First, cause no harm

To my The golden rule of liberty post, Wally asks a great question:

Freedom to choose how we live our lives is certainly something we value as a culture with a strong individualist current. But what if we’re wrong?

It think it’s a great question because the answer is a key reason I appreciate liberty. My answer to Wally’s question is that if we’re wrong about liberty, we haven’t caused direct harm.

This point is overlooked in greater-good cost-benefit analysis. Interventionist and non-interventionist actions are both treated as causing an outcome. But, I don’t believe the liberty-minded action causes anything. We only imagine it does through a trick of the tongue.

Consider these two statements:

1. If we raise the minimum wage, that causes some folks to have a harder time finding a job and some folks to get paid more than they otherwise would.

2. If we don’t raise the minimum wage, that causes more people to be able to find jobs, but at less pay than they otherwise would.

What’s the difference? In #1, some people are made worse off for the supposed benefit of others.

What about #2? While minimum wage advocates want us to bite on the idea that we are standing in the way of some unfortunate souls making more money, the truth is we’re not leaving them any worse off than they were before. We’ve done them no harm.

In fact, we’re not even preventing unskilled workers from earning as much as minimum wage advocates want them to. After all, nothing is preventing minimum wage advocates from hiring unskilled workers at the wage they prefer, is there?

In case that example doesn’t work for you, try this one:

1. If we pass each other on the street and you give me a dollar that you took from another passerby, you make me richer and the other guy poorer.

2. If we pass each other on the street and you don’t take a dollar from another passerby to give to me, you keep me from becoming richer.

In #1, you’ve caused harm to some else, even though it was offset by the benefit to me. In #2, you did not cause harm to me by not causing harm to someone else. You caused me no direct harm.

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4 thoughts on “First, cause no harm

  1. I think I might have a couple personal stories that may or may not relate – hopefully they’ll at least be entertaining.

    1. So I was going for a run and saw a car crash into a tree. I ran over to check it out. The driver had smashed her face pretty good onto the steering wheel, splitting her upper lip all the way to the nose. She looked pretty dazed and maybe like she was going to pass out.

    As I was debating how to call 911, a couple of women popped out of the bushes (seriously) and told me that they’d allready called 911. They then (seriously) popped back into the bushes (presumably there were apartments or something on the other side of the bushes).

    So then I decided to keep the injured woman company. I asked her name, I asked her where she had been going – just tried to keep her occupied until the ambulance showed up. She looked somewhat thankful (although also fairly injured) to have the company. The ambulance showed up a couple minutes later and the paramedic brushed me away fairly quickly without saying thanks.

    What were the consequences of me helping her? Was I just in the way? Did I make things better or worse?

    2. So one day I hear some screaming outside my window. I pop upstairs and one of my housemates is standing by a parked car that has two men in it that are shouting at each other. He’s already called 911.

    So the driver starts talking to us and tells us how dangerous the passenger is – tells us he’s mentally disabled and is super upset. Both of those statements appear to be obvious, because the passenger is yelling and breaking stuff inside the car. The driver asks us to help, to keep the door closed so that the passenger doesn’t get out.

    So I do. I lean against the car door. The guy is freaking out, trying to open the door. The driver, meanwhile, is also yelling. At one point he hits the passenger a few times with his fist, in the chest and legs. Things aren’t looking good. There I am, holding the door closed wondering if I’m helping at all.

    Then, a paramedic walks up and looks me squarely in the eye. He says “What are you doing?” Simple question but it totally made me back up and get the hell out of the way.

    The paramedic then does the same thing to the driver of the car and it freezes that guy too. Then finally, the paramedic turns to the mentally disabled passenger, reaches out a hand and starts talking very calmly to him, telling him it is going to be okay, etc.

    I walked away wondering why the hell I didn’t think of that as an intervention style – but I guess that’s why I’m not a paramedic.

    What were the consequences of me getting involved? Was I just in the way? Did I make things better or worse?

    To me, I’m always game for these kinds of situations, I’m fascinated by emergencies and the ways that people behave (myself included). Does the “do no harm” rule mean that I should just stay out of the way or am I interpreting the idea wrong? I feel like I learned a ton from both these experiences (and wouldn’t have if I simply called 911 then walked away).

    • Hi Wally –

      ‘Do no harm’ here applies to using government to force others to do something you believe is good.

      In both of your situations, you acted privately, which is like what I suggest the minimum wage advocates do — use their own money to hire unskilled labor at the rate they prefer to set an example for the rest of us.

      As you will see in my later post about why we shouldn’t confuse “rugged individualism” with liberty, private cooperation and intervention is vibrant w/o being forced and being skeptical of and against well-intended government intervention doesn’t mean that we are against helping others.

      • Seth -

        I see. Does the ‘do no harm’ argument apply to groups of people? Or organizations? Or businesses? Or only to government?

        • Wally — Certainly, ‘first, cause no harm’ is a good principle to follow in all of those cases. But, the key distinction is that in those situations folks can usually choose whether to participate or not.

          Choosing not to participate is not so easy with government actions.

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