Heroes and Lunatics

September 22nd, 2010 - by Quincy

The world is full of people with strange ideas. But despite society’s present obsession with diversity in race, socioeconomic background, gender, and sexual orientation in schools and workplaces—all of which are, at best, merely superficial signs of diversity—the modern state will not tolerate diversity in more fundamental areas, such as values. This is particularly evident in decisions concerning one’s life or the life of one’s children. In my previous post I wrote about laws which force parents to administer a medical test to their infant children. Advocates of these laws insist that the child’s life and health are of paramount value, and other considerations—including parental rights, moral beliefs, and individual liberty—must yield.

Our culture and history are full of stories about individuals who chose to value something more than life. Here are a few examples; I’m sure you can think of many more. Patrick Henry famously exclaimed, “give me liberty or give me death.” Christians, Jews, and Muslims all honor Abraham for valuing obedience to God more than his son’s life. Romantics treasure the story of Romeo and Juliette for valuing love over life. Even the academics have Socrates who insisted that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato, Apology. When these individuals are safely pinched into stories and songs, society honors them as heroes, patriots, prophets, and so on. But when society deals with such diverse people in real life, it is much more inclined to label them as lunatics, fanatics, or simply ignorant, and to try to force them to conform their ideas and behavior to that of the majority.

Squelching diversity of values is one prerequisite for any utilitarian or economic analysis of the law. For example, in the recent healthcare debate, the contested issue became cost. Pundits and politicians focused on whether socialized health insurance would cost more or less than the current system. The President and his allies argued strenuously that they would control costs by appointing independent commissions and cutting spending in other programs. Opponents argued that this was not true. There was little said about anything else. Other values, such as property rights and freedom to choose the type and amount of healthcare, took second seat. This is a familiar maneuver: assume without discussion that one value takes priority over all others and then discuss the best way to promote that value. The deception here is that deciding which value to prioritize is often the most important and controversial issue at stake. It merits careful discussion and debate. Liberty, life, love, obedience, spirituality, individuality, human dignity, property; which should take priority, and who should decide? Anyone who values human equality must admit that this is an individual decision.

Liberty is the only value that the state can adopt and promote that will permit each individual to order her values as she chooses. Robert Nozick recognized this simple truth in his work Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

[P]eople are different. They differ in temperament, interests, intellectual ability, aspirations, natural bent, spiritual quests, and the kind of life they wish to lead. They diverge in values they have and have different weightings for the values they share. (They wish to live in different climates—some in mountains, plains, deserts, seashores, cities, towns.) There is no reason to think that there is one community which will serve as ideal for all people and much reason to think there is not. … Utopian authors, each very confident of the virtues of his own vision of its singular correctness, have differed among themselves (no less than the people listed above differ) in the institutions and kinds of life they present for emulation. … The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others.

310-312 (1977). Despite its plain appeal, statists on both the left and the right resist real freedom because it would mean giving up the power they have usurped. Republicans want to control moral behavior and foreign affairs, while Democrats wish to usurp individual property rights and control citizens’ day-to-day living conditions. Both parties openly and subtly try to control the thoughts and speech of citizens through public education, campaign finance laws, and penalizing unpopular behavior.

Undoubtedly there is a fixed right and wrong. Truth is not relative. But if history and ethics have taught us anything, it is that people cannot be driven to the truth by threats and force. The use of force to suppress an idea—whether right or wrong—will only strengthen its power in the mind of its followers and spark curiosity in undecided onlookers. Conversely, the use of force to promote an idea will ultimately weaken it because it is a tacit admission that the idea cannot stand on its own merits. Teach, persuade, and reason, but don’t threaten or force people to support ideas or programs that you think are right—whether through coerced taxation or police enforcement or otherwise.

Ultimately, we each get to pick our own heroes and lunatics, and we’ll probably disagree a lot. But that should remain an individual judgment, not a judgment of the state.

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