Not All Personal Liberties Are Yours

I started writing this as a comment on another blog, but it started going in a different direction, and got kinda’ long. To give this some context, Dan Ariely was describing a story in the news where a fire department refused to put out a fire, because the home owner had not paid the fire protection fee. Comments from libertarians ensued. The following is my response to one of those comments. You should be able to read this post without referring to the link, but I provide it for completeness:

Arguably, you should be able to decide whether to accept the risks to your house of not having fire dept service, but opting out of fire dept service also puts your neighbors house at risk (unless you live out in the middle of the desert, where the risk of fires spreading is negligible). Putting your neighbors at risk is NOT a decision that you should be free to make.

This is the same reason that auto insurance is required. The idea is that if you crash into someone else, you are morally obligated to make up for the damages, even if you aren’t concerned about how you’ll be able to pay for personal damages in the event of an accident. Insurance is required because it is the only practical way for most people to ensure that they can pay for damages that they’re responsible for. This leads to a dilemma, because we know that people will not do the responsible thing if left to their own devices (your comments reflect the psychology behind this). A perfectly reasonable solution is to have a law that requires drivers to buy auto insurance. Of course, if you’re going to have a law, you need to have a government that enforces it.

This necessarily “interferes” with your life, but such interference is entirely justifiable. The problem with libertarians is that they fail to understand that “government interference” is a necessary part of the way government provides value to society. Social Contract Theory says that government necessarily takes away some personal liberties away (e.g. the liberty not to have auto insurance) in order that the community benefits from cooperation among its members. As long as the government has the consent of the people, it is justified in taking away some personal liberties.

This of course has limits. For example, if the government has the support of the majority white population, that doesn’t mean that the government can setup a Jim Crow regime (not in the US anyway). In other words, we live by the concepts of majority rule as well as minority rights.

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One Response to Not All Personal Liberties Are Yours

  1. Actually, comments from libertarians didn’t ensue. What came first were deliberate, unexpected and unjustified anti-libertarian comments.

    Anyways, the reason why auto insurance is mandatory is because roads are a government monopoly, not a supposed “social contract”.
    Here are some typical questions that any court would ask about a contract: What are the contents of this contract? Who accepted it? Who signed it on my behalf?

    If roads were privately owned, the owners would be free to set the rules for its customers and the customers would be free to use their service or not.
    See The privatization of roads and highways (pdf).

    You say “This of course has limits.”
    I ask, on what basis or principle? Isn’t the majority always right, in your view?
    Of course, the answer to this apparent conundrum is that only individual rights exist. The majority has no special privilege and should not get to impose it’s view on minorities by force, ever.
    I cannot make you my slave, and neither can a majority of people like me. What is immoral for individuals remains immoral for groups of such individuals as well, even if they are large groups.

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