Column on Liberty and Hard Cases

Liberty and Hard Cases

Tibor R. Machan

One book I edited has the same title as this column and focuses mainly on
how a free society would cope with disasters such as earthquakes, floods,
tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. When the nature of a just society is
discussed, those who defend big government solutions to problems tend to
start with orphaned children and catastrophes, claiming that only by means
of massive government intervention can a society cope. But then, of
course, it becomes evident that big government advocates—actually,
advocates of governments with extensive scope, way beyond the task of
securing the rights of the citizenry—don’t stop with the dire cases.
Instead they move on to advocate government intervention into every nook
and cranny of people’s lives. The tendency is toward totalitarianism, with
just a few exceptions such as freedom for the press and for people
religious choices. Everything else, however, seems to require government
meddling, just as was believed in the thousands of years when monarchies
ruled virtually everywhere because the king was thought to be God’s
representative on earth.

Starting with disasters has considerable emotional advantage for statists.
People are rarely as frightened as when they contemplate the prospect of
facing natural calamities. (The fire that came close to destroying the
canyon in which I have my small house punctuated this for me.) Only
diseases like cancer or sudden heart attacks scare most folks as much.
And in a state of panic one is less likely to be rational, to assess
things calmly, carefully, in a principled way. It was William Pitt who
warned—in 1783—that “Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human
freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves.”

So, even dire emergencies are no excuses for forcing people into service
to one another. Their lives belong to them and no one may conscript them
to provide involuntary service! Especially when the proper course to take
so as to reduce the damage from natural calamities is so near at hand.
This is private insurance and the related industries that would develop in
the absence of the state’s promise of bailing people out. Yes, getting
used to not depending on government, the Nanny State, Uncle Sam, and
monarchs of all kinds may be difficult and even difficult to imagine for
those who lack confidence in the capacity of human beings to abide by the
rules of civilized society. Yet, as with all great goals that are
difficult to achieve, it is worth aiming for.

Just as in time people learned to do without serfdom and slavery, they
could similarly learn to do without subjugating their fellows in times of
dire need, even severe emergencies. It may not be an idea whose time has
been fully apprehended, gleaned, but it is one that is, nonetheless,
imperative to aspire to for all human beings.

In most areas of human life we find people subverting principles of
morality and justice but this is no excuse for giving up on those
principles. In whenever those principles are subverted, excuses bubble up
readily—from bank robbers and adulterers to child molesters and rapists.
The strong urge to violate those principles is simply not excuse for
failing to try to purge their violation from our lives.

All this needs to be considered when one approaches the issue of how
people ought to cope with disasters, calamities, emergencies and other
occasions that appear to necessitate the violation of unalienable human,
individual rights. The idea of justice that requires respect for and
protection of those rights may at times seem impossible to put into
practice but that is merely a function of most people’s centuries old
reliance on using other people against their will, without their consent.

A dedication to refusing to yield to such habits could very well bring to
the fore a different era, one in which governments will be confined to
their proper job, securing our rights, and we take up the various more or
less trying tasks of coping with our lives, including in emergencies.

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