Individual Rights and Tolerance

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One of the biggest problems facing America is the lack of tolerance that many, if not most, Americans exhibit towards others. Both leftists and conservatives are frequently very intolerant of individuals who seek values with which they disagree.

For example, leftists support a return to the “Fairness Doctrine,” which forced broadcasters to give equal time to opposing views. Unwilling to tolerate the fact that conservatives dominate talk radio, leftists want to use government coercion to achieve what the free and voluntary choices of radio listeners has denied them.

For their part, conservatives are generally intolerant of pornography and homosexuality. They want to use government coercion to deny consenting adults the freedom to engage in the sexual activities of their choosing.

In both instances, the intolerant seek to violate individual rights—the moral right of each individual to act on his own independent judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. In both instances, the intolerant seek to use government force to prohibit individuals from expressing ideas or pursuing values.

In contrast, only an advocate of individual rights is truly tolerant, for individual rights recognize and protect each individual’s freedom to act as he chooses, no matter how unpopular. Only individual rights provide a social context in which those with ideas or life styles outside of the mainstream are free from the dictates of the majority.

The intolerant believe that others should be forced to live their lives as they—the intolerant—demand. The advocate of individual rights believes that each individual should be free to live as he chooses.

This does not mean that all ideas and life styles are morally equal. Quite the contrary. Some ideas and life styles are demonstrably bad for an individual’s life and well-being. But tolerance involves accepting the fact that some individuals will choose such ideas and life styles. The intolerant reject this view, believing that individuals should be forced to act contrary to their own judgment and ideas. In my book, that isn’t very tolerant.

Should We License Voters?

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In every state of the union, individuals are required to obtain a driver’s license in order to legally operate a motor vehicle. Further, specialized licenses are also required to operate specific types of vehicles, such as large trucks and motorcycles. To obtain such licenses, individuals must demonstrate competency in operating the appropriate vehicle, as well as knowledge of the rules governing their operation on the roads.

Across the nation, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, and electricians must prove their competency and obtain a license to ply their trade. In Arizona, rainmakers must secure a government license, as must manure applicators in Iowa, lobster sellers in Rhode Island, and mussel dealers in Illinois.

However, when it comes to voting, no such competency or knowledge is necessary. To attain a “license” to vote, an individual need only reach the required age.

Certainly, an individual who does not know how to drive or is ignorant of the rules of the road poses a threat to others. An incompetent doctor, lawyer, or plumber is also a threat to others. But consider the threat posed by an uninformed, or misinformed, voter.

While campaigning for office, political candidates voice their positions on a wide variety of issues. Candidates for local offices talk about land-use policies, infrastructure, and taxes. Those running for state offices might discuss educational reform, job creation, and balancing the budget. Federal candidates might address all of the above, plus health care reform, foreign policy, and energy policy.

In addition, voters are often asked to decide issues such as whom may marry whom (gay marriage), what individuals may legally ingest (medical and recreational marijuana), or the minimum wage that a business must legally pay. All told, voters are asked to judge virtually every issue under the sun, despite the fact that it is impossible for even the most conscientious voter to be knowledgeable on every issue and candidate.

Whether a voter is extremely knowledgeable or completely ignorant regarding a particular issue has no impact on his right to vote on it. Whether a voter unthinkingly accepts the sound bites of a candidate or analyzes them for their long-term implications has no bearing on his ability to vote. Whether a voter can even name the three branches of government is unimportant. In short, a voter’s knowledge and competence is irrelevant.

Yet, the decisions made by a voter have a dramatic, and oftentimes destructive, impact on others. Non-parents may see their taxes rise for the purpose of financing government schools. Two individuals who are in love may be prohibited from marrying. Businesses might be forced to redesign a product. The lives of every American are impacted by the decisions of voters. And the ignorant and uninformed have as equal a voice as the enlightened and expert.

Some may argue that this is the democratic way—we are bound to live by the “will of the people.” But what this really means is that voters can choose to place controls and restrictions on others. It means that if “the people” wish to prohibit some action or mandate another, there are no limits to their power to do so. All they must do is amass a majority. In a democracy, the rights of individuals are continually threatened by voters.

But this is not what was intended by the Founding Fathers or the Constitution. The Founders sought to prevent a tyranny of the majority by limiting and enumerating the powers of government. They sought to protect the minority—and the individual is the smallest minority—from the passions of the majority. They understood that individual liberty could be threatened by the whims of a king and the passions of a majority. The Constitution was written to protect the moral right of each individual to his own life, his own liberty, and the pursuit of his own happiness.

A proper government protects the right of each individual to live his life as he deems best, free from the controls and dictates of others, including the majority. A proper government protects the freedom of each individual to voluntarily produce, trade, and associate with others, with each individual acting on his own judgment in the pursuit of his own happiness.

Do you think that voters—most of whom know nothing about you—truly know what is best for you? Do you think that complete strangers are competent to decide how you should live your life? In truth, voters do not know your dreams and desires; they do not know what values you seek in your pursuit of happiness. Why then, should they have the ability to arbitrarily wreck your dreams or seize your values at the ballot box?

The solution is not licensing for voters (or any profession). The solution is to protect individual rights—the moral right of each individual to take the actions that he believes are best for his life. And that means recognizing that the decisions regarding your life belong to you, not voters.

Cigarettes and the Pursuit of Happiness

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Government has long attempted to control what values individual may legally pursue. But outlawing a value, or making it more difficult to obtain, does not make individuals desire that value any less. In response, they find ways around the law.

For example, during Prohibition, bootleggers supplied the alcohol that Americans wanted. Today, drug smugglers supply the marijuana and cocaine that many Americans want. Prohibition did not stop the consumption of alcohol (nor does drug prohibition stop drug consumption), it only made criminals out of those who were engaged in otherwise peaceful and voluntary activities.

Or consider taxation. Government often uses taxation to encourage certain actions and discourage others. It gives tax breaks for actions it wants—such as investments in “green” energy—and raises taxes on activities it wants to discourage—such as drinking and smoking. But using the tax code to control the actions of individuals is seldom effective.

For example, in 2009, Congress increased the federal excise tax on cigarettes. At the same time, they increased the tax on tobacco used to roll-your-own cigarettes from $1.10 a pound to $24.78 a pound. The tax on pipe tobacco was increased much less dramatically—from $1.10 to $2.83 a pound. Guess what happened? Pipe tobacco sales soared from 3.2 million pounds to 30.5 million pounds a year, as smokers used that tobacco for their roll-your-own cigarettes. And numerous businesses opened to cater to those seeking cheaper smokes. These businesses allow customers to select their tobacco and then use a roll-your-own machine to quickly manufacture their cigarettes.

Not to be outsmarted, Obama is expected to soon sign a bill that will increase the taxes on products made with the roll-your-own machines. Which means, businesses will lose their competitive advantage and shut their doors. Which means, jobs are going to be destroyed. Of course, who is going to miss a few jobs in Skokie, Illinois, when Obama is “creating” thousands of “green” jobs?

Increasingly, government is making it harder and harder for individuals to pursue their values. Whether it is Big Gulps or foie gras, whether it is raw milk or trans fats, whether it is employment or health care, government is erecting more and more barriers to the voluntary exchanges between consenting adults.

These barriers treat our lives and our bodies as property of the State. They prohibit us from living as we choose. They prevent us from pursuing our happiness.

While many Americans complain about these rights-violating laws, the dominant morality in our culture—altruism—demands such laws. Altruism holds that you have a moral duty to self-sacrificially serve others, that you must place the welfare and interests of others before your own. If that means sacrificing your life, liberty, and the pursuit of your happiness, so be it.

These rights-violating laws will not stop until Americans reject altruism and proudly proclaim their moral right to their own personal self-interest—the values that bring them satisfaction, joy, and happiness. Until they can declare that they have a right to live for themselves, Americans will be forced to live for others.