Free to be stupid

ARE WE FREE TO BE STUPID? OR IS IT STUPID TO BE FREE?

Most political arguments boil down to questions of freedom and of human rights. Sometimes debate results from a conflict of rights. For example, does an unborn baby possess the right to life, or does his or her right to life begin only after birth, when it no longer depends directly on the support of his or her mother? Does a woman’s right to freedom allow her to do whatever she wishes to her own body—even to the point of killing a child developing within her body—or is her freedom limited by her child’s right to life? People who have made up their minds about such issues are sometimes unable to see the reasonable thinking that supports the opposing position.

As American citizens, we have freedom of speech. But that freedom is restricted. We are not free, for example, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not free to threaten public leaders, or any person or group of people, with violence, or to call other people to attack them violently. Yet we are free to disagree with our leaders. We are free to contact them, to try to persuade them to exercise their authority in certain ways. We are free to support their political opponents and to try to persuade our fellow citizens to vote for those opponents. When support for a leader or a party is prohibited by law or attacked by powerful corporations that provide space for public statements, then democracy and freedom both suffer.

Part of the debate about freedom relates to the Social Contract. Citizens willingly limit their rights and freedoms to the government for the benefit of all citizens. The government builds roads, defines how the roads are to be used (speed limits and other traffic laws) and taxes the use of those roads (license fees, tolls, and fines for breaking the law, for example). Citizens use the roads. They might willingly break traffic laws. They might even avoid paying some of the required taxes. But, when those citizens are caught breaking the speed limit or driving with an expired license, the law punishes them with further fines and other penalties. We accept government control over the roads for the obvious benefit of safe and rapid transportation.

At some point, though, citizens begin to resist the restrictions made by their government, restrictions that are intended (at least on the surface) to benefit all citizens. People are required to wear seat belts and are fined if they are caught traveling unbuckled. This is supposed to protect those people and also to save the general public from sharing the medical costs of injuries to unbelted drivers and passengers when they suffer from a collision. Smoking tobacco is prohibited in many places, and taxes are placed on cigarettes to discourage smoking. Freedom to smoke is not entirely prohibited, but the government protects non-smoking citizens from second-hand smoke and, in general, uses its power and authority to discourage smoking.

How do issues of personal freedom and the Social Contract relate to the current virus crisis? For the good of all citizens, does any government (national, state, or local) have a right (or even a responsibility) to require all citizens to be vaccinated or to require all citizens to wear masks? Can these questions be answered by appealing to precedents set by the seatbelt debate or by the smoking debate? First, cigarettes can be taxed to discourage smoking, but no fair tax can be applied to people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID or refuse to wear masks. Second, rapid transportation by car is a right that can be regulated by the government, including license fees and speed limits and even the use of seatbelts, but people are free to walk or ride bicycles or use public transportation; they do not need to travel by car if they dislike the regulations about transportation by car. But a law requiring vaccination, or even a law requiring masks, reaches beyond personal privilege into choices that should involve individual freedom, choices that should not be coerced by government rules and regulations.

Ironically, the labels pro-life and pro-choice that, for more than a generation, have applied to sides in the abortion debate appear to have flipped in the mask and vaccination debate. Regarding abortion, the conservative position is called pro-life because it defends a baby’s right to life, even before that baby has been born. The liberal position is called pro-choice because it defends a woman’s right to do as she chooses to her own body, even while that body supports the growth and development of a child. But now the conservative position regarding masks and vaccines can be called pro-choice. Citizens can choose whether to wear a mask. They can choose whether to receive a vaccine. The opposing position calls itself pro-life. It claims that lives are being lost to the virus, lives that would be spared if everyone wore a mask and if everyone received the vaccine.

Science is used to support both sides in the abortion debate, the seatbelt debate, the cigarette debate, the mask debate, and the vaccine debate. Once the debate has ended (as is the case with seatbelts and cigarettes), people remember the science that supported the winning side and forget the science that supported the losing side. While debates continue, people remember and quote scientific facts and statistics and observations on both sides of the debate. Science is used to support either side; science does not end the debate and declare a winning side and a losing side.

Freedom to smoke cigarettes, or freedom to ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt, might be described by some people as “freedom to be stupid.” When a debate is not settled, though, either side might consider the position of the opponent to be “stupid.” If national and state and local governments passed laws prohibiting all the behavior that some people consider “stupid,” no judge or lawyer would be able to remember all those laws, and no police force would be capable of enforcing all those laws. Rules and regulations generally address the most important choices and decisions, leaving people free to make a lot of decisions on their own, even at the risk that some people—probably most or all people—will, from time to time, make a stupid decision.

Because it is entwined with politics on the highest levels, debate about the current virus crisis has become highly enflamed, with both sides regarding their opponents as stupid. Some claim that thousands (or even millions) of lives are at stake; others reply that the freedom of all citizens is at stake. Some citizens prefer to live with a government that exercises close control of personal decisions, minimizing risks and protecting all citizens from any preventable danger. Other citizens prefer to live with a government that protects freedom, regulating only behavior that is so dangerous that it can rightly be labeled “criminal.” Inevitably, elected leaders must seek and establish a compromise that protects freedom as much as possible while also reducing danger to citizens as much as possible.

Given the choice, I lean toward freedom. I do not trust the government to monitor my life and to protect me from all the stupid decisions I might make. While the virus crisis is not the best arena to shape a national debate about personal freedom and government control, it happens to be the arena in which we stand today. While we await compromises reached by our elected leaders, I continue to wave the banner of freedom. After all, I have been taught to think for myself. I have been taught to question authority. Watching movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Footloose and The Matrix—not to mention Star Wars and Blues Brothers and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—I have learned the important of remaining free, challenging the status quo, and defending my independence as a human being. That, my friends, is the battle we are fighting today. J.

Regulation

In a free market economy, governments regulate certain aspects of the economy for the good of consumers, of workers, and even of business owners. Although the motto of pure capitalism is laissez-faire—“leave it alone!”—even Adam Smith (the foremost proponent of capitalism) recognized that government regulation was needed for capitalism to succeed among imperfect people.

How do governments acquire the authority to regulate the economy—or, for that matter, to make any laws telling people how to live their lives? The many theories about government and the source of its authority can be sorted into three general categories: strong people seize authority and use their strength to tell others what to do, people give authority to the government to ensure safe and productive lives, or governmental authority comes from God and is given by God to those who rule.

These three theories can be combined. For example, some might believe that strong people seize authority and become rulers (“caudillos”) but that people allow that to happen and have the power to prevent a strong leader from arising or to transfer power from one strong leader to another. Likewise, some people (this author included) agree that government authority comes from God (as described in Romans 13:1-7) but that it is bestowed through the people; therefore, the people have a God-given right to overthrow one government and replace it with another when the first government is no longer using divine authority in a God-pleasing manner.

Under some theories, government must be strong so it can accomplish its purposes. Under other theories, government should be limited by the people so it does not rob them of their rights. One approach says that some problems are too big to be handled by anyone other than the government; another approach says that too much government is the biggest problem. Thomas Hobbes described government as a necessary evil, a monster that must be fed and maintained, but that also must be watched constantly and controlled to keep the monster from causing too much trouble and destruction.

So, governments make rules on behalf of their citizens. They inspect food and other products to be sure that they are safe and uncontaminated. They ensure that workplaces are safe and that workers are being treated fairly. They prohibit monopolies, trusts, and cartels, breaking apart businesses that otherwise could take advantage of customers and workers. They protect the air and land and water from pollution. They zone some areas for industry, some for sales, some for homes and neighborhoods, and some for parks and natural preserves.

All these regulations are part of the social contract, an agreement between the people and the government. The government claims strips of land from landowners, develops them as roads, demands that travelers move from place to place only on those roads, restricts the speed and other behavior of travelers (fining lawbreakers when they are caught), and charges for the use of the roads with taxes, licenses, and tolls. Most citizens accept the government’s right to do these things because we need roads; many kinds of trouble would follow if each citizen traveled from place to place as he or she wished, without government roads and without traffic laws.

Within that social contract, disagreements arise and compromises much be reached about the level of government regulation and the details of that regulation. Which pollution standards are beneficial, and which are excessive? Excessive regulations are costly to businesses and consumers. They can rob the economy of jobs and businesses. Yet insufficient regulation leaves people in danger of being poisoned by pollution. Likewise, minimum wage laws are controversial. Some people insist they are needed to reduce or prevent poverty; others say they increase poverty by raising prices and by persuading businesses to hire fewer workers, replacing them with affordable machines. Lawmakers must consider all sides of such a debate. They must decide for themselves which regulations help the people and which are excessive. They must vote according to those decisions, and they must explain their votes to the voters who will decide if those lawmakers keep their jobs or will be replaced.

Some regulation is needed. Some regulation is beneficial. When the government assumes the job of controlling the economy, the people suffer. When the government uses its power to make decisions that are better made by the business owners, the people suffer. A free market, regulated but not controlled by governmental laws, historically works better than a socialist system in which the government manages the economy. J.

Independence Day, freedom, and politics

On the Fourth of July, citizens of the United States of America celebrate Independence Day. Especially as part of a three-day weekend, the festivities include parades, picnics and cookouts, outdoor concerts, and fireworks shows. Independence Day is the biggest national holiday that is not faith-based, as are Christmas and Easter. Best of all, though, is that the day commemorates signatures on a document. The holiday is not about victory in battle, like Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo. It is not about a mob storming a castle, like France’s Bastille Day. Independence Day is about ideas: the idea of freedom, the idea of human rights, and the idea of government limited by the people and responsible to the people.

Thomas Jefferson echoed the philosophy of John Locke when he wrote that “all men are created equal… [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights… among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke’s formula had been simpler—life, liberty, and property—but nothing is more American than the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not guaranteed. Being created equal does not ensure that all people will be equally happy. We possess the right to pursue happiness, seeking happiness where we expect it to be found.

All rights are limited. Most Americans concede that a murderer or other violent criminal has waived a right to life, although a minority opposes the death penalty in all cases. Americans generally agree that certain crimes lead to imprisonment, a loss of liberty, although ongoing prison reform is needed to keep imprisonment from being a cruel and unusual punishment. Nearly all Americans concede the right of the government to tax its citizens so it can provide services needed by those citizens. These include the work of armed forces to keep citizens safe from hostile foreign governments and terrorists, police protection where we live, public schools, highways, inspections of various kinds to protect workers and customers and to limit pollution, and many other government functions. Citizens debate how many services the government should provide and how much property and liberty it can claim to make those services available. My point is that we can debate these questions. We can talk about them and write about them without fear of arrest and punishment. We can send messages to our leaders. We can vote leaders out of office and replace them with new leaders. We can work in campaigns of potential leaders or campaigns targeting specific policies and causes.

Freedom is not cheap. Not only do we need armed forces to protect us from those who would rob us of our freedom; we also need men and women willing to serve as leaders. These men and women know that they will be publicly insulted, mocked, and reviled. They expect to work long hours to educate themselves about the issues facing government, to respond to requests from the citizens they represent, and to talk to one another about the choices that must be made in their sessions. They will be paid less money than they could receive in other careers for which their abilities qualify them. They will be called “politicians” as if that word is vulgar. The positions they take will be challenged vigorously by opponents, and then they will be scolded by their supporters for compromises they must make to accomplish the work of government.

The word “politics” comes from the word “polis,” which described the independent units of ancient Greece (such as Athens, Sparta, and Corinth). Some poleis were monarchies; others were oligarchies. Athens experimented with broader participation in government, which their leaders called “democracy.” To make democracy work, citizens had to talk to each other. They had to listen to each other. They had to defend the ideas that were most important to them. They had to compromise on some of their ideas to preserve those ideas that ranked highest to them.

Politics is the art of communication and compromise which allows a government to rule wisely and efficiently. Otto von Bismarck is quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages—you lose your appetite for them when you see how they are made.” Politics is not a career for the weak-hearted or the thick-headed. Politics requires quick and clear thinking, the ability to listen and to speak, and zeal for serving the citizens of a city, a state, or a country. Politics requires a strong trust in one’s own abilities, but also the humility to realize that, in every election, more than half the candidates are going to lose.

America needs politicians. In the United States, we have the privilege to choose among our politicians, to try to select the best of them to be our leaders, to disagree with our leaders, to inform them of our positions and beliefs, and to work to replace the leaders we think are wrong. This freedom, defined by the Continental Congress in 1776 and eventually structured by the Constitution of the United States, is celebrated on Independence Day across this great land. From sea to shining sea, let freedom ring! J.

 

Taxation

The Christian attitude toward taxes is set in the New Testament. Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.” Paul wrote to the Romans, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Christians living in a democracy can do more, though, than pay what they owe. They can advise their leaders on the topic of taxation, they can choose their leaders according to their statements about taxation, and they can speak and write to shape public opinion about taxation.

Taxes are part of the social contract between government and its citizens. Citizens surrender some property to the government in the form of taxes, and the government provides benefits for its citizens in exchange for that property. Benefits can include armed forces to protect the nation from attack and police forces to protect communities from crime. Using tax dollars, governments build and maintain roads, finance schools, and provide parks, museums, libraries, and community centers. Tax dollars maintain the judicial system in which criminals are prosecuted and (if found guilty) punished and by which two parties can settle their differences without resorting to physical attacks on one another.

Taxes can take many forms. In a head tax, every person pays the same amount. In a flat tax, every person pays the same percentage of his or her income. In a graduated tax, wealthy people pay a larger percentage of their income and poor people pay a small percentage (and some of them pay no income tax). Tolls are collected from people as they use highways or bridges. Import fees and export fees can be charged on products when they cross borders. Sales taxes can be assessed when products are bought and sold. Fees for licenses to own a car or a gun or a pet are taxes. Money paid for a marriage license or a fishing license is a tax. Landowners pay taxes on their land. Investors pay taxes on their profits. Even money won through gambling is taxed.

Governments assess taxes for several reasons. The most obvious reason is, of course, to gather money for government services. However, taxes can be used to discourage some kinds of behavior and to encourage other kinds of behavior. Taxes on tobacco and on alcohol discourage people from smoking and from drinking. Taxes on gasoline might motivate drivers to drive less or to purchase more efficient vehicles. On the other hand, capital gains are taxed at a lower rate to encourage people with extra money to invest in businesses that provide jobs.  Property taxes on industrial land frequently are reduced or eliminated when a city or state wants to encourage companies to build new facilities that will provide jobs.

Taxes sometimes have unintended consequences. Some years ago a state wanted to raise more money to cover unemployment benefits, and it wanted to raise that money by taxing only wealthy people. For that reason, the state government enacted a special sales tax on luxury yachts. To avoid paying that tax, the wealthy people in that state decided not to buy new luxury yachts. Because yachts were not being bought, the yacht manufacturing companies had to lay off workers. Instead of raising money to cover unemployment benefits, the state’s yacht tax only increased unemployment.

An increase in the gasoline tax causes an increase in the price of a loaf of bread. Farmers need gasoline to operate their machinery when they plant the seeds and when they harvest the grain. Then the grain must be driven to the mill, and the flour must be driven from the mill to the bakery, and the bread must be driven from the bakery to the store. No one in this chain of production is willing to pay more for fuel while receiving the same amount of money for their work. The cost gets passed along the line until it reaches the man or woman who is buying the loaf of bread. By the same token, other taxes on products and the producers of products only raise prices in the stores. Governments that tax the factory owner may think that they are taxing the wealthy, but they are only driving up prices for all people, including the poor.

Many citizens would like to pay less money for taxes. To achieve that, they have to be willing to have the government provide fewer benefits to its citizens. Other people want the government to do more for its citizens. They have to be willing to pay higher taxes. Any request to have the government do more to help one group of people while asking another group to pay for the service with higher taxes misses the point. People pay taxes willingly only when they know they are getting something for their money. Again, this is part of the social contract.

On its own, a tax is neither good nor bad. It just is. The value of a tax comes from the government’s ability to use tax dollars to provide citizens with the services they want. Politicians who want to be elected sometimes promise to cut taxes without reducing popular services. Others promise to provide more services without raising taxes. They rarely keep these promises if they are elected. Sometimes politicians who have been elected threaten to cut funding for popular programs (or actually do cut that funding) until citizens object, funding is restored, and taxes are not reduced. If I were running for office, I would never make a promise I couldn’t keep. If I were elected, I would be responsible with your tax dollars; I would not play tricks with them or waste your money. J.