Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Costs of Freedom

[Note - I am swamped with work. In the interim, a Best of Bob reposting of something I wrote last year...99% of you haven't read it before anyway. It's new to you!]

Is it acceptable for Christian Scientists (for example) to deny their children life-giving medications?

I think it is. We don't force Amish people to have telephones to summon LifeFlight helicopters, and people die as a result of that, including children. Is that reasonable of the Amish?

I would argue it is. The Amish have decided to live a certain way, a way that happens to foreclose using certain kinds of technology. That way of life is different than the choices that other people would make. However, our freedom to choose is predicated on extending that right to other people. Christian Scientists have also decided to live in a certain way, a way that forecloses certain other kinds of technology.

A reasonable interlocutor might ask, "what if you have a religion that prescribes some objectionable behavior, like beating your child with ropes every day?" Should the government ban that kind of thing? I think it should. Is this a contradiction? No. Here's why:

Prohibiting certain actions may infringe on people's rights, which is sometimes necessary for the state to do. It is a big leap from prohibiting negative actions to compelling positive ones. Prohibiting actions is authoritarian; compelling actions is totalitarian. I prefer not to have either, but I recognize that authoritarianism is sometimes required of the state. Civil order is not maintained by state actors making polite requests.

I think part of the intellectual discomfort many of us have with allowing people the freedom to choose their own actions when we know those actions will have bad consequences comes from the visible and discrete nature of the suffering. If a Christian Scientists denies her son penicillin and he dies, we see that right away. We say "this act led to this death; I object!"

But, for example, millions of parents underemphasize the importance of good nutrition to their children, and as a result, there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of premature deaths later in life. People are acting irresponsibly and there is a terrible toll, but it isn't obviously the result of the irresponsibility; it's distant in time and space. We might get irked when we see a mother giving her baby Froot Loops instead of fruit, but we don't say "she should be compelled to act the way I think sensible and proper!"

Indeed, if George Bush were to come out and say that the Federal government was planning to compel all parents to give their children fresh fruit each day, and teach them a certain set of defensive driving techniques, and make them brush their teeth twice daily, and exercise for thirty minutes every afternoon, I imagine that many people who object to Christian Scientists' medical beliefs would think it the biggest fascist plot since Iran-Contra.

And yet, the sufferering and death caused by bad parenting in the areas of nutrition, safety, hygiene and exercise is at least a thousandfold greater than the suffering and death caused by the occasional religious nut who doesn't approve of sulfa drugs. It's just that the religious nut is a little more obvious and a little more direct in their bad effect.

Freedom is not a costless good. Letting people run their own lives means that quite often they will do a bad job of it. That's something that libertarians, and liberal societies in general, just have to accept as part of the cost of doing business.


flint cordoroy said...

Christian Scientists are actually good. Letting people with serious diseases die lowers the health insurance premiums of most people, most of whom won't have a serious illness.

mythago said...

You haven't read Employment Division v. Smith, right?

Either way, note that your analogy is somewhat sloppy--your Amish example is further removed (telephone, with multiple uses, can call LifeFlight) than refusing medication. By the way, the Amish DO have telephones. Just not in their houses.