How Much Freedom Is Too Much Freedom

I recently had a new house built for myself, and that process likely helped cement my political theory in place.

I call myself conservative, but I’m probably more of a libertarian (although libertarians are the new conservatives and conservatives are the new libertarians these days, it seems). Like most simplistic ideas, it doesn’t play out well in complicated reality, but my theory of government is that laws should exist only to protect our freedoms, but one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. In general, I think the government can insist that we don’t do certain things (because those things affect others); not force us to do things. (I think we can be forced to pay taxes because the government can insist that we don’t steal from anyone else, and if we accept services from the government, we should pay for them, or it’s theft. To those who want to opt out of public highways and emergency services and all governance entirely and go live on their own in the wilderness, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just spouting my general theory, not covering all the bases.)

Put another way, I think the basic duty of law is to keep one person from harming another person. Not to keep the person from harming him or herself. Harming oneself should fall under the jurisdiction of the right to do what you want to with your own person and property. Or freedom.

Like I say, this doesn’t play out well in complicated reality. How many lives have seatbelts saved since they became mandatory? I’m trying to make a point here, not conduct a study into it, so let’s just say, “Lots.” Do I think we would all wear our seatbelts like good little girls and boys, just because we’re convinced that seatbelts save lives and not because we don’t want to hand over hard-earned money to our government overlords? Nope! I know human nature. A few of us would buckle up every time we got in the car just because we’re funny like that, but a lot wouldn’t. We tend to see the threat of the copper on the corner as a more real and imminent danger than the unexpected car crash. And true, the first is statistically more probable. But the copper on the corner that inspires us to be in the habit of pulling on the seatbelt every time we get into a car has likely saved countless lives.

What about decriminalizing drug possession? Under my political theory, sale and production of drugs would still be criminalized because these actions affect others, but possession would have to be decriminalized to stay true to my theory. If I’m the only one I’m directly harming with my (hypothetical) illegal drug use, it shouldn’t be illegal (according to a hard libertarian stance). In reality, I think decriminalization of possession is probably a really bad idea and would end in more homelessness and crime and violence and overdoses and all else that drugs bring in their wake. There is the argument to be made that keeping possession illegal doesn’t seem to be working anyway, but like the seatbelt thing, I can’t help but think that the fear of legal penalty may discourage some from the behaviour (maybe not many. But some. Decriminalization would help erase the stigma and lead to greater mainstream normalization, I think).

So seatbelt laws and possession laws are probably not laws that I’m ever going to protest and petition to have changed. They may rub up against my political theory, but, meh! I feel like this level of overregulation I can probably live with.

The overregualtion has to stop somewhere, however. When will we, the overegulated and overruled, finally start putting down our collective foot? We here in Canada (and probably all around the western world) are far, far past the place where it should have stopped. As I mentioned, my recent house-building excursion reminded me painfully of this truth I already knew all too well.

Again, in real life these things are complicated, and even according to my libertarian political theory, some oversight by some house-building regulatory body is a good idea. How I build my house would only affect me if I were ever the only one to live in it. But houses last longer than people (at least, they’re supposed to), and the oversight of building inspections is meant not only to protect the first owner but all the subsequent owners who can’t see inside the walls to know what went on in the building process. I take issue with the government’s overreach in the first instance but call it sensible precaution in the second. I don’t need the government to protect me from myself. That’s my own business. I should be able to live in a cardboard box if that’s what I choose to do (and some do as their indirect choice). But fair enough! The next person to buy my home after me shouldn’t be hurt by any bad decisions I made while building. The government exists to protect us from each other, and so building inspections are a legitimate part of the government’s role. But anyone who has ever embarked on building a new house (or just getting through life in Canada) will know how far beyond its legitimate role the government has stepped. When I had to buy a much more expensive bathroom fan because the cheaper model didn’t conform to noise regulations, I did have a little snarl at the building inspector over it. I know he’s just doing his job, but if enough of us complain at him, maybe he’ll start complaining to the guy above him, and if that guy gets enough complaints, maybe it will keep working its way up the chain of command until sanity one day prevails. All I know is that our thus-far sheep-like acceptance of our fates has created this monster.

It’s not any of the government’s business how loud my bathroom fan is. If someone thinking of buying my house after me has a real issue with the volume of bathroom fans, there’s a simple solution: they can flip the switch on the bathroom fan while touring my house and reject the house for its noisy bathroom fan. It’s not hidden in the walls. It’s out in plain sight. The future buyer needs no protection from me as regards my bathroom fan. It’s not an area the goverment needs to regulate.

I won’t fight with the government over seatbelts and drug possession, but bathroom fans is a bridge too far!

There is another issue I’ll happily protest and petition, one a little more important than bathroom fans, I think. It’s another one of those real-life complications to which there are two sides. Traditionally, I’ve really only been able to see the one side and have imputed bad motives to those on the other side, but my libertarian leanings have me seeing the complications. My mind hasn’t changed on the issue itself, but maybe I have a more balanced picture of those on the other side. I’m talking about abortion.

I always thought that the debate was entirely about whether or not an unborn baby is a human life and that the case was incredibly clear. Because the science is unflinching in telling us that the unborn human baby is certainly alive (unless it’s dead) and that it is certainly human (does it magically change species at some point in gestation?), I couldn’t understand how the pro-abortion side had any leg to stand on whatsoever.

I believe the case would be clear were it not for one major biological complication. I can’t imagine that any of us would seek to justify the taking of innocent human life for the sake of convenience were it not for this one thing. The complication, of course, is that the innocent human life begins inside the body of another human being. And this is often very, very inconvenient for the host human being.

According to my theory, good law exists to protect our freedoms, but one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Whose side do we take in this debate? The baby’s who didn’t ask to be conceived but was anyway, or the unwilling mother’s whose body has been invaded by an unwitting intruder she doesn’t want? Is the baby’s freedom being curtailed by its mother by being killed, or is the mother’s freedom being curtailed by the baby by having her body invaded? Whose freedom in this situation should trump the other’s?

Because I had always seen the protection of innocent life as the first duty of government whose first basic duty is to keep us from doing harm to each other by punishing us for it, I thought it was an easy one. I thought (and still think) that life outweighs convenience, however great the inconvenience may be. It may be very, very inconvenient to be forced to carry a baby for nine months inside your body and then expel it in an unspeakable manner. But the life of a child should outweigh any amount of inconvenience, I’ve always thought.

And I still do. I’m beginning, however, to see the case for the extreme libertarian principle which believes that the government forcing us to do things is not the government’s role which is why abortion should be legal because a woman shouldn’t be forced against her will to host another human being for nine months (whether or not she was complicit in the behaviour that put the other human being inside her body in the first place), but this is a tricky complication that nature (or God. Depending) has handed us.  This is the way human life begins. Unavoidably.

When I really stop and think about it, I can’t quite stick to my, “The government can insist on our not doing things; it shouldn’t force us to do things,” rule. In fact, there are all sorts of things we’re forced by law to do that I think are more justifiable than seatbelt and drug possession and bathroom fan laws. Entirely necessary forcings, in fact. Once a child is born, the one who has assumed responsibility for its care must care for it. However great the inconvenience, a child must be fed, clothed, housed, diapered, cleaned, not left alone in the house, etc. Surely, if we were all to embrace strict libertarian views, we would protest this government overreach. Yet no one does. In that case, I’m not sure why it’s legal to kill a child for the sake of convenience before it’s born but illegal to neglect it for the sake of convenience after birth.

At the very least, those who support abortion on libertarian “My body, my choice,” grounds should by rights first take on seatbelt, drug possession, and bathroom fan laws. I think these are far less justifiable government intrusions into our lives and our privacy and our choices. I can’t be bothered to fight them because I find a strict libertarian political principle isn’t entirely liveable or practicable and because there are bigger fights I would rather put my energy into. I, for one, would be all for a return to the government having just enough jurisdiction over a woman’s body to say that a human life inside of it must be protected. I still maintain that this is government’s first and most basic duty: to protect our rights and freedoms by keeping us from trampling on others’ rights and freedoms. And surely, life is the most basic right and freedom there is.

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