A Right, Another Right, A Left Jab

For general classification purposes, I align myself as a liberal.
 
In point of fact, it goes deeper than that. If I had to label my belief system, I’m a Libertarian.
 
Not the “RON PAUL!” gold-standard, Ameros, government out of everything libertarianism, with a small l, but Libertarianism with a capital. An adult Libertarian, if you will, as opposed to the immature playground libertarianism of Paul and his acolytes.
 
I was exposed to the roots of Libertarian thought in high school, Sociology to be precise. We attempted to undertand the development of socialization and communities through world history, covering everything from Hammurabi to the Japanese internment camps of World War II.
 
In this class, we spent a fair amount of time on the men who developed the guiding principles of American democracy: Locke, Bentham, John Stuart Mill.
 
It was Mill, in particular his treatise On Liberty, which rang the loudest for me. To this day, I’ve kept a copy of that pamphlet.
 
I’ve often tried to reconcile Bentham’s notion of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” with the notion that individual liberty rises supreme above all societal needs.
 
I’m more attracted to Mill’s notion of individual liberty trumping all, which I suspect would find favor with the Paultards too. But here’s the part that Paultards always miss: your unfettered freedom stops almost the second you step out your door.
 
Mill’s premise is not that individual liberties trump all. Indeed, far from it. His premise is that unfettered government cannot impose upon the individual’s rights: the government, in effect, stops at your front door.
 
I don’t think anyone can deny this is a good thing, except for those who would invade a woman’s body for the purposes of dissuading her from having an abortion, and a few other firebrand types. They’re idiots, so we’re free to move on.
 
The distinction Mill makes, the difference between libertarianism (“glibertarianism”) and Libertarianism (“maturity”) is an acknowledgement that the extension of individual rights across the entire population demands that the second your actions impact another person, you lose the right to demand your individual sovereignty and must negotiate your actions because of the effect they will have on others.
 
Smoking, for instance. No one is about to deny anyone the right to smoke in their own house, bought and paid for (or at least mortgaged). If, however, you want to smoke in a rented apartment, you need the landlord’s permission and if he or she says no, then you can’t. You’re affecting the value of the property, as well as the health of any other tenants in the building.
 
Similarly, smoking outside. Your second hand smoke kills, in large enough quantities, and it kills people who you might not even know, much less like or dislike. Cities and towns may set aside smoking areas, but they are clearly marked and non-smokers are warned to stay away.
 
Again, the non-smoker may exercise his right to risk his health.
 
These are the kinds of negotiations a free society has to engage in in order to function as a community. The landlord may agree to rent to a smoker because that smoker was first in line or has a better credit rating or is in some other way an advantage to the landlord to have around. He might not like the idea but he’s comfortable with the choice, knowing it’s possible his building might burn down by accident.
 
This is where a government comes into play: since people play by different rules and want different things, the government has to step in and normalize the rules and regulations so everyone has a fair chance at things. For instance, while it’s legal to tell a smoker no, a landlord who refuses to rent to a black person because of the perception that property values will decline will be hauled in front of a judge, posthaste.
 
This is as it should be. The landlord’s rights do not trump the right of a person to live where they want, so long as their behavior warrants it (similarly, an ex-con can be denied an apartment, but that creates a homeless problem and is the subject of a different post. Again, government steps in.)
 
It is this understanding that choices and actions have consequences and that other people have the right to demand their own individual rights and security be as important in the public square as yours or mine that develops maturity and the nuance of how a society operates.
 
And why government is important, now more than ever.

3 comments to A Right, Another Right, A Left Jab

  • Nice post, Actor. J.S. Mill’s greatest work, imho, is “Utilitarianism”, in which he weds his thinking about liberty clearly to Bentham’s “greatest good of the greatest number”. It’s available free online as a PDF.

  • Good post with food for thought. An important part of any social social contract lies in the statement that “the second your actions impact another person, you lose the right to demand your individual sovereignty and must negotiate your actions because of the effect they will have on others.”

    That point was well made on one of the television judge shows I watched not long ago when one of the litigants said that he had impressed upon his daughter that she must take great care not to let their Doberman escape because, even though the dog was trained and would not harm anyone, the dog being loose would frighten people and that their neighbors had a right to the enjoyment of their neighborhood without being frightened by a loose dog. The judge was impressed and so was I.

    The key part of that is the “must negotiate” part. Too often there is, effectively, no negotiation, and the rights of one are subsumed by the rights of the other. I may be stretching it a bit, but the rights of gays and lesbians to marry is being lost to the arbitrary “right” of religious bigots who are unwilling to negotiate regarding the “protection” of their own heterosexual marriages.

    Okay, maybe that’s not a particularly valid example, but… As a Californian and with Prop 8 pending at the Supreme Court, it gave me a chance to rant anyway. I’m probably not as liberal as most of you here, but I’m certainly not a conservative.

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