Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The limits of government

Oh, dear.  I guess it's bound to happen, being a Catholic libertarian, something that's a minority at best, and a heretic at worst (depending on who you listen to).  I got challenged in the comments of the last post to define my political beliefs a little better.  I tried, but it really does merit its own post.

Here is the question, raised by long-time commenter some guy on the street: "When you say you don't think the state should "legislate morality", what is the state doing when it "protects the rights of individuals"? That is, what are these rights if they are not somehow a reflection of true morality, and how does the state protect them without legislation?"

In other words, when I say "the state should not legislate morality," what, exactly, do I mean?

Briefly, I guess I would say that the sort of things the law should forbid includes anything that infringes on another's rights.  If it infringes on another's rights, it should be illegal.  If it does not infringe on another's rights, even if it is morally wrong, it should not be controlled by the state.

For example, things that infringe on no one else's rights include the following: neglecting to wear a seatbelt, smoking cigarettes in one's own home, using drugs in one's own home (provided one doesn't then leave home and do irresponsible things, in which case some of those things might infringe another's rights), growing a garden in your front yard, refusing medical treatment, committing sodomy with a consenting partner, suicide.  Many of these things are sins.  But since they do not physically affect anyone but the person who commits them, they do not infringe on rights.  We should definitely try to stop people from doing the things in this list that are wrong.  But I don't think it's the government's job, because I think it's the government's job to provide an environment where we can exercise our rights.

Some things that do infringe on others' rights include the following: abortion (because the baby has a right to life), driving irresponsibly (though many libertarians think people should only be punished for this if they actually cause an accident; I'm not sure I agree with that), assault, fraud (for instance, labeling a food as "cheese" when it's really a processed substitute, or selling stock in a company that doesn't exist), and so forth.  The government has every right to ban these, because banning them will provide an environment where everyone else can freely exercise their rights.

The one issue I have with libertarianism is that it assumes everyone is an adult, and we all know not everyone is an adult.  What about children?  So there is a whole grey category of actions that could harm children, which I'm not sure about: circumcision, spanking, denial of medical care to a child, publishing pornography in a public place where children could see it.  Parents are, of course, the custodians of their children's rights, but how far can they be trusted to do so?  Are there some things they must not be allowed to do to their children?  As a Catholic, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which means that no higher level of authority (like the government) should interfere in a lower level (like the family) unless necessary ... but when, exactly, is it necessary?  I'm still struggling with this.

Of course to form a hard-and-fast rule, one must consider the question, what rights do we have?  Does a billboard owner have the right to free speech, or do I have the right to choose what sort of things I want to see?  What if 99% of the population doesn't want to see a certain billboard, and 1% wants to put that billboard up on their own property?  You see how thorny these things get.  I do think the Declaration of Independence is a good yardstick for this sort of thing.  We all have the right to life (which comes first and trumps all other rights).  And then the right to liberty, which isn't unlimited but suggests we should be able to do what we want, within certain limits.  Then the right to the pursuit of happiness, which has been defined by some as the right to property (something the Church insists on) but which could include other rights as well.  We also possess natural rights not mentioned, like the right to self-determination, the right to free association, and the right to conscience.

But for the rest, I think wisdom and vigilance are required on all our parts.  The Constitution alone isn't enough to rule us; laws are also needed that address specific cases.  For instance, I think the right to my own property is important.  I should be able plant a garden there, build a house there, or keep chickens there.  (My town bans chickens, unfortunately.)  But if what I do on my property bleeds over to other properties -- if, for instance, I pollute my 1/4 acre and the chemicals seep into the groundwater and pollute the Shendandoah -- I am infringing on the rights of others, and there's rightly a law against that.  But it all has to be taken case-by-case, and you and I might come to different conclusions about where to draw the line.  The principle, however, holds ... it's just a matter of defining rights.  In any event, I still do believe that anything private individuals do that does not affect others at all should never be legislated.

Right now we're struggling a lot with what people call the "culture wars."  There's a fight going on between one view of culture -- a more traditional view, where one man and one woman get married for life and have a bunch of children, no contraception, and no abortion; and a new view that includes as many sexual orientations as there are colors of the rainbow and as many versions of family as there are stars in the sky.  Which will win?  There's no saying, but I don't think this is primarily a realm for the law.

So many people look to government as the cure for all social ills.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  The fact is, to change the culture, we have to use different methods.  There's convincing other people, forming supportive groups, strengthening religion, encouraging your point of view via the media (like I do), and even raising children.  This last is something I consider far more powerful than political strong-arming.  If you get your guys into power, you might get the change you want for four years, but if the culture opposes you they will quickly change the law back.  But if you change hearts, you won't need a law.

Right now the situation seems rather dire, and I guess that's why people are turning to the law to solve everything.  And yet the law doesn't work any better than the other methods; in fact, it works much worse.  It's the same as what happens with spanking.  People say, "Oh, but this particular issue/child is so bad that I need to spank."  And I answer, "If it's ineffective with small problems, it will be even more ineffective with big ones, and the backlash will be worse!"

The government's job is to provide a safe and free environment for people to associate with one another.  Ideas meet and clash, and the government ensures this clash won't turn violent.  But it's the referee, not the dictator.  To this end, fewer laws seem to be a pretty good thing.

I'm going to have to save my doctrinal justification for all these ideas for the next post!


some guy on the street said...

Again, it's in finer details where we seem to disagree; most of this seems reasonably subsidiarist, so far as I understand the idea (which may not be much!).

Many of the things you list here as not infringing on the rights of others, I would classify as not infringing on the rights of strangers; but I bet you'd agree with me that you have a right (as do Mark and Michael) to insist that John wear a seatbelt whenever he's driving among motorists we don't know to be skilled, cautious, and sober. (And don't even mention suicide in Aunty Seraphic's hearing; I fancy she would explode at least privately to hear it thought a matter not-for-legislation by a good Catholic like you.)

I believe there is room for a broader level of government backing-up your right to insist that your husband the father of your children protect his person against the event of car accidents. And I believe there is room for a broader level of government to back up a pater familias' right to insist that those living under his roof conduct themselves in a pure and becoming manner, even if it is not proper for any broader level to actively police such an insistence.

But I don't think I can agree on the government's job being to provide a "safe and free environment"; at least, this seems to give the government even more scope (over safety and freedom, anyways) than I'd be willing to concede; need I say "TSA"? Rather, I think the government's primary job is to provide ordered and just means to fix what can be fixed when things go wrong in a way that a private person cannot justly address --- police to apprehend suspect criminals and courts to try them, armies to repel invasion and order relief after disaster. (I'm inclined to say, material support for those who are genuinely unable to support themselves, but obviously this is difficult.)

Certainly, though, I agree that legislation is a blunt force tool. 'Tis very true that it's better to change hearts, but more: in a democracy, unless most hearts belong to what "the culture wars" call our culture, eventually the laws will be opposed to that culture. Or, roughly as GKC put it, there is little difference between a tyranny and a tired democracy.

Sheila said...

My rights over John, as his wife, do certainly exist, but on the other hand, they have nothing to do with government and everything to do with me saying, "Dear, be safe, I don't want to be a widow." Just like if a friend of ours wasn't supporting his family, we wouldn't call the cops, but instead call aside the friend and say, "Dude, pull it together." You could think of it as subsidiarity I suppose, or simply a recognition that the government is a very blunt tool for rearranging delicate matters inside the family.

As far as suicide goes, do you think laws against suicide are particularly effective? (As I used to joke as a kid, what are they going to do, kill you?) What I mean is, most people who really want to commit suicide succeed eventually. A policeman on hand might stop you, and can hold you a week in the hospital, but sooner or later they will let you go and you will be able to off yourself in private. But a friend can work on the real problem, the WANTING to kill yourself, and can help you no longer want to do it. I know now that I am a mother that there is a very large network of women around me to monitor my mental health. ;) They checked up tactfully after I had given birth to make sure I wasn't developing post-partum depression and offered a hand so I could nap or shower and keep my sanity. Everyone deserves a network like this, and it begins with family (which everyone ought to have, but law cannot give you). The quiet comment at a party -- "Hey, Joe was sounding really down today, and I know he's really been struggling. Can you check up on him today, and I'll call him tomorrow?" -- does more to avert suicide than the law does.

I do agree in some kind of safety net for the very poor, as do most reasonable libertarians (including Ron Paul, incidentally). It's not so much a question of rights (though of course the right to life assumes the right to eat) but a matter of coordinating something on a large scale that isn't easy to coordinate on a small scale, but which we all can agree is necessary. Ideally the Church and local community do as much of this as possible.

Overall I think you and I would agree on most practical matters -- haven't yet seen one on which we disagree, actually -- but our rationale differs. And I can't say for sure that my rationale is perfect; the practical things are always the things I'm surest about. The more I abstract from reality, the less certain I am. I do know that, when a problem can be solved without government, the government ought to stay out of it. And when a government can't do a good job of solving something, it shouldn't try because the bad effects of the attempt will usually be worse than leaving the whole thing alone.

Deltaflute said...

I guess my question is what do you expect from voters? If as a government law is determined by voters, then aren't the voters within their rights to determine moral issues?

I guess I might need an example. In cannibalism it's perfectly okay to kill your enemies and then eat them. Yet we would consider it immoral for soldiers in Iraq to take Hussain's body and roast it on a spit. And from a cultural perspective, Muslims would think it's disrespectful of his body.

In other words, there are some moral laws (military codes of conduct) that are written precisely because the voters determined moral code. And I'm not talking about religious moral code. I'm talking about cultural moral code.

You say it's about infringing on a person's rights. But I don't see it as being quite so simple. I own property which I rent out. Legally I have to rent it out to a gay couple. But it's still my property and therefore I believe that I have a right to decide who can have sex on it and with whom. But the government considers it to be a business and therefore I can't discriminate.

You say, well it's the gay couples right to rent from you, but what about my rights as a landowner to decide what occurs on my property. If I can tell straight couples, that they can't paint the walls black because it's my property or have pets or smoke marijuana (which is perfectly legal for medicinal purposes but legally you are allowed to not rent to pot heads) why can't I determine what other things happen on my property?

Do you see my point? Sometimes it's about two cultures clashing and determining which culture to follow. Cannibalism or muslims. Property owners vs renters.

Maybe you can clarify.

Incidently there's a big difference between suicide because of depression (which the Church has said clearly is morally gray as the person was not able to truly make a conscious decision) and those who kill themselves because they are dying anyway or suffering in some way (euthanasia). It's my understanding that the suicide laws pertain to euthanasia. They don't typically lock people up for having depression.

Deltaflute said...

I should also mention that I'm allowed to decide who rents my property in some matters. For example, I can exclude college students or people without jobs or poor credit history. Is it discriminatory to not rent to someone because they are in college? Who determines this?

some guy on the street said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sheila said...

S.g.o.t.s., I liked your comment, but I had to delete it because it revealed our last name, which I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to keep off of my blog. Here is your comment again, edited:

Are you saying, δ-flute, that some cultures rent and some cultures own, so that a renter culture and an owner culture may be in clash?

I think I share with [Sheila and her husband] and with Catholic teaching the belief that true morals and customs are distinct things; and that as both pertain to the freely chosen acts of individuals, the latter may conflict with the former, just as distinct traditions of custom may also conflict with eachother even where they both are consistent with true morals.

And even though a coherent custom consistent with true morals is a good thing (it is the substance of a peaceful society!) true morality per se has an objectivity to it which Law cannot justly contradict, and which Law ignores at its peril.

Sheila said...

The problem I see, Deltaflute, is that if you bring it down to "the majority of voters will choose the moral code we use," the majority will easily be able to oppress the majority. For instance, the majority of Americans are some stripe of Christian, but we do not make church attendance or public prayer mandatory because that would be unfair to the minority that does not believe in God. The majority are white, but it would be unfair to insist on segregation because whites are supposed to prefer it. So that doesn't seem to be a very good standard ... especially as there are countries (Arab nations, for instance) that do legislate morality based on another code, and where Christians are a minority, they are oppressed. Is it okay for there to be oppression, so long as we work really hard to stay in the majority? Because I gotta tell you, the "religious right" is quickly losing any edge it used to have.

Personally, it seems to me that a landlord can't very well choose what happens on his rental property unless it defaces that property. Because otherwise you're going to have to say that you have a right to say what shows they watch, what foods they cook, who they sleep with and what position they use. You know? That can't be your standard because it gives you far too much power over another person's life. And I'm not sure what standard you could use that would allow you to discriminate against same-sex couples who take just as good care of your property as an opposite-sex couple and are just as reliable about paying their bills. What if they promised you they wouldn't have sex in your apartment building? Would that be good enough for you? Only, how would you know if they were telling the truth? I guess you'd have to install security cameras. And you'd need to install them everywhere because probably your single tenants bring dates home sometimes. I can see this getting out of hand.

All suicide is illegal in most states, so far as I know, and if you are actively attempting to commit suicide, they can hold you for a brief period against your will. I wasn't thinking of assisted suicide, but I guess there all I could say is that the doctor does not have the right over another person's life. After all, as I understand it, many who undergo euthanasia or assisted suicide wouldn't do it if they were thinking clearly and not convinced by outside sources like doctors. I may be wrong, but I see assisted suicide as usually murder by manipulation, and one can never be really sure, so it's best to ban it even from a strictly rights-based standard.

My great-grandfather's twin sister reached the age of 99 and found that she was lonely. So she stopped eating, and in due course died. No one could have stopped her from doing that or forced her to eat. But maybe she wouldn't have done it if she hadn't been lonely. There, the community might have helped where law couldn't.

some guy on the street said...

Terribly sorry; that's quite right! As you can tell, I tend to keep most of my names off the 'blogs, altogether. I'll try to remember.

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