The golden rule of liberty

In discussions about what government ought to do, rarely does one consider:

What if I’m wrong?

If there’s a chance that your policy causes more harm than good, or even any harm, shouldn’t you be more concerned? 

Good intentions and the gotta-do-something attitude are often accepted as valid justification for causing harm, but I think that’s a mistake.

If I’m walking by someone on the street who is having a heart attack, I could attempt to perform open-heart surgery. That would cause him more harm since I have no medical experience. Even though I had good intentions and a gotta-do-something attitude, most people wouldn’t give me a pass for with that reasoning.

Yet, we let so many people and politicians get by on that reasoning when it comes to public policy.

I hear proponents of the minimum wage, for example, support their position with a ‘greater good’, cost benefit analysis that sounds like this: Sure, it might make it harder for some to find a job, but it’s worth it if some people get paid more than they otherwise would.

My response: The folks who will have a harder time finding a job want to thank you for making that decision on their behalf.

They usually chuckle and say something like: Well, that’s okay. The ones who get paid more will also thank me.

What amazes me about such exchanges is how blase folks are about making decisions that might harm others, even if their cost-benefit analysis is correct, and how little they care about whether they are right or wrong. They act as if their good intentions gives them a pass for being wrong and causing harm. That’s reckless.

A key reason I appreciate liberty isn’t because I believe the costs (like those in the above example) outweigh the benefits (though I do believe that), it’s because I believe I should be very careful when I’m thinking in terms of who to harm — even if I believe the benefits exceed the costs.

I don’t like it when others decide it’s okay to harm me for what they think is the greater good, so what entitles me to inflict harm on others? Treat others as you, yourself, would like to be treated.

Few of the reckless greater-do-gooders like it when others decide it’s okay to harm them. Yet, they rarely make the connection that because they don’t like it, maybe they should refrain as much as possible from advocating harming others.

I’m not a fan of society-level cost-benefit analysis, because it separates the analyzers from the direct costs and benefits and makes it too easy to be careless and support the outcome that garners the most favorable agreement with peers.

It’s to easy to say this: I support this because I think we* have to do something. We* just can’t sit by and let these people suffer.

*Of course, by ‘we’, they usually mean others.

It’s not so easy to say: You know, it may be unfortunate, but we all have unfortunate things happen to us and need to make adjustments. Besides, if we do something to help them though government, that just means we’re causing harm to others. Maybe, if we really do believe it is worth it to help them we should open our own checkbook, volunteer our time or start an organization to help them, rather than just make empty declarations.

6 thoughts on “The golden rule of liberty

  1. Great post, Seth.

    Allow me to take this one step further with a point we have both made in the past. Even IF the policy proposed by the do-gooder does more good than harm, we must ask, “by whose definition of ‘good’?” Valuations of what is good or bad are subjective. What one person (or party) views as good may be viewed as bad by another. Because our valuations are subjective and differ from person to person, it follows that government should not only be limited, but that it should stick to the original intent of its rules.

    Furthermore, what a large majority of people may view as bad or good may be viewed as the opposite by some individual. Should we allow a majority to trample on the rights of a minority or even a lone individual? Such logic would make it justifiable to enslave member of a minority race if it proved to be financially beneficial to those of a majority race. One purpose of the Bill of Rights was to prevent a majority from doing what it viewed as good for itself even though the minority viewed the same action as bad for it.

  2. 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?

    What if having your lot in life handed to you is more satisfying and fulfilling than having to hack your way through all the difficult choices of modern life? What if being born in a culture where your father was a carpenter so you’re a carpenter and your children will be carpenters brings more happiness than a life of rugged individualism?

    What if belonging to a community of people who all believe the same dogma brings a greater sense of connection and belonging than living in a society full of people lost in their own thoughts?

    What if we’re wrong about liberty being good?

    • ‘But what if we’re wrong?’ Great question. I started writing this post to address that, specifically why I’d rather be wrong about liberty than about coercion, but then edited away from it. I’ll address it in another post.

      Also, liberty and ‘rugged individualism’ are often used complementary, but I don’t see it that way. That may worth a separate post as well.


      • I remember reading a book years ago called “ruggged individualism reconsidered”. It was a neat comparison of collectivist cultures and individualistic cultures.

        The author’s conclusion, if I recall correctly, was a “take the best of both worlds” idea.

        I suppose liberty and individualism are fairly different concepts. Good point.

  3. Pingback: First, cause no harm | Our Dinner Table


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