How far should our personal freedoms be limited by the needs of others or by the needs of the wider community?
In principle I am a libertarian and I resent the state imposing on my own freedoms and choices. But I am also quite socialist in some ways or at least I think it is important for the state to care and make provision for those who, through no fault of their own, lack the means and opportunities to live as well as others. Moreover I am passionate about the idea that good education and healthcare should be the right of all, whatever their means.
In everyday life however I lean strongly in the direction of personal freedom and personal responsibility and I hate the idea of the nanny state telling people what they can and can’t do, and how they should live their lives. For example I believe all people who choose it should be able to marry; whatever their sexuality. I am totally against religions or other institutions imposing their dress code or other values on anyone else. I believe all drugs should be legalised (which doesn’t mean I think all drugs are good or harmless or that being under the influence of drugs is any kind of excuse or defence for harming others). In short while it might be right and proper for the state to offer advice to help people remain safe and healthy it is not right for the state to actually limit or control the individual’s lifestyle choices.
Recently however there was new legislation proposed in the UK which I think highlighted the grey area between personal freedom and the “good” of society as a whole. A law has been suggested which would make it illegal to smoke in a car while children are present. Now, I am a smoker and regular readers of my blog will know I am very much against the ever more draconian restrictions on smoking in public places. My first reaction was that it was ludicrous to try and dictate what people can or can’t do in their own cars. I also question how such a law could ever be monitored or enforced…
Now I rarely smoke inside a car and would never do so if there was a child present. Most of the smokers I know would think similarly and would never dream of smoking in any small enclosed space while a child was present. But what about the people who are not so considerate, or who are selfish or just uneducated? More importantly, what about the children of such people?
Children have rights and I am a firm supporter of children’s rights. The problem is that children are sometimes not in a position to even ask for their rights, let alone demand them. I am quite sure that if they were able to, most children would wish to breathe clean air and not be forced to breathe concentrated amounts of second hand smoke in a confined area. So while considerate smokers would never subject children to that, who should protect the children of less considerate smokers?
Clearly the answer is the government and the law should. That is one of the main reasons for their existence. And that is why I couldn’t go to the extreme end of libertarianism which is anarchy. We actually do need governments to protect the vulnerable. We cannot always rely on good will and common sense because some people have ill will and no sense at all.
As a smoker I think I have the right to enjoy my legal vice openly and there should be provision for people like me just as much as there should be provision for those who choose not to breathe in tobacco. I will continue to protest and complain when my rights as an adult to live as I choose are needlessly restricted. However I’d be the first to admit the rights of a child trump most other rights and in this particular situation I think the government might be justified in legislating. In this case however I think the rights of the individual verses the government’s duty to protect the vulnerable are easy to differentiate. That is not always the case.
In Belgium this week the government passed a law making voluntary elective euthanasia legal; even for children. I think that was a brave decision and I support it. It was in fact a very libertarian piece of legislation. But I admit I think the issues here are far more complicated and I could have understood and accepted if the Belgian decision had gone the other way.
Sometimes the rights and freedoms of the individual verses the obligation to protect the vulnerable are not so easy to differentiate. The problem is however that discussion of such things is often very polarised with those who are passionate on both sides not really considering the opposite arguments.
I think I am guilty of that sometimes.