Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Freely arrived at personal choices

Hat tip Ann Althouse. In the judgment from a Supreme Court case, Cantwell v. Connecticut, in 1940.
In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

The essential characteristic of these liberties is that, under their shield, many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed. Nowhere is this shield more necessary than in our own country, for a people composed of many races and of many creeds. There are limits to the exercise of these liberties. The danger in these times from the coercive activities of those who in the delusion of racial or religious conceit would incite violence and breaches of the peace in order to deprive others of their equal right to the exercise of their liberties, is emphasized by events familiar to all. These and other transgressions of those limits the States appropriately may punish.
Too many people too eager to legislate manners, to reduce choices of free people, and to constrict communication between people. There are limits of course but it seems many people wish to set the perimeter very close to home rather than far out on the distant horizon. Sharp differences do arise but as long as there is no harm, the default assumption should be no foul. There are too many people focusing on fostering divisions by race and class and religion and too few focusing on real problems and real root causes. Lovely to see plain language recalling to us the importance of fundamental principles.

If you take any newspaper report on virtually any subject, but especially political and policy, you will usually find a surfeit of exaggeration, vilification and false statement. This has led to the development of fact checkers at many papers but with the thoroughly ironic twist that most of the "fact-checking" itself becomes an exercise in exaggeration, vilification and false statement. It is almost as if there is a systemic aversion to truth seeking and truth telling. And the sad reality is that on many issues, we are at the frontier of our knowledge and that there is no truth that is actually settled.

The conflict is that the agenda to achieve social justice (as defined by equal outcomes) is inherently in conflict with the agenda to achieve maximum liberty. The more choices people are allowed to make, the more variant and unequal will be the outcomes.

When you determine that it is desirable that "many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed", you perforce have to accept that all these differences will yield very different outcomes. Some of those outcomes will be desirable and others not.

When people are free to make their own choices and they make bad choices, to what extent do you protect them from the consequences of those bad choices? And then what happens if they make further bad choices? What is the burden on others to protect them in a free society?

In a perfectly free society with everyone exercising their freedom around character, opinion and belief there will inherently be greater inequality. More freedom is likely to lead to greater inequality. All those that get educated, get married and stay married, get employed and stay employed do ever better, widening the gulf between those that make other choices such as not becoming educated, not marrying, and maintaining only a fitful relationship with work and effort.

These are deep and difficult waters. There are many pat answers but life is too messy for any of them to actually be good or comfortable answers. And most of all we seek to avoid having to make hard trade-off decisions at all. But that is the rub: in a complex multi-variable, high variability, human environment where people are maximally free to make their own choices, to what extent do you protect people from the consequences of their own bad decisions, to what extent do you allow them to continue to make bad decisions and how large an inequality do you tolerate when the gulf arises from freely arrived at personal choices?

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