Freedom from Moral Posturing

by Harry Browne

[From The Great Libertarian Offer]        

During the primary election season, I watched the televised debates involving the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.

They all had plenty to say and sometimes the discussions were heated. But it was apparent that all the arguments were variations on one overriding question: Which candidate knows best how to run your life?

Each one thinks he knows what kind of health-care system you should encounter when you visit your doctor or go to the hospital. Each one is sure he should be the one to decide what kind of school your child will attend. Each one believes he knows better than you which good works your money should support.

Each one thinks he knows what's right for you and for every other American as well.

Instead of allowing you to keep your own money, each candidate believes he should control what you earn and spend it on the projects he thinks best. The only real argument is over how much to leave with you to spend on your own little or very little.

Instead of letting you plan your own retirement in the way you think best, he believes he should determine what percentage of your earnings the government must control and what percentage you'll be allowed to work with on your own.

It didn't matter whether an issue discussed was financial, ethical, or personal. In almost every area of your life, each candidate presumed to know how your life should be ordered. And he knew that what he wanted for you should be imposed on everyone else as well. The idea that each person should work these matters out for himself never seemed to occur to any of them.

The arrogance of politicians is amazing. Each one believes himself able to make decisions about the minutest detail of your life from how to handle every dollar you have to what you should be allowed to see at the movies or on the Internet.

Mea Culpa

I'm afraid I'm not that wise.

I don't know what's right for you. I don't know how you should raise your children or how to run your child's school or how your family should approach any of the many complicated challenges you face.

And even though I've written eight books on investing, I can't tell you how to plan your retirement. I could only make you aware of techniques and alternatives you might not have known about; the final decisions, to be right, have to come from you.

Even if I don't know you, I respect your intelligence and your ability to choose and act on your own values, to work with other families and your community to achieve the goals you set for yourselves.

I respect your ability to handle these tasks because the only alternative is to let politicians handle them for you, and they will never care as much about your future as you do yourself.

I don't want to run your life, and there's no reason to think I would be any better at it than the politicians who preen and posture with answers to every one of life's questions.

America once embodied the idea that you are a sovereign individual able to make your own decisions such as how to spend the money you earn or how to raise your own children.

The idea that politicians should run your life, the economy, or the world is the very opposite of what made America a unique and prosperous nation.

MORAL STANDARDS

Politicians claim moral authority by implying that their decisions are dictated by moral principle and by assuming that we can't let everyone decide for himself what is moral and what isn't. That leaves only the politicians to decide what is right and what is wrong. So they claim a license to use government to compel us to do everything that's right and to forbid us to do everything that's wrong.

But the Constitution gives the federal government no authority to tell us how to live our lives. It gives the politicians no authority to make your financial decisions or your personal decisions. That doesn't stop them, however.

Democratic and Republican politicians treat us as dysfunctional children who need the attention of a strict government to decide what we can have, see, hear, and read, and what we can say publicly. Neither of the two major parties recognizes any limits on the government's authority over your life.

Of course, all politicians like to pose as supporters of your family. But their "support" really means making your decisions for you:

  • Democrats invoke the "children" on behalf of every new government boondoggle and regulation whether to censor the Internet or put a V-chip in your television set.

  • Republicans claim they will restore family values by stamping out drug use or posting the 10 Commandments in schools. Somehow they think you can't instill family values in your children unless the politicians apply force.

None of the politicians believes you're capable of deciding for yourself what's best for your family. If they really trusted you, they'd repeal the income tax so you'd have the wherewithal to make your own family decisions, so you could afford to send your child to schools that teach what you want your child to learn, and so you could afford to have one parent at home to supervise your children according to your values.

Inspiration for What?

America's politicians lament the decline in moral standards. They tell us we must raise our sights above our own shabby little lives, and give ourselves to a greater cause. They say we must practice the politics of compassion, that we must use our resources to help others, that we must solve the problems of racism, poverty, and inequality.

The oratory soars but goes nowhere.

The politician really means that you must give up your concern for your family and whatever else you care for areas where you might actually make a difference and support whatever causes he's hitched his political wagon to.

He means you must stop demonstrating your compassion in ways that make sense to you, and instead give him more money to divert to programs government or private that have the political pull to capture his allegiance.

He means you must fight racism, poverty, and inequality not through your own kindness and decency, but by giving him more power and money to reward the squeaky wheels the unappeasable organizations and grievance mongers who live off the ills they bemoan.

WHOSE STANDARDS WILL PREVAIL?

When a politician promises to raise moral standards in America, it's easy to think he's referring to the moral standards in which you believe. You think you've found someone who's going to use the force of government to impose your moral values on others.

But when government acts, the values imposed won't be yours and they won't be mine. Moral values will be set by whoever has the most political power people like Teddy Kennedy or Newt Gingrich. Is that what you want to impose on others?

And don't forget that the force of government will be used to impose those values on you as well. No one is going to exempt you from the "Make America a Moral Place Act of 2001."

Even if you have some reason to believe Congress will legislate the moral rules you like, those rules are only temporary. The next Congress will go off in its own direction.

SET THEM FREE

The entire effort to wed morality and politics is based on the assumption that there are immoral or irresponsible people who can't be bent into shape unless the government does it.

Yes, there are people who won't act responsibly. There are people who have no regard for the consequences of their own acts. There are people who seem to be incapable of behaving wisely or benevolently.

Politicians exploit these people to justify rigid controls on your life. Because some people won't plan for their old age, you must be forced into Social Security. Because some people will do funny things after looking at dirty pictures on the Internet, your access to the Internet must be restricted.

So what should we do about people who won't take responsibility for their own actions? I believe the answer is simple:

Set them free.

Give them the freedom to make their own decisions, to face the consequences of their own acts, to see for themselves what their actions do to others, and how others respond to them.

Only free people have an incentive to be virtuous. Only people who bear the consequences of their own acts will care about those consequences.

A free society rewards virtue and punishes irresponsibility. Government does just the opposite.

What do we do about people who might not plan for their own retirement?

Set them free.

Let each person know that his future depends largely on his own actions. If younger people see some older people who haven't planned ahead and have to rely on charity, the young will be more likely to provide for the future. Today when someone plans poorly, the only consequence younger people see is a call for more government.

What do we do about people who are insensitive to other people?

Set them free.

Let other people shun them or respect them for what they do. Let them feel the results of being civil or uncivil.

Freedom & Responsibility

It is often said that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin that if you want freedom, you must first accept the responsibility that goes with it.

The truth is simpler. Freedom and responsibility aren't two sides of the same thing; one isn't a precondition for the other. They are the same thing.

Freedom is responsibility. Responsibility is experiencing the consequences of your own acts not the consequences of others' acts or making others pay for what you do.

And that's what freedom is. Without government to force others to pay for your pleasures or mistakes, and without forcing you to pay for what others do, you are a free, responsible human being.

Freedom and responsibility are inseparably linked not because they should be, but because they are. Responsibility accompanies freedom, whether or not you want it to.

We are told America must have a moral revival before we can have greater freedom that people must be educated to be responsible before they can be free. This puts the cart before the horse.

If we expect a government program to make people responsible, we will wait forever.

We don't need a moral revival, we don't need politicians making moral decisions for us. We need do only one thing to induce people to act more responsibly:

Set them free.

ABORTION

Abortion is the most contentious moral issue of our time. Even Libertarians disagree among themselves on this issue.

  • One side believes that unborn children are entitled to the same rights as those already born.

  • The other side feels a natural revulsion at government intruding further into the lives of individuals making personal decisions.

In effect, both are right or at least have understandable positions.

And because people on both sides feel very strongly about this issue, it won't be settled by inventing more slogans or repeating the old ones.

Nor will it be settled by adopting a moralistic posture. Nothing is ever really advanced by looking down your nose at those you consider your moral inferiors. Moral arguments generally succeed only in swaying those who already accept your moral premises. If that weren't so, Jesse Jackson would have won your support a long time ago.

Particularly misleading are the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life." Aside from Libertarians, most of the politicians who say they are pro-choice or that they believe in "a woman's right to choose" would never dream of letting a woman choose to drop out of Social Security, or to choose to smoke marijuana to alleviate the pain of glaucoma or cancer treatments. The politicians are "pro-choice" on only one issue.

And most of the politicians who say they're "pro-life" see nothing wrong with our government bombing and taking the lives of thousands of innocent people in Serbia, Iraq, or other countries. They are "pro-life" on only one issue.

Abortion & the Government

As for me, until science can demonstrate otherwise, I must err on the side of safety and assume that life begins at conception. Thus I believe abortion, at any stage of a pregnancy, is wrong very wrong.

I also believe that turning to the government to settle moral arguments is wrong very wrong. And I believe that letting the federal government intrude where it has no constitutional authority is even worse.

The Constitution grants the federal government no authority to act against common crimes such as murder or theft. In fact, only three crimes are mentioned in the Constitution: treason, piracy, and counterfeiting. Since the federal government has no constitutional authority to deal with abortion, I must oppose any federal activity in this area.

I am certain that we abandon all hope of freedom if we abandon the Constitution's limits on the federal government. So as President I would have vetoed the "Woman's Right to Choose" bill, the partial-birth abortion bill, and any other proposal from either side of the debate.

No matter what my personal feelings about abortion, it would be my responsibility to veto such proposals because the President takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. Unlike all recent occupants of the White House and the other candidates who aspire to live there, I would take that oath seriously.

Litmus Tests for Judges

Every four years a great deal of political noise is made about abortion and the appointment of Supreme Court Justices. A presidential candidate usually is asked whether he will apply a litmus test to judicial appointments.

As president, I will have a litmus test: Does the judicial candidate believe absolutely that the federal government has no authority beyond the specific powers enumerated in the Constitution? Judges who pass the litmus test will recognize that the federal government has no business in education, health care, law enforcement, welfare or abortion.

The judges I appoint will respect the 9th and 10th amendments for what they are unmistakable limits on the power of the federal government.

The judges I appoint will recognize that the Roe v. Wade decision was a judicial fraud that five of the nine justices found it in their wishes, not in the Constitution. I expect the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling someday, so that the federal government no longer will set the rules for every state.

Instead, I expect to see what Joseph Sobran called "a checkerboard of states competing with each other to attract the best citizens." Some states may choose to outlaw abortion, and others might have few, if any, restrictions.

Taking Effective Action

Do I believe the states should outlaw abortion?

I do not, but why should my opinion matter? I'm running only for President, not Dictator. And the President has no constitutional authority to dictate to the states on this issue.

It's true, however, that I believe every abortion takes a human life. So I hope those who share that view won't waste their time trying to get government to reduce abortions. Government never delivers what you want. It doesn't protect adults on the streets. It doesn't protect children in the schools. Why should we think it will protect the unborn?

Every day we spend begging the government to stop abortion is a day wasted a day that could have been spent doing something truly effective, such as . . . 

  • Working for less restrictive adoption laws.

  • Encouraging private educational efforts to show young women the alternatives to abortion.

  • Repealing the income tax so parents can spend more time with their children, teaching them values that will minimize teenage pregnancies.

  • Repealing any law that encourages people to ignore the consequences of their actions.

As with any other problem, only a program of education and persuasion undertaken voluntarily by individuals, not government can work. I admire the people who work so hard to dissuade young women from rushing into abortions, who arrange adoptions for pregnant women who aren't ready to raise a child, and who spend their own money to celebrate the lives of children who weren't aborted. These are efforts that make a true difference unlike those of politicians who pose and preach and promise, and never deliver anything.

Government doesn't persuade; it forces. And that's why it can't bring about any lasting change you might want.

To me, abortion is a horror. But giving politicians the power to run your life, hoping they will stop abortions, isn't the way to end the horror. In fact, in one way or another, it's bound to make a bad thing worse.

BEWARE THOSE WHO WANT TO USE GOVERNMENT

Politicians who claim they will use government to stop abortions or to serve any other moral good are telling you they believe government force can produce good results. So don't be surprised when they see government force as the solution to other problems.

Rather than look to force, if you want to change the moral climate in America I hope you'll work to solve the principal problem that feeds it government destruction of our families and values.

The most important step we can take to solve that problem is to dramatically reduce the burden of federal taxation a burden that forces both parents to work and that denies parents the financial means to choose schools that teach their values.

The Great Libertarian Offer provides the first step.

Let's take that step, so that people will be more responsible.

Let's set them free.