I rage much, I sleep little. Incongruously, I have been a union activist and simultaneously a Constitutional libertarian. I am a registered nurse, a sailor, an Army veteran, and a III%er... I am a complicated man.
During the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the bad guy sees a table covered with chalices of all sorts, among which is the one true Holy Grail. He asks, “Which one is it?” The Crusader guarding the Holy Grail tells him, “You must choose.” Recognizing his own inadequacy, he allows his properly Aryan she-devil historian cohort to make the choice for him. After a properly grotesque special-effects-wizard’s-dream of a death scene, the Crusader, in overwrought understatement, informed everyone else that “He chose… poorly.”
We make many choices every day. Few of them are as momentous as trying to select the one true Grail from a passel of deadly impostors, and I cannot think of a single one that would do unto us quite what the false Grail did to Marcus Brody, but there are indeed choices we make every day that can have profound impact on our lives. Choosing not to jay walk in front of a speeding bus may not seem like one that we put much brain power into deciding, but it is a choice, and a life-or-death one.
That is, obviously a reductio ad absurdum example, but any discussion of rights must necessarily drill down to bedrock principles, and bedrock principles govern even the absurd. If we are to contemplate individual liberty and the premise of self-ownership, we must recognize that the primacy of the individual includes the right to make mistakes, the right to do stupid things, the right to choose poorly. If we try to limit this right, we destroy it. A right abridged is a right denied.
What, however, of consequences from mistakes, poor choices, or outright stupidity? What of harm to others caused by bad acts, unintentional or intentional?
There is no inconsistency here, nor is there an abridgment of rights. One individual’s rights do not supersede another’s. I cannot act in a way that violates another’s rights and claim I have the right to do so. I do not. Nor do I have the right to demand I be rescued from the negative consequences of my poor choices. Society may choose to provide some relief, either through the voluntary actions of individuals and groups, or via government (yes, redistribution via government force is itself a violation of rights, but hold off for a moment). That societal choice does not, however, grant others the power to limit my choices.
Well-versed and well-rehearsed libertarians understand this and root their beliefs thus. Neither liberals nor conservatives, on the other hand, accept that, without the right to choose poorly and suffer the consequences of poor choices, there is no liberty, at least when it comes to their preferred stalking horses.
The Left seeks to interfere with (and, often, absolve) poor economic choices. The Right seeks to interfere with poor behavioral choices. Both speak of rights, but neither truly respects others’ rights when those rights are exercised in ways that cross their own preferences. And, when challenged on those violations, both will trot out some version of the bootstrapping argument i.e. the costs to society of one’s poor choices grant society the right to infringe on rights and restrict liberty. But, as I noted above, this neither reflects a proper understanding of rights nor recognizes that one cannot regulate something in order to regulate it.
Furthermore, without the right to choose poorly, people cannot learn or grow, and societal knowledge cannot be expanded effectively.
Thomas Edison quipped:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
And Gandalf the Grey observed:
The burned hand teaches best.
It is true that many refuse to learn the lessons taught by poor choices, and it is also true that, sometimes, the harm caused to others by those poor choices cannot be or does not get fully remediated. The latter is a perfection fallacy – you cannot fairly judge the good against an unachievable utopia. The former is, unfortunately, exacerbated by those who would infringe on people’s rights to protect them from bad choices. When a society institutionalizes absolution from and prohibition against bad choices, it infantilizes its citizens. All its citizens. And, in doing so, it conditions citizens into thinking less about consequences and ramifications. In economics, they call this moral hazard, and it has been a major contributor to the student debt crisis, to the sort of institutionalized poverty that has trapped so many, and to many other societal problems.
It is just one of several quiet and insidious erosions of liberty that have been steadily moving the nation away from its core principles – and under the noses of the very people who scream loudly (and correctly) about violations of speech and religious liberty.
I’ve recently blogged about two others: the right to earn a living and the right to move about; and I cover the right to self-defense that derives from the principle of self-ownership in my Gun Rights Lesson series. It is vitally important to any lover of liberty to remember that our rights are not all named (and, in being named, limited) by the explicit protections of the Bill of Rights, as the under-appreciated Ninth Amendment reminds us:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The right to choose poorly, if liberty is to mean anything, must be included, remembered and protected. This doesn’t mean that we, as individuals acting within a society, should turn our backs on those who’ve made poor choices. To the contrary, the individuals of a healthy society help each other and care for each other. That help and caring shouldn’t be abandoned to the government, and it mustn’t step on the rights of everyone else. We do not help and care for our needier neighbors when we vote power to the government to infringe on our and their rights. As history and ample example show, far more often, we make things worse.
Some of our most fundamental rights, the ones that we think we have, the ones deemed so deeply obvious that the Founders deemed it unnecessary to enumerate them, are pale ghosts of their former selves. This has happened and is happening under the radar, with little notice or noise from many of the staunchest and loudest defenders of our more commonly recognized and widely debated rights. Individual determination, even when it results in less than ideal results, must be recognized and must be defended.
Without the right to choose poorly, we have no rights at all.