Montreal, October 15, 2010 • No 282


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.





by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 31: We are all children

October 15, 2010

          While defending drug legalization to a friend of mine the other day, I questioned why governments should decide what adults get to put into their own bodies. To be clear, beyond coffee in the morning and wine with dinner, I do not necessarily recommend recreational drug use. Drugs obviously have their costs and risks, along with their seductive benefits, so cost-benefit analyses are in order.

          Importantly, though, people evaluate costs and benefits differently, so analyses of this kind will vary from person to person. People can be mistaken in their expectations of future costs and benefits, to be sure, but each individual is generally in the best position to judge such things, and to adjust his or her behaviour based on feedback from reality.

          It therefore makes little sense to have some group of people impose their own cost-benefit analyses on others, under threat of fine or imprisonment. If I initiate force against others, by all means, somebody stop me. But if I, an adult, engage in peaceful activities whose costs are borne (and benefits enjoyed) by me alone, how can anyone claim the right to forbid those activities? As an adult, I should be responsible for my own life.

The Peter Pan Syndrome

          My friend responded by wondering if any of us is really an adult. Doesn’t everyone have some psychological problem, some neurosis or character flaw that keeps him or her from behaving responsibly? And isn’t human nature, with all its imperfections, really better suited to paternalism than to pie-in-the-sky, looks-good-on-paper libertarianism?

          There are indeed many individuals of legal age who do not act like responsible adults all (or even most) of the time. They may abuse illegal drugs—or legal drugs, for that matter. They may become addicted to gambling and squander their resources at casinos and video lottery terminals. They may spend money they don’t have, or pay too little attention to their health, or just generally fail to live up to their potential. Couldn’t we all use a little help from time to time?

          Of course we could. But does this mean we’re not really adults? And does it really support paternalism?

          For one thing, if we are all effectively children, why do some of us children get to tell the others what to do? What makes the children who get elected any wiser than the rest of us? What endows the pack of children with the astounding ability to see who among them should rule? Clearly, paternalism requires that at least some of us humans be not only responsible enough to run our own lives, but responsible enough (and omniscient enough) to run everyone else’s, too. And it requires that somehow, these paragons of virtue will be the ones who end up holding the reins of power. But do concepts like “maturity” and “responsibility” spring to mind when thinking about the politicians you know?

Acting One’s Age

          More fundamentally, the idea that we are only responsible for our actions if we act like responsible adults gets it backwards. It makes a mockery of the very notion of personal responsibility. Being an adult who is responsible for his or her actions does not mean you will always act rationally. It means you have the ability to act rationally if you choose to.

          This is not invalidated by psychological problems and character flaws. If, for instance, I discover that I have a weakness for alcohol that threatens my health, my employability, and my personal relationships, I am not doomed to lose my liver, my job, or my friends. As an adult, I can choose to steer clear of bars and not keep booze in the house. I can choose to seek help from loved ones and therapists. In this day and age, I can also choose to take Antabuse, a drug that produces an extreme hangover within minutes if mixed with alcohol. In short, I can choose, in my more sober moments, to redefine the parameters of my life in order to help myself act more like a responsible adult.

          Actual children do not have this degree of control over their own lives. Neither do people with certain severe mental health issues. But why should those of us who are fully functioning adults—those of us who are capable of acting rationally—be subject to laws designed to restrict the choices of bona fide children and mental patients?

          There is a practical issue involved here as well as the moral issue of not initiating force against other human beings. If, as I maintain, adults who are not severely mentally handicapped have the ability to take responsibility for their own lives, what is the effect of preventing them from doing so? Making choices for the overgrown children in our society, and shielding them from the consequences of their actions, does not encourage them to grow up. Rather, it infantilizes them. If we are not allowed to fall down once in a while, we will never learn to pick ourselves up again. That doesn’t mean we lack the ability to do so. It means the “muscles” that give us the ability to do so have been allowed—some would say encouraged—to atrophy.

          Paternalists get a lot of money and power if they convince the rest of us that we cannot take care of ourselves, or that our neighbours cannot take care of themselves. The truth of the matter, however, is that most of us do have the ability to take care of ourselves. Far from being incompatible with imperfect human nature, liberty encourages us, through positive and negative feedback, to grow up and make the most of our lives.





30. It's wrong to profit from the misery of others
29. States must set standards
28. Governments Can Create Jobs
27. Guilty until proven innocent
26. Life is a zero-sum game
25. Immigration must be restricted
24. The world is a scary place
23. We are all sinners
22. Persuasion is force
21. Bankruptcies are bad for the economy

20. War is good for the economy
19. We don't care enough
18. Capitalism caused the Great Depression
17. Democracy is a cure-all
16. Self-sacrifice is good
15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad
14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad
12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating

10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world
08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good