I am politically and philosophically committed to the idea that the maximum of personal freedom consistent with other people’s rights to be free from physical violence and coercion is the absolute best way for human beings to organize themselves.
Every so often I encounter something that shakes me to my very core, and I’m tempted to wonder about this whole freedom thing.
That happened to me last Friday. I was stuck at a yield sign behind a young woman with a license plate holder that said (and I apologize in advance for the coarseness of this) “If you’re going to ride my ass, you can at least pull my hair.”
My transcription of that does not do it justice because I am not able to reproduce the subliterate way this was written. It was as if a 12-year-old, without a full set of fingers, had typed it on an old pixelated digital cell phone.
Did I mention this license plate holder was pink?
And this is where I started thinking about freedom.
Here it is, the individually owned, mass-produced automobile. The ultimate expression of technology. The ultimate expression of industrial capacity. The ultimate expression of human freedom of mobility. In every way, the ultimate expression of human progress down from the trees. Just this single machine expresses so many things about free market capitalism, about the progress of humanity when we are unleashed to be productive, about the very essence of human freedom.
All this, and this person used this monument to human achievement to say “If you’re going to ride my ass, you can at least pull my hair.” It is not so much the sentiment behind the words, which I have less of a problem with, than it is that this person used their personal freedom, the freedom granted by the freest, most productive civilization in the whole history of human existence, to announce this to the world on their automobile.
And then once you go down the rabbit hole of questioning freedom to make bad decisions, the first place you must go to is alcohol.
You know, I know far too many alcoholics. (I wonder if the number I know represents an accurate representation of the public as a whole, or its just the circles I travel in.) But I’m 34, so the alcoholics I know aren’t the young, fun kind who go to parties and who can-stop-any-time-they-want. I also don’t know the melodramatic poet novelist artists who drink because their tortured soul and their creativity demand it.
The kind of alcoholics I know are the ones who have clearly made poor life decisions. Life gave them lemons, and the sugar, and the pitcher and the lemonade production equipment, and they hocked it for beer money. They’re intelligent and thoughtful, or they were, but they’ve thrown away their gifts and instead are content to drink beer and play video games every night.
They were given the gifts of intelligence and creativity, but they never did anything with them. And if you point this terrible fact to them, they shrug their shoulders and say that they want it this way. They don’t do more. They don’t want more. They’re okay using their freedom to waste their lives and drink beer instead.
Alcohol is terrible. But what’s the alternative? Magic wands don’t exist.
Well, maybe we could ban it.
Except we tried that and it was a colossal failure.
At which point I come back around full circle and re-remember that while some people may use their freedom to make terrible decisions, in the aggregate, its better that people have the freedom to make choices for themselves than not, because more of them will make good decisions and will make more of their freedom and gifts rather than less. I remember that it’s the epitome of arrogant presumption to think I know what’s best for people. And that even if I could ban alcohol, if I could banish it from the Earth with a magic wand, there’s a high probability that those people would still waste their lives away. That it’s not the substance, it’s the person, and you can’t use force, the force of government, to make people make good choices. It must come from within the individual, singularly.
Which brings me to drugs. Some drugs are pretty terrible (although, generally not as terrible as the drug warriors would have you believe). People make bad choices and start using them and some of those people have bad outcomes.
The solution, for the better part of a century, has been for the government to take people’s freedom away, to protect people from doing harm to themselves with their freedom. Just like we tried with alcohol.
And just like with alcohol, it’s been a colossal failure. The folly of the War on Drugs is that it started with a false premise: Men need to be protected from freedom. To accept that premise, is to accept the premise that human freedom is fatally flawed. That without someone who knows better (government) coming in and limiting things, freedom won’t work.
But we know that is not the case. Time and time again, history has demonstrated that when men are set free, to peacefully deal with one another by mutual consent, that it produces the best results, not only in terms of material prosperity, but in terms of human happiness.
So while it may disgust me, I’ll accept the beer, I’ll accept the drugs, I’ll even accept the disgusting license plate holders, because I know that those people who squander or abuse their freedom are the minority, and that the vast, vast, vast majority will not abuse their freedom. With freedom we are better off.