As I began to discuss in the third installment in my series on “Political Fundamentalism”, “Liberty Idolatry,” the notion of individual liberty divorced from recognition of social interdependence just makes no sense. We are all aware of the most dramatic limitations on individual liberty in service to mutual responsibility: Laws against violence and predation. We are not free to act in ways which hurt others for our own benefit. Everyone understands, implicitly, that that is the limiting factor in defining individual liberty: One’s freedom ends where another’s rights begin.
We each have the right not to be assaulted, robbed, defrauded, or otherwise victimized, though there can certainly be legitimate debate over how far the law should reach to protect each from the victimization of others (few, for instance, would recommend criminalizing being a dishonest and self-serving “friend,” and the gray area between that which obviously should be legally prohibited and that which obviously should not be is bound to be contested terrain).
But, while most would agree that poisoning someone else is not an ambiguous instance of when my liberty to poison ends at the point where your right not to be poisoned begins, many can’t even contemplate the possibility that poisoning the air or water with toxic wastes might fall into a similar category, and that governmental regulations preventing it might be as necessary and appropriate as governmental enforcement of the law against poisoning less incidentally.
My point is not to argue that there is no difference between the two: Some relevant considerations are how harmful to others something is, how much an action harmful to others is also helpful to others, and how much something harmful to others is a traditionally acceptable practice embedded in our social norms and customs. But all acts that are harmful to others fall on the continuum defined by these variables, and all must be subjected to an analysis weighing them in a well-reasoned manner. And that is exactly what our regulatory agencies do, in a very well-developed procedure that explicitly considers all of these dimensions, and involves both experts and the affected public in the process.
It should be obvious that the need to balance the liberties of each against the rights of others permeates our social institutional landscape. One can argue whether it is enough to inform consumers of unhealthy or dangerous ingredients or parts in consumer goods, and that to fail to do so should be criminal in the same way that other intentional or reckless inflictions of harm are. But none can argue that that is sufficient for by-products of commercial or private activities which adversely affect others who are not willing participants (such as consumers of given products are). The demands imposed by our interdependence simply cannot be denied.
There are many gray areas to be discussed and explored: At what point does your right to smoke infringe on my right to breathe unpolluted air? At what point does your right to engage in unhealthy and dangerous activities infringe on my right not to have to bear the public costs (e.g., higher insurance premiums for those who do not engage in those activities, and higher tax burdens to pay for the emergency services sometimes involved)? Defining where one’s liberty ends and another’s rights begin is an information intensive, case-by-case requirement of good governance, and one which cannot simply be ideologized away.
This is just one of the many ways in which the Small Government Idolatry of the political fundamentalists is untenable: We need as much government as we need to address the challenges that government has to address. Doing so with complete consideration of all relevant concerns does not mean imposing one and only one imperative on government (that it be shrunk), but rather weighing all concerns in a complete c0st-benefit analysis, on a case-by-case and comprehensive basis. The concerns expressed by Tea Party fundamentalists are not irrelevant; they simply aren’t the only relevant concerns, nor the only relevant considerations. Often, ironically, they even lead to a government that is both more expensive and less functional (avoiding proactive services that both increase human welfare and reduce more crushing reactive costs).
Perhaps the best way to conceptualize how to balance all relevant considerations is captured in John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”, since a fully-informed and rational decision about what social institutions and policies would be optimal from a position of not knowing one’s own location in the social firmament (including not knowing whether one would be alive today or in the future) would include consideration of both the value of personal liberty and the value of being protected from the harmful effects of others’ exercise of their personal liberty. It would also include considerations of economic consequences, including a balancing of efficiency, fairness, and sustainability. Public policy subjected to the tyranny of a single fixation is harmful and destructive; public policy which balances competing values and concerns is healthy and rational.
Debates over where to draw the line are necessary and useful; debates over whether to draw the line are absurd and dysfunctional. Those political fundamentalists who fight tooth and nail to impose an absolutist, unbalanced notion of “liberty” on the rest of us are not contributing to a healthy public dialogue over how best to govern ourselves, but are rather arguing outside the bounds of reason, trying to advance the cause of harmful irrationality.