Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Liberty and Hard Cases

Tibor R. Machan

One book I edited has the same title as this column and focuses mainly on how a free society would cope with disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. When the nature of a just society is discussed, those who defend big government solutions to problems tend to start with orphaned children and catastrophes, claiming that only by means of massive government intervention can a society cope. But then, of course, it becomes evident that big government advocates—actually, advocates of governments with extensive scope, way beyond the task of securing the rights of the citizenry—don’t stop with the dire cases. Instead they move on to advocate government intervention into every nook and cranny of people’s lives. The tendency is toward totalitarianism, with just a few exceptions such as freedom for the press and for people religious choices. Everything else, however, seems to require government meddling, just as was believed in the thousands of years when monarchies ruled virtually everywhere because the king was thought to be God’s representative on earth.

Starting with disasters has considerable emotional advantage for statists. People are rarely as frightened as when they contemplate the prospect of facing natural calamities. (The fire that came close to destroying the canyon in which I have my small house punctuated this for me.) Only diseases like cancer or sudden heart attacks scare most folks as much. And in a state of panic one is less likely to be rational, to assess things calmly, carefully, in a principled way. It was William Pitt who warned—in 1783—that “Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves.”

So, even dire emergencies are no excuses for forcing people into service to one another. Their lives belong to them and no one may conscript them to provide involuntary service! Especially when the proper course to take so as to reduce the damage from natural calamities is so near at hand. This is private insurance and the related industries that would develop in the absence of the state’s promise of bailing people out. Yes, getting used to not depending on government, the Nanny State, Uncle Sam, and monarchs of all kinds may be difficult and even difficult to imagine for those who lack confidence in the capacity of human beings to abide by the rules of civilized society. Yet, as with all great goals that are difficult to achieve, it is worth aiming for.

Just as in time people learned to do without serfdom and slavery, they could similarly learn to do without subjugating their fellows in times of dire need, even severe emergencies. It may not be an idea whose time has been fully apprehended, gleaned, but it is one that is, nonetheless, imperative to aspire to for all human beings.

In most areas of human life we find people subverting principles of morality and justice but this is no excuse for giving up on those principles. In whenever those principles are subverted, excuses bubble up readily—from bank robbers and adulterers to child molesters and rapists. The strong urge to violate those principles is simply not excuse for failing to try to purge their violation from our lives.

All this needs to be considered when one approaches the issue of how people ought to cope with disasters, calamities, emergencies and other occasions that appear to necessitate the violation of unalienable human, individual rights. The idea of justice that requires respect for and protection of those rights may at times seem impossible to put into practice but that is merely a function of most people’s centuries old reliance on using other people against their will, without their consent.

A dedication to refusing to yield to such habits could very well bring to the fore a different era, one in which governments will be confined to their proper job, securing our rights, and we take up the various more or less trying tasks of coping with our lives, including in emergencies.

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