Q&A Friday #19: How Far Should Society Go To Protect People From Themselves?

Question: “My question deals with personal liberties. Last week my neighbor decided to burn his garage down at 4am. I went outside to hose down my house to prevent heat damage. My house is far enough to not be in any immediate danger, but would have received heat damage to siding and paint. I was almost arrested for not leaving my property!! I wasn’t interfering with any efforts of the police or fire dept, or endangering anybody even in the instance they were to need to reach me for my safety or any other reason. I was only protecting my personal property. I did receive some damage, but was able to prevent most of the damage I would have incurred by spraying my house before my police episode. So my question is if we don’t have the right to be protected by police or a right to have my property protected, then shouldn’t I have the right to protect myself and my property. Then a step further, if I am responsible for myself (like we all should be) shouldn’t I be able to make my own decision concerning my health if they don’t endanger anybody else, ie: wearing seatbelts mandatory, motorcycle helmets are optional, and grandma can drink herself dead, but can’t smoke a joint to relieve arthritis pain or cancer treatments. Just want your thoughts on personal freedoms, laws meant to protect us from ourselves, and our responsibility to live free and practice freedom in our own lives despite oppressive laws.” — Zac Jones

Answer: In essence, you’re asking how far should society go to protect people from themselves and there’s not necessarily an easy answer to that question.

Now some people, a lot of Libertarians in particular, would say: “People should have the right to do anything they want to as long as they’re not hurting anybody else. So if somebody wants to ride without a helmet and increase the risk that they’re going to crack their skull open, that’s their prerogative. If they want to spend their days and nights smoking crack, it’s nobody’s business but their own.”

However, when I hear that line of reasoning, I think back to something Ann Coulter wrote in her book: “How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must)“:

“The quintessential Libertarian argument for drug legalization is that people should be allowed to do what they want with their own bodies even if it ruins their lives. But that’s not true. Back on earth, we live in a country that will not allow people to live with their own stupid decisions. Ann has to pay for their stupid decisions.”

That’s true. You smear your head all over the road and if you don’t have medical insurance, then your expenses are spread out on everyone else’s bills. If you become a crackhead and you can’t afford it, you may go out and rob apartments to support your habit. Let’s say you badly burn yourself spraying down your own house after a neighbor’s garage catches on fire: in these days and times who’s to say you won’t sue the police and fire departments for 10 million dollars for not forcing you away from the fire?

In addition to that, you can never forget that important generic argument: “Is it good for our society as a whole to waste large numbers of potentially productive citizens by letting them do dumb things that are guaranteed to get a statistically significant number of them killed needlessly?”

Put another way, if having seatbelt laws saves a hundred thousand lives a year and only produces an extremely mild level of inconvenience, aren’t we better off as a society to have the seatbelt law? Some of us, myself included, would say, “yes,” other people would say, “no,” and it’s hard to definitively say who’s right and who’s wrong because there’s not one overriding principle that always applies to every situation.

So, what you’re asking is a tough question and you almost have to examine it issue by issue to make a good decision.

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