Why Should the Government Protect Us From Ourselves?
As a libertarian, I am obviously skeptical of all government activities.
The state, at its core, is a violent entity and should be limited as much as possible. Any argument for greater government power gives me pause.
That being said, it does make a difference how government programs are justified. Government programs that exist to protect people from others' aggression are rational.
It makes sense to have an army and police force, because individual citizens do not necessarily have the strength or skill to fend off murderers, rapists and thieves, and certainly cannot fend off a foreign army. Greater government power in this area allows ordinary citizens to live their lives in peace and safety.
This justification can be extended to environmental regulation. Pollution, climate change and other threats to the environment harm everyone in society (or, in some cases, everyone on the planet), regardless of what they personally have done. Regardless of how much I personally have or have not contributed to global warming, it still threatens my health and welfare. Thus government environmental regulations protect me from the excesses of others.
Government intervention does not make sense, however, to protect people from themselves.
Whenever the state regulates food or pharmaceuticals, it is denying us the right to decide for ourselves what to consume. When it regulates marriage and sexuality, it usurps our control over our own bodies and social relationships. When it regulates labor, it prevents us from negotiating with our employers.
In all of these cases, the common people are not being trusted to make decisions for themselves.
Take labor regulations. On the surface, these exist to help the common people, but ultimately they restrict their options. The government says, for example, that workers cannot work overtime without being paid extra. As a result, companies generally do not employ their workers overtime unless it is absolutely necessary.
But what if those workers want to work overtime, even at ordinary wages, in order to earn more money? Personally, I would many times have been happy to work more than 40 hours a week, but because of government regulations, I cannot.
The tacit assumption behind these laws, of course, is that workers are better off working less. However much I might want the extra money, I am better off working no more than 40 hours a week. But what gives the government the right to tell me how long I should work? Since I am the only one harmed if I work too long, shouldn't I be able to make the decision for myself?
Ultimately, these laws teach that the common people are stupid. If we are left to make decisions for ourselves, we will inevitably make the wrong decisions, so we need the government to guide us toward more fulfilling lives.
Some, of course, will argue that the public is indeed stupid, and truly cannot be trusted. The average person frequently eats unhealthy foods, makes foolish decisions about marriage and sex, and agrees to work too long for too little. Why shouldn't the government protect us from these poor choices?
The fallacy here is the assumption that the government knows how to make these decisions better than the common people do. Yes, human beings make stupid choices, but the government is staffed with human beings; any flaws present in human nature are present in the government.
Furthermore, in the United States, the common people elect government officials. If the common people are idiots, the officials they elect must either be idiots like them or opportunists who are good at manipulating idiots. Why should we entrust our decision-making to either type of person?
Finally, if the public is indeed bad at making decisions, is it possible to change this? I would argue that the best way to teach people how to make decisions is to give them the opportunity to make some. As long as the people can expect bureaucrats to think for them, they will never learn to make decisions. Only when the bureaucrats are taken away will the people have an incentive to learn critical thinking.
We don't need the government to protect us; we need the opportunity to think for ourselves.
Andrew Soboeiro, a graduate of Pinecrest High School, is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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