Archive for the ‘Paternalism’ Category

Law as value signal

December 4, 2011

The government prevents people from engaging in activities even when they do not violate others’ rights. A few examples are drugs, prostitution, gay marriage, kidney-selling and gambling.

Notice that nearly all governments in the world have such paternalistic policies. Notice that nearly all such governments allow emigration to other countries that do not ban drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc. That leaves us with a mystery to solve. Why would the government allow people to leave the country if doing so allowed them to engage in all these sinful activities?

You might say that preventing emigration would be too intrusive into the person’s life. But the government is already intruding into their lives by putting them in jail for doing some of these activities (namely drugs), so it’s hard to believe that it’s freedom we’re worried about.

I suspect that the motivation behind these laws is not a desire to help people but rather a desire to signal the society’s values. If an American wants to use drugs in Amsterdam, that doesn’t bother us so much since we’re not really worried about the drug user but the shame the drug user brings on the rest of us. To legalize drugs, prostitution or gay marriage here would signal that our society approves of such behavior, and we don’t want to think that about our society, and especially ourselves.

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Lemonade stands shutdown during RAGBRAI

August 3, 2011

Coralville Police shutdown several children’s lemonade stands.

Bobbie Nelson said she laughed when a police officer told her that a permit to sell lemonade would cost $400.

And here’s the kicker:

“It was never our intent to shut down kid’s lemonade stands,” [Councilor Mitch] Gross said. “We never really thought about it.”

Behold the awesome unintended consequences of law.

Marriage and democracy

May 1, 2010

The Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the state one year ago last month. At the time, state legislatures talked about passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling, which would have to be approved by popular vote. Despite calls from opponents of the ruling to put the issue on the ballot, the 2010 legislative session came and went without any action from the Legislature.

What began as a debate about marriage has become a debate about democracy. I think that’s a good thing, because the concept of majority rule is so ingrained in everyone’s political philosophy that it is rarely questioned. You often hear people repeat Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” It may be true that democracy is the best form of government, but voting is not the only way to make decisions.

Think about all the decisions you make in your life. You decide what groceries to buy at the grocery store. You decide what car to drive and what house to live in. All of those decisions are made by you. I don’t have any control over you when it comes to those decisions. No matter how much I want you to drive a Honda, I can’t force you to buy a car you don’t want. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person in the world who wants to drive a Pinto, you have the freedom to own one.

When we stop to examine our own lives, we see that most of our decisions are individual choices and do not necessarily reflect the will of our neighbors. And thank the good Lord for that! A person knows his own tastes and his own circumstances better than anyone else, so it makes sense for him to be the one to make decisions that affect him. There is no reason to give other people power over his decision if they have no stake in the matter.

We could easily imagine a world in which more decisions are made by majority vote instead of individual choice. Instead of allowing each person to purchase the car of his choice, each person could vote on the model he likes best, and then we all have to buy the model that won the most votes. I think most people can see that this would not be an improvement over the current state of affairs, even though in some sense it would be more “democratic.”

That brings us to the issue of marriage contracts. Under the present Iowa law, any two people can enter into a marriage contract. The decision to enter into a contract is left to the individual and is not subject to majority veto. The opponents of gay marriage are now arguing that contracts between adults should be a group decision. But if it is good to allow each person to select the car of his choosing, on the theory that he knows what’s best for him, I don’t see why selecting a marriage partner would be any different. In both instances, the decision affects only the people involved in the transaction, and those people have a better idea of what is best for them than anyone else.

The current law allows each individual to get what they want. Heterosexuals can marry other heterosexuals, which is what they want, and gays and lesbians can marry other gays and lesbians, which is what they want. How can you improve upon that?

A bar exam to become an adult

July 18, 2009

There are many laws that prohibit minors from engaging in certain behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, marrying, etc.

Most of the arguments I’ve heard on these issues rely on the notion that the lawmakers have a better idea of what is good for a child than the child itself. I reckon the lawmakers think this because children, as a general rule, are less educated than adults about the behaviors in question. The average minor may not know the effects of smoking as well as the average adult, and therefore be in a bad position to determine if smoking is a good idea.

The problem I see with this is that age is only a very rough approximation of intelligence. In the case of smoking, it could very well be the case that owing to the barrage of anti-smoking information children are given they may have more knowledge of its harmful effects than most adults who never received that education or have long since forgotten it.

A solution I’d like to see implemented is to offer minors a test whereby they could prove they had ample knowledge of smoking, or alcohol (or whatever else is prohibited) to be able to engage in those behaviors prior to their 18th birthday (or 21st).

Take whatever information adults are assumed to possess about these subjects and then create a multiple choice exam to see if there are minors who possess this information as well. If so, those minors would be given the same freedom as adults.

A possible counterargument might be that some of those prohibitions have to do with physical aspects of the minor and not their capacity to make good decisions. Commenting on the effect alcohol has on adolescents, Dr. Linda Patia Spear remarked, “Rapidly changing body systems often are particularly vulnerable to disruption, and hence long-term consequences may result from alcohol exposure during this time of accelerated neural and endocrine system maturation.”

While convincing, I’m left wondering if the government should not also make laws that limit the alcohol-intake of adult alcoholics who are in danger of liver failure and other alcohol induced problems. I don’t see why the government should take pains to prevent minors from drinking even an ounce but turn a blind eye to adults who drink themselves to death.