Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Expanding Public Realm

Tibor R. Machan

Virtually every time someone promotes increasing the scope of government's involvement in our lives, the excuse is that the problem being tackled is a social or public type, not one of individuals. In some cases this is credible, as when a contagious disease surfaces. But in the cases now being dealt with by means of government intervention, such as smoking and even helping people to be happy, this is a phony excuse serving primarily to expand the reach of government into the life of everyone.

Both the Left and the Right resort to the tactic. When the Right advocates drug prohibition, the story goes that drug use spreads among people and is not the problem of individuals, nor can it be dealt with on an individual basis. Nearly all the victimless crimes, from prostitution to drug abuse, have been defended on the grounds that the conduct they involve spreads around the community and must be stopped in the name of protecting the community.

Of course, this is a plausible enough line in support of such laws because on and off people clearly take up vices because their neighbors engage in them. Bad conduct, as well as good, is often copied. It can be said of vices that they spread. But this is arguably a metaphor, not literally true. Choices are still the main determinants when people take up harmful drug use. The choices may not involve deliberation but they do involve intention, which is entirely sufficient for holding people responsible for what they do. (Just think of how criminal negligence rests on the presence of intention!)

The Left, in turn, invokes the collectivist ploy by claiming that other vices, such as greed and racism are fostered by way of peer pressure. Theorists of human conduct--they like to refer to it as behavior because that does not presuppose choice on the part of the agent--from both the Left and the Right effectively deny human volition when it comes to the kind of conduct they disapprove of and urge governments to ban. Since private conduct tends to be something both Left and Right accept as not government's business to meddle in, this theory of how the favorite vice spreads across the society is widely invoked by each.

Consider, also, how New York politicians and bureaucrats are now working to make smoking illegal even in wide open public parks, claiming that the smoke invades non-smokers' lungs even there. Never mind that non-smokers or anyone who wants to escape the smoke are very likely able to find a place free of it. But because sometimes the smoke travels to people who would rather avoid it, it is now a target for prohibition. It all becomes a matter of public policy which is the preferred way to organize society as these public administrators see it.

In a recent issue of The Sunday New York Times Magazine one article details how various benefits to people, such as being of a cheerful, happy disposition, can be enhanced by a process of osmosis, not by means of personal achievement and effort. Once gain, the idea is being reinforced that individual conduct is negligible in the shaping of one's life. Instead what works best is for groups to follow various practices. And from this it is but a skip and jump to the idea that such practices need to be imposed on people--if you want folks to be happy in their lives, make them get together with neighbors who enjoy themselves. That way, instead of by means of good personal judgment and conduct, happiness is spread around in the community. And how does that get accomplished? Well, naturally, by wise leadership, by instituting the Nanny State. (Books advocating "making people moral" and "making them just" have been produced over the decades by various academics--e.g., by Princeton University Professor Robert P. George and Notre Dame Professor James P. Sterba--who champion this kind of engineered society.)

As I noted earlier, of course osmosis can give support to people's well being and even happiness but could that be sufficient? And would appointing various wise leaders to engineer such an outcome not rob citizens of their sovereignty, their self-government? Of course it would but in the name of such projected consequences, why should one object?

More sensible is the idea that happiness, health and other good things come one's way by means of sound judgment and conduct and the role of osmosis is derivative, not primary. But this idea does not support the kind of petty tyrannies both the Left and the Right believe in.

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