Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I got into an argument recently.

The argument was about whether an individual's judgment is better than a community's judgment. This friend of mine who I argued with is a self-described liberal. Who claims that the judgment of the community is more important than the rights of the individual.

It occurred to me afterward, I wish it had occurred to me then, that their stance is somewhat inconsistent when you consider their opinion on certain issues. Proposition 8, for example. They consider it a good thing Prop 8 was struck down. But they had also said, during the conversation, that it was okay for the community to decide on rules and laws that individuals didn't agree with and that as long as it was the will of the majority, it should be followed. Yet Proposition 8 was proposed and voted on in California. Where a majority of those who turned out to vote on the proposition decided they wanted it as law. So that was the will of the majority. That was the will of the community. The decision to try and overturn it is the will of individuals. The decision to try and claim it is unconstitutional is the judgment of an individual.

I generally trust an individual to have better judgment than a community, I'll be honest. At least when it comes to THEIR OWN LIFE. Not necessarily when it comes to what constitutes public policy and the public good. The truth is that if you fully embrace individual choice with no communal structure, what you have is anarchy. And if you fully embrace community with no individual choice, what you have is a machine dictating the lives of the people whose individual lives, devoid of choice, lack meaning.

There has to be a communal structure for people to co-exist on a larger scale. What that structure should be depends on the individuals involved in it. There have to be some rules people can agree on. Some areas that the communal structure - the system - that we can call government are responsible for. But what areas should the community be responsible for and what areas should an individual be responsible for?

If a farmer works hard, by himself, and has a surplus of his crop - more than he needs - he might decide to sell or trade some of his surplus to those who need it in exchange for something he needs or wants. In that way, he benefits from his efforts, his time, energy and resources he expended on growing those crops. If the community decides it's important to feed those who can't feed themselves, I believe the community should PURCHASE the excess from the farmer. Not take it. The community should not force charity. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

Moral reasons: Forcing someone to labor for others without being able to benefit from their efforts and without a choice in the matter is basically slavery. People have the right to benefit from their labor. They have the right to make certain choices when it comes to what to do with their life.

Practical reasons: Motivation. If the farmer knows he's not going to be allowed to keep the surplus, why would the farmer ever grow a surplus? Maybe some people would. But a lot of people won't spend their time, effort and other resources on something so labor-intensive if they can't in some way benefit from it. And if the farmer decides he's not going to make a surplus anymore, the community can't take a surplus that doesn't exist. So the only thing the community can do is suffer because now, instead of people being able to trade their goods and labor that the farmer may need to get the surplus, the community as a whole has less food. Unless the community decides it's okay to take what the farmer grew for himself. And leave the farmer without enough food to feed himself and his family. And when that sort of thing happens, it never ends well. History has shown that it never ends well. Best case scenario? The farmer decides "screw you guys, I'm going to take my stuff and leave" and the community loses all benefit from having the farmer at all. Worst case scenarios tend toward violence.

The US decided, ages ago, that US citizens should be subject to various forms of taxation. No matter where they are in the world. There are US citizens who have been living and working in foreign countries for years who are giving up their citizenship because they are being taxed to support a country they haven't seen in years, don't know if they will ever see again and which is spending its resources on things that in no way shape or form that they can see benefit them more than becoming a resident of the countries in which they live and labor. People do decide "I'm taking my stuff and going away. Screw you guys." You can't stop them from deciding that. Unless you want to try to force them into full on slavery. And there's no way to pretend it would be anything other than that.

That's not a strawman. That's not an exaggeration. Yes, it addresses the extremes of the spectrum. But we move further and further toward the extreme ends of the spectrum as long as we let one side keep pulling us in one direction. Unless you really truly believe, somehow, that the much-vaunted idea of the "community" is so perfect, that the people who make up the community are so perfect that such a thing could never happen. And if you believe that, go read your history books. It already has happened. It has happened before and it could happen again. Communities are not noble. Communities are built on self-interest. The choice, then, is which you would rather have. Individuals pursuing their self-interest? Or the community forcing individuals to bend to its self-interest even if it means giving up their rights?

I know which one I choose.

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