that still retains some tradition of a liberty; they pile up over time from "little" oppressions. Ten years ago, the sort of measures now being taken against unhealthy food were the stuff of parody; they were what conservatives and libertarians said, sometimes jokingly, would result from the attacks on tobacco. Now they are reality. They have been made possible by past precedent. Slippery slopes are very real in this area.

Past oppression serves as the justification for future oppression. In the golden age of eugenics, people like Oliver Wendell Holmes who wanted to justify things like forced sterilizations justified it by pointing to the existence of conscription- we've already established by accepting conscription that the state can demand the bodies of its citizens, so the legitimacy of forced sterilization for the good of the state naturally followed- it's just another sort of conscription, and often a less onerous form then the military kind. If the state can do A, why can't it do B, which is the same sort of thing as A?

We see the same sort of reasoning used by nanny statists all the time, though thankfully not (as of yet) on such extreme matters. We restrict tobacco advertising; why not advertising of unhealthy food to children? Dangerous drugs like heroin are restrictedl- why isn't tobacco? (Not making that one up.) If the state can do A, why can't it do B, which is the same sort of thing as A?

People hear this and think, "Well, A wasn't so bad." (Remember how people think that these issues are "petty" and "innocuous.") "So, why not B?" And the same thought process will apply for C, D, E, G, and F. The solution is to prevent A, so that the statists can't say, "… so why can't it do B?"

There is a related reason that is not logical or philosophical but psychological. People give up their liberty more readily in small steps than in not big jumps, because that's how beliefs in general usually shift. If the status quo in a particular area of life is little or no government interference, moving to heavy or total government control is a big jump- people will recoil from it, because they haven't been psychologically prepped for it. If the status quo is already a degree of government control, however, moving to even greater control is easier for people to swallow.

The more statism we have, the more psychologically palatable an even greater degree of statism will seem. The first concession to the nanny state seems inconsequential- and each additional concession seems the same way, because the baseline of normality grows more and more statist. Again, the solution is to nip the problem in the bud.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

My ideology is in no way ideological!

Here's something that nicely demonstrates a pet peeve of mine. From a letter in today's Chicago Tribune from the "Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence" advocating more gun control in Illinois:

It's time to put ideological and political views aside and start passing stronger and more effective laws to reduce the accessibility of guns in our communities.

Apparently, the belief that the right to bear arms should be restricted further is not an "ideological and political view." This is a classic rhetorical trick: opposing a particular statist measure is being "political" or "ideological," whereas supporting an expansion of state power somehow isn't.

I've seen this in other contexts. When public smoking bans are being discussed, the discussion is often framed as a struggle between nonideological supporters of Health and Science (the ban proponents) and anti-government ideologues. The underlying premise of ban supporters, the idea that the rights of private property owners should be abrogated at will, is in no way "ideological." It's just sort of a brute fact of existence.

I'm sure a lot of this is just a sleazy attempt to manipulate the reader, but in some cases I suspect that the statist honestly doesn't realize what he's doing; that is, he really thinks his own ideological and political views constitute "putting ideological and political views aside." He's spent so much time in an environment where everyone takes statist positions for granted that they seem like self-evident truths that don't even require arguments.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Enhanced interrogation techniques, ooohhh yeah!

Julian Sanchez has a nice video blog on the last Republican debate. I was dubious of the whole "vlogging" concept when I heard about it, but Sanchez is doing neat stuff with it. Have a look. One criticism: while I applaud Sanchez for seeking out the wisdom and counsel of "Macho Man" Randy Savage on our current foreign policy crisis, he commits a serious lapse by failing to give equal time to the Ultimate Warrior, whose theory of "destrucity" could be the key to leading our nation through the troubled years to come. Maybe next time.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Thomas Sowell: A cautionary tale

My usual lack of timeliness strikes again, but I can't go without commenting on the Thomas Sowell kerfuffle. For those who didn't already know, the evil parallel universe duplicate that kidnapped and replaced Thomas Sowell shortly after 9/11 recently wrote:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.
A few thoughts, a personal one and a bigger one. On a personal level, its difficult for me to describe how depressing Sowell's descent into warmongering policestatery in the past few years has been. When I started to become a libertarian, Sowell, along with Hayek, was hugely important to me. I ultimately became more radical than he ever was, but he was one of my biggest influences.

The larger point to take from this is that
a mixture of libertarianism/classical liberalism and militaristic modern conservatism is not likely to be stable. In the face of crisis or heavy strain, one or the other will win out, and it probably won't be libertarianism. Whenever trouble looms, the temptation to run screaming to the state for promises of help can be very strong, and even people with libertarian sentiments are not guaranteed to be immune. Sowell clearly wasn't.

What a damn shame.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Public smoking ban in Illinois

The Illinois legislature has passed a bill, which governor Blagojevich is expected to sign, that will ban smoking in all bars and restaurants in Illinois. I was struck by a quote from the Chicago Tribune article about the bill, because it seems to capture so much of the statist approach to the subject.

The bill’s sponsor, Karen Yarbrough, is quoted as saying, “Smokers have a right to smoke, but… they should not have a right to force others to breathe their smoke.” This is an argument often made; allowing smoking in privately owned bars constitutes “forcing” nonsmoking patrons to suffer smoke exposure. When someone wants to claim the right to control smoking on someone else’s private property, this argument is almost always deployed.

I hear this so much, you’d think there were press gangs roaming the streets of Illinois, kidnapping nonsmokers and dragging them in chains to smoky bars. Apparently, in the worldview (or at least the propaganda) of the smoking ban proponents, entering a bar or restaurant where smoking takes place is not a voluntary act- it is forced on you, or just sort of happens at random.

This fits in well with a common liberal worldview, I suppose, where normal people are helpless and devoid of all volition, and thus need their liberal betters save them. On this view, people can’t be trusted to make their own choices, and expecting people who dislike smoke to seek out alternative forms of entertainment on their own is too much to ask. Instead, the state has to save them by stopping the people who are “forcing” them to be around smoke.

On a less theoretical and more purely self-interested level, of course, are the people who like going out for food or drinks, but dislike the odor of smoke, and so want to use the government to force bars and restaurants to be more to their liking. This is quite common; I’ve heard people admit to it without any sense of shame or embarrassment, and I’m sure there are many more who think it but want to sound more high-minded. They're about as public-spirited as I would be if I lobbied the legislature to force my local bar to play only music that I like.

The ban takes effect on January 1st. It is, I'm sure, only a matter of time before some public health crusader proposes extending this to private homes. Why not? It follows logically from Yarbrough's argument. Can't have me "forcing" my cigar smoke on my guests, after all.

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