Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Your Actions Affect Others

A common justification for paternalistic government mandates, such as seat belt laws, motorcycle helmet laws, and bans on trans-fats is that the actions of one individual affects others. For example, injuries sustained in car accidents increase insurance rates for everyone, and therefore the government is justified in taking actions that might reduce injuries. Here are two examples:

...we should also require insurance companies to charge higher rates to drivers who don't wear seat belts. Get one citation -- your premium goes up 5 percent, and double that for the second citation.

This makes economic sense, because those who don't wear seat belts will cost the insurance companies more in injury and death benefits. [from wired blog network]

* * *

I think that seat belts should be mandated by law, because we all (society) ends up bearing the brunt of the cost for people who fail to wear their seatbelts. [from]

This argument could be made for every human activity. If I place a advertisement for my business, it will affect the company running the ad, my employees, my potential customers, my suppliers, and many others. If I go to the grocery store it will affect the store's employees, its shareholders, its suppliers, gas stations operators, my banker, and many more people. Unless you are an absolute hermit, your actions ultimately affect many others.

If one accepts the premise that actions that affect others can be regulated by the state, then every human action is open for regulation. Advocates of regulation would deny this. They would argue that they are only trying to address one specific issue.

This myopic view is widespread. It results from the belief that one's position on a particular issue is unrelated to any other issue. It results from a rejection of principles.

Consider the arguments made in favor of seat belt laws. The principle--actions affecting others can be regulated--must apply to all actions affecting others, or the principle is not true. (A principle is a general truth upon which other truths depend.) A principle with exceptions is not a principle.

Advocates of regulations attempt to side-step this with spurious arguments:

An individual's rights end where other's begin. You cannot take a "personal liberty" or make a "personal choice" if you are putting others at danger.
This might appear to be a plausible position. After all, the rights of others do place limitations on our actions. However, our rights do not "end where other's begin".

A right pertains to freedom of action. It is a sanction to take action without seeking the permission or approval of others. It allows one to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual right of others to do the same. The only objective manner in which rights can be violated is through force, such as robbery, kidnapping, or murder. It is only through the use of force that an individual can be compelled to act (or not act) in a certain manner and against his own judgment. Our rights place a boundary on others, just as their rights place a boundary on us. And that boundary is the use of force--we may not initiate the use of force against others.

The rights of others do not impinge upon our rights. Our freedom of action does not end where others' rights begin. Initiating force is not a right--it is a denial of rights, including one's own. To claim otherwise is to claim that rights permit us to pursue any whim or urge, including rape, robbery, and murder.

Rights are not a gift from God or a social convention. They are a result of man's nature and the facts of reality. Life requires action to produce the values necessary for its sustenance and enjoyment. Basic values life food, clothing, and shelter do not magically appear, nor does cable television, automobiles, or computers. These values require effort, and the individual who exerts that effort has a moral right to the products he creates. To deny him this right is to deny him the means to sustain and enjoy his life.

By living in society we do not need to produce all of the values that we need and desire. We can trade the products of our labor for the products produced by others, and the very act of trade affects others. Indeed, when we live in society virtually every action we take ultimately has some affect on someone.

In a free society--that is, a society in which force is prohibited from individual relationships--each relationship is based on the voluntary consent of all involved. So long as no force is involved, each individual is free to engage in whatever actions he choose, even when those actions are irrational and destructive to his well-being. But if he has not compelled others to act contrary to their judgment, only those who voluntarily join him will suffer. His actions will only affect those who voluntarily interact with him, whether directly or indirectly.

Today, rights are not viewed as the freedom to act, but rather, a claim on the consequences of action. Thus, we hear claims about the "right" to education, health care, and home mortgages. Rather than demands for the freedom to act to obtain these values, the demands are for the values themselves.

Both the claim that actions that affect others can be regulated and the claim to these fictitious "rights" reject the principles upon which rights are actually founded.

Sadly and ironically, those who claim that actions that affect others can be regulated ignore the consequences of their actions. Their advocacy paves the way for further government regulations, and ultimately, complete government control of our lives. They fail to see the affect their actions have on others.


Brian Shelley said...

Good post. Could you clarify for me your thoughts on externalities? As in unknowingly dumping toxic waste onto my neighbor's property. I think the comments on "rights ending where others begin" often refer to such a scenario.

I generally feel that people blow these externalities out of proportion. As if construction of a shopping center 8 blocks from my house will "destroy" my property values.

Burgess Laughlin said...

A skeptic says, "Nothing can be known." One way to blunt an attack by a skeptic is to ask, "Is that statement self-referential?"

In other words, does the one making the claim apply his claim to himself? If he doesn't then he is guilty of special-pleading.

In your post, Mr. Phillips, you have in effect applied that to those who talk of "affecting others." It is indeed irony, as you note, that they fail to apply their guideline to themselves.

What I like most about your post is that it provides readers not merely specific information about specific conditions, but instead it provides an abstraction--insight into the implied special-pleading of the "affect-others" crowd--that can be applied by activists for individual rights in a wide set of situations. Thank you.

Brian Phillips said...

Unknowingly dump toxic waste on a neighbor's property objectively does harm to his property. Whether the action is intentional or accidental, it still does damage to the neighbor's property, and thus violates his property rights. I would certainly judge an accident less harshly than intentional dumping, but the actual damage is the same.

The shopping center you refer to does no objective harm to a home owner. Claims that such projects are a violation of someone's rights is really based on emotions--they don't like it.

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Laughlin,

Good point about the skeptic. Similarly, those who say that there are no principles are uttering a principle; those who say that life isn't black and white, but gray, are uttering a black and white statement.