Friday, July 25, 2008

Individual Freedom

I’m not sure if it’s because I put mine out on display or that I simply have one, and have put extensive time into developing it, but I am routinely asked by friends and acquaintances about my political philosophy. It’s usually not in those terms but people often ask my opinion on political events and why I hold those opinions. I’m always happy to share but I’ve never tried to define it before and put it down on paper (or on the Interwebz). So here goes.

Essentially it can be summed up in two words: individual liberty. I believe that those two words best express the intent of the founding fathers of the United States of America in their attempt to establish our system of government. I don’t mean for this to be an appeal to authority in an effort to prove my political philosophy superior to others or to diminish other ideas as unpatriotic. I mention it more to demonstrate the anachronistic nature of my philosophy.

At the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution these ideas were only slightly more fashionable than they are today. A quick perusal of the document and the Federalist Papers will show that the powers of the federal government were meant to be limited and enumerated. In fact, one could even hold the radical idea that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

But today it is much more in vogue to be enamored with the general welfare than individual freedom. A long century of war, famine, despotism, repression, and genocide has not been enough to convince people that collectivism is a road to failure and misery. The 20th century was, by way of body count, the most exquisite example I think the world could ever bear of the futility of attempting to arrange a society on the Marxist principle of from each according to his ability and to each according to his need. If Stalin, Hitler (not necessarily a collectivist but appealed to those who were), Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che, Mussolini, Kim Il Sung, and all the other People’s Republics weren’t enough to convince the world of the futility of this line of thinking, it seems clear to me that this must be the result of some innate and inherently self-destructive aspect of human nature.

But here we are. We’ve seen hundreds of millions lost in the wars and ethnic cleansings and killing fields in the wake of these ideas but hundreds of millions more line up at the trough of government to get their fill today.

But there is a clear counterexample that has existed throughout the 20th century and before. That being the English-speaking nations of the world. Britain, Australia, Canada, and especially the U.S. have experienced unprecedented achievement and economic success while most of the rest of the world has stagnated. This is not due to our language but to our common ancestry. Not an ancestry of race but of law and democracy and liberty; individual liberty.

Individual liberty alone can be accurately described as nothing more than anarchy. While this notion may be appealing to the young mind it is certainly no way to organize a civilized society. To be successful it must be coupled with individual responsibility and the rule of law. This, British Common Law, is what has set the English-speaking world apart from the rest and been the key to our success. And this is the foundation of my personal political philosophy.

Like anyone else I often find myself conflicted on any given issue of the day. I have my opinion about what is the right thing to do and choose to live my life based on that. But often a more important question must be asked when it comes to public policy: if my preference on this issue were made law, would it stifle the liberty of others unnecessarily or is it what is right for society as a whole? For example, I will go way out on the political limb and declare my opposition to murder. In my mind murder is wrong. I won’t do it. But is that good enough from a public policy standpoint? Clearly others will arrive at a different conclusion, which is the case with any moral question. As a lawmaker, one must weigh the moral liberty of the individual against the rights of all individuals. In this case it is clear that no one has the right to take another’s life because doing so would infringe on the rights of others. This is the principal behind equality before the law.

However this principle becomes much murkier as the issues at hand become more nebulous. Abortion is a hot-button issue with exactly the kind of murkiness that leads to bad public policy. Some believe that two live cells of a human embryo are a baby, a human life, and cannot be deprived of that life by another. Others believe that those cells do not constitute a human life until sometime further along the road of development. Personally I agree with the latter but completely respect the former. As for me, I think abortion is wrong. I won’t do it. But is it right to form public policy based on my preference? I believe one could go either way; defend the liberty of the embryo or that of the pregnant woman. In such a circumstance I believe it is wise to choose the path of maximum liberty. In this case, in the extreme, it is to allow the liberty to kill the unborn baby. It sounds harsh put that way but it is the side of the most liberty.

Another example, and decidedly more mundane, is the fad of smoking bans. I don’t smoke and prefer to be in smoke-free environments. However, my preference, made public policy, is clearly in violation of the liberty of those who choose to smoke. But what are called “public places” are anything but that. These generally refer to restaurants and bars and they are decidedly private enterprises. I am a restaurant owner myself and I can attest to the fact that I have received no public financing. So who has the right to decide on this issue? When individual liberty is the guiding principle, the clear answer is the owner of the establishment. The patron has no more right to enter the restaurant than the restaurateur has to enter the patron’s home. And neither has any right to dictate to the other how to conduct his business therein.

Where this idea of individual liberty gets watered down is in the realm of general welfare mentioned above. Clearly it is a violation of other’s rights to pollute the air or water or land in pursuit of one’s own goals. A factory dumping toxic chemicals into a river may make it impossible for those downstream to draw drinking water for their town to survive. But this idea of a pristine environment is often carried to the extreme. For instance factories are often barred from exhausting warm water that is otherwise pure back into the river because certain fish prefer the cold water. These prohibitions are often in the name of preserving animal or vegetable habitats and not the economic livelihood of humans but nonetheless they carry this argument to the extreme.

So how does one discern a position on a given issue from this somewhat subjective criteria upon which to judge it? Unfortunately, as with much in life, it is entirely subject to interpretation. But I believe it is vitally important to have a grounding principle as a foundation for one’s political philosophy. And this is mine. Without such a principle one would be as wishy-washy as John McCain.

So where do the two main political parties stand in relation to the principle of individual liberty? The Republican Party has lost its mooring on this issue (and most others) in recent years. The GOP used to hold individual liberty as one of its bedrock principles. But it has sold its soul to the power of incumbency only to find that it had neither. The Democrat Party has never embraced this principle. Quite the opposite in fact. Some may argue that the civil rights movement was one of guaranteeing individual liberty. This is true, but sadly not the history of the Democrat Party. They have successfully usurped this mantle as their own but the facts are not on their side. The closest political party to this principle is the Libertarian Party. They are decidedly on the side of individual liberty in the vast majority of their platform. However they tend to be so loony on other important principles that I fear they , if in charge, would lead us into the hands of foreign despots, thus leaving us without any liberty to cherish.

Sadly there is no political home for the individual. The two major parties in the U.S. are in a race to give away the most bounty to their supporters at the expense of their detractors without regard to what is best for the country as a whole, or more importantly, what is best for each individual.

As stated above, it is human nature to desire an easy road, that of the collective. Each person believes he can gain from the work of all the others. All the while he is naïve to the effects of this plan on the fruits of his gains. But even when one is solely on the receiving end of government largess without bearing any of the burden thereof, he cannot be happy or successful. It is simply not possible to make people equal in outcome. The best that can be hoped for from government welfare is the perpetuity of poverty and misery. I don’t mean to suggest that either of these conditions can be alleviated by the removal of government welfare, only that they will exist with it or without it and it will not help. To raise those on the government dole to the level of the middle class would require a level of taxation that would inspire a revolt; therefore impossible. Alternately, if the people are too weak to be revolutionary, they would simply quit working so hard only to have their earnings confiscated, and go on the dole themselves. For evidence of this look at any communist regime in the history of mankind.

Regardless of the viability, the worst aspect of the collective approach to organizing our lives is its effect on the human spirit. Government “entitlements” have the effect of removing both the giver and the recipient from the positive effects of charity and placing them in the unwelcome position of slave and master. Charity, when one willingly gives time, money, or knowledge, is uplifting to both parties involved. The giver is uplifted by the knowledge that he is directly helping someone in need and can see the positive benefits to that individual. But more importantly the recipient is directly helped in his life, not just financially, but by the guidance of a positive role model that has likely been lacking. And the humility that is necessitated by the act of receiving charity is a crucial motivator as well. Both of these human interactions are destroyed when the government steps in, and to the detriment of both parties. And it also tramples on the individual liberty of the person being taxed to provide for the welfare of the other.

After decades of the collective approach in the U.S. we’ve seen the development of a consistent underclass of people who are utterly dependent on the government for their existence. Regardless of their financial condition they are too often devoid of the human characteristics that bond all of civilized humanity. There is rampant violent and property crime, a complete breakdown of family, no regard for education or intellectual pursuits, and worst of all a seething animosity for those who live outside of this government plantation. True human happiness and fulfillment comes from achievement. And that is not possible in a collectivist society.

So this oddly leads me to conclude that my political philosophy is quite similar to that of the collectivists. I believe that what I believe in is what’s best for people. Just like those who believe that trans-fats are bad and should therefore be banned, I believe that individual liberty is what makes the human spirit soar and people prosper, and should therefore be promoted. The difference is I suppose; my philosophy doesn’t require the enslavement of anyone else to accomplish my goals. I can live with that.

1 comment:

Matt Shellenbarger said...

So when are you going to write a book? Cause I wouold definitely like to read it (and possibly get a personalized copy).