Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Subjectivity, Choice and Individual Liberty

Everywhere one looks in life, one is presented with choices. Individuals are naturally capable of voluntarily making a variety of choices through free will and these choices can yield both "good" and "evil" results. One can freely choose to act, not act, aggress and not aggress. In this sense, while mankind is certainly not naturally "good" or naturally "evil", human beings could be considered to be naturally "free" in terms of will and choice. It is important to establish that the choices that individuals make are inherently subjective, regardless of what is considered "right" and "wrong", "informed" and "uninformed" or "beneficial" and "detrimental". The individual's perception may be based on things such as their upbringing, personal attributes, experience, cultural norms, or the media. In either case, the individual's choices are based on subjective value judgments, regardless of whether or not those judgments are based on knowledge or experience. All choices are speculations, regardless of what they are based on.

Each individual makes a choice because they perceive the consequences of that choice to be beneficial to them, otherwise they would not have made the choice. In the case of a choice in an exchange, such as Murray Rothbard's classic example of me buying a newspaper on the street corner for a dime, I perceive the benefits of owning the newspaper as exceeding or at least being equal to the cost of giving up the dime, and the news dealer perceives the benefits of owning the dime as exceeding or at least being equal to the cost of giving up the newspaper. A more personal example would be one's personal lifestyle choice to eat meat; the individual perceives meat to be beneficial to them in some way. Regardless of whether or not the person is correct, the principle of choice is the same.

One may contend that while such an exchange or a personal choice is voluntary, it may in reality have consequences that harm or do not benefit the individual. This may be the case in certain circumstances, but human nature also applies. If someone makes an unwise choice, they have the option to continue making it, stop making it and/or find another choice. A person that learns from experience will most likely stop making that choice and find a different one. A person that does not learn from experience will most likely continue making the same choice, while on the other hand some people will continue making the same choice even when they know from experience that it is harmful to them; which gets into the realm of people choosing to harm themselves, which will be discussed later.

To develop a sound theory of freedom of choice, it is of utmost importance to address it in terms of the individual and maintain a value-free outlook in terms of the choices and perceived consequences. Only individuals choose, act and think - and the diversity between people will inherently therefore make individual choice, action and thought subjective. Such an approach helps to avoid unnecessary or counterproductive utilitarianism. The only fundamental ethical principle to abide by is non-aggression - everyone has a natural right as an individual to voluntarily make choices under the condition that they do not initiate force or coercion against others or deny the ability of others to voluntarily make choices. The two only instances in which using force or coercion is legitimate is either in self-defense when one is being aggressed against or defense of others that are being aggressed against. From this simple principle spirals out an entire system of ethics and application for a plethora of issues.

If each individual has an inherent right to choose as they please without harming others, then this means that they must be free from aggression and coercion. For example, if I beat you over the head or steal your wallet - I am violating your rights through force. You or a helpful onlooker or a police officer could legitimately make the choice to use force to resist the violation of my rights. The principle must equally be applied to the state as it would be to the individual. Too often, a double standard is used. The individual must also be free from aggression and coercion of the state. The state has no legitimate "right" to physically harm me or steal from me, it is not on a higher plane morally then the individual criminal who beats me over the head or steals my wallet. There is good reason to be particularly wary of the state in this respect, for it is the institution in society with a monopoly on the use of force. Furthermore, if it is the state that is aggressing against the individual, the individual is pretty much powerless to resist it or institute justice, for their only choice is to turn to one's own aggressor. From this it is easily concluded that the state poses a great, if not the greatest risk to the individual and their right to voluntarily make choices.

There are two basic methods in which the state can use to violate the individual's free choice: (1) prohibition on a particular product or action/behavior and (2) a coerced exchange or choice. The option of prohibition or abolition is only ethically acceptable if the choice in question involves aggressing against others, such as clear cut cases like murder or rape. The option of a coerced exchange or choice completely violates the non-aggression principle. Often, laws are enacted to make prohibitions or coerced exchanges on matters in which no one is aggressing against others. Often, the reasoning given for such laws is that the particular choices may cause the individual to harm themselves, and therefore the law must protect them by taking away their choice to do so. This notion is absolutely incorrect. People still have a right to voluntarily choose to do things that harm themselves or pose such risk, such as smoke, drink, drive, gamble, eat, etc. Life is full of risky choices and everyone chooses a lifestyle based on those risks and probabilities. It may seem stupid or unfortunate, but people have a right to be stupid or to be gluttons - people have a right to make unwise choices as much as they may make wise choices. It is not the legitimate function of law to "protect people from themselves", and such a notion is also an absurdity and often not enforceable. Pre-emption is practically impossible.

If I were to gamble at the slot machines in Nevada, I am taking a risk that could cause me to lose a lot or all of my money. But I may still voluntarily make the choice to gamble because I perceive the benefits to outweigh the risk. It is both a free choice and a mistake if I lose my money. It technically was a mistake for me to use the slot machines, but that is only because the probabilities were against me. The potential for me to lose my money does not function as a legitimate reason to prohibit gambling. If one were to buy drugs on the street corner and hurt oneself physically and mentally doing the drugs, this does not function as a legitimate reason to prohibit drugs. If I get into a car and end up in an accident, this does not function as a legitimate reason to prohibit cars. If give myself health problems by eating too much fatty and greasy meat products, this does not function as a legitimate reason to prohibit meat. If I engage in sexual activity with a prostitute I have the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease, but this does not function as a legitimate reason to prohibit prostitution.

Notice that in each case, whether that be gambling or drugs or prostitution, the consequences of my voluntarily actions functions as a natural "punishment". And in each case, no one is aggressing against anyone else, yet the state's reaction is to aggress against them at the threat of the bayonet. Furthermore, by taking away the ability to choose, one takes away the capability of genuine morality in the first place. Prohibition on such things does absolutely nothing to curb the demand for the good or service, but it certainly violates the freedom of the individual. It is inherent in all prohibitions that you can only reduce the supply, while the demand is stagnant or increasing. The inevitable results of this is an inflated black market in the particular service or product, which often functions as an incentive for real crime for buyers, sellers and users alike.

A coerced exchange or coerced behavior can come in various forms. Fundamentally, the most obvious coerced exchange is taxation itself, because taxation is inherently not a voluntary exchange, it is done under the threat of the bayonet. Taxation should be held to the exact same ethical standard as theft, and in doing so it is clear that it is theft. There is no double standard between an individual, group and state doing the same thing: using force or coercion to obtain someone else's property. Inevitably, this presents an ethical problem with taxation. There are two basic conclusions one may draw from that (1) that taxation should at least be minimized or (2) that taxation should be abolished. There are many other and some somewhat less obvious examples of a coerced exchange or behavior. Wage and price controls is coerced exchanges between employers, employees and consumers. Censorship and general FCC control of radio and television is coerced speech. The draft and criminalization of "desertion" is coerced employment and murder. Corporate welfare is a coerced exchange of wealth from the middle class to the state and allied rich special interests. State-wide smoking bans is coerced social behavior. "Click it or Ticket" laws fine people for not wearing their safety belts. In urban areas, one may be fined by the city government for growing one's lawn above a certain height. Even mandatory local jury service, randomly chosen, is coerced social behavior. It is important to realize that all such things are done through coercion, under the threat of force, at the point of a gun, and some of them function as special tax on certain choices and behaviors.

Very often the reasoning given for such laws and interventions is that the majority's opinion is supreme, that public opinion or the "public good" trumps the individual. First, the "public good" must be established as fictitious, because the diversity of individuals inherently means that they have varying needs and subjective wants, which means that one person's "good" may be another person's nightmare. Secondly, it must be established that majority opinion does not equal moral correctness, it does not trump the rights of the individual. The amount of people aggressing against others does not stop the aggression from being wrong, it doesn't matter if it's 1 on 1, 10 on 2 or 5 million on 4 million. It would still be wrong for 51% of the populace to vote to murder and enslave the other 49%. If 80% of the population was Christian, it would not justify making Christianity mandatory or prohibiting other religions or non-religions. Mob rule can be just as tyrannical as a king or dictator. On the other hand, it also is not legitimate for a minority or oligarchy to impose their particular opinions onto the multitude.

No one has a "right" to impose a particular worldview or lifestyle onto others. Rights belong equally to individuals - not groups. Everyone's value judgments are subjective to the individual, they do not necessarily apply to others and it is ethically wrong to force others to abide by them. I may personally be a complete pacifist, and I may have a right to be a pacifist, but I do not have a right to force you to be a pacifist. Uniform enforcement of a particular subjective viewpoint inherently is going to run contrary to the needs and wants of certain individuals that do not agree with or are not in accordance with that viewpoint, and sets up an environment where special interests are fighting over favor for their group. Each of us should be free as individuals to make choices. In short, no one has a right to enforce or limit the choices of others. That violates choice itself. It doesn't matter if the choice is informed or not, beneficial or not. In practice, the denial of such choice is a system in which certain groups get special privilege at the expense of others - either through mob rule, oligarchy or a strange combination of the two. Man is not meant to be in a cage. It should be clear that all such state intervention is based on the use of force in direct violation of the non-aggression principle. The state is the aggressor.

One may draw whatever conclusion that they please from this. Individuals that believe in individual liberty, especially libertarians, will by the very least conclude that the state must be minimized. Anarcho-capitalists will conclude that the state must be abolished. It all boils down to voluntary vs. coercive, and aggression vs. non-aggression. In any case, the non-aggression principle is vital to the goal of liberty and peace. As soon as it is abandoned, the door of tyranny opens. When people stop using the law for their personal opinions and social norms, and when people stop defining their freedom by the denial of freedom to others, the door to common sense and liberty opens. I can only hope.

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