Friday, October 29, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Triple Disaster Hits Indonesia

     Our friend Tikno lives in Indonesia, which has suffered a 7.7 magnitude seaquake, tsunami, and volcano eruption in the space of a few hours. Two of the many articles about the events there are in The New York Times and The Straits Times of Singapore. We wish Tikno and his countrymen all the best.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Proof of Capitalist Compassion

     Some of us skeptical conservatives have noted the religious impulse among people who are nominally unchurched.  Often enough, these folks adhere to a system of faith that is nearly as robust as that of any major religion.  Think of dowsers, aura-surgeons, and other New Agers.  An absolutely delightful cartoon from a web comic called XKCD (linked from Young, Hip and Conservative: a skeptical blog) puts some of these notions in proper light.


Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Deadly Principles of WikiLeaks

     On the front page of today’s New York Times web site, there are prominent links to the most recent archive of classified documents released by the web site WikiLeaks. The nature of the documents has been known for some time, but having them made public at last confirms much about Operation Iraqi Freedom that many have feared. One good piece of information is that despite numerous headline writers’ best efforts, the U.S. military did not perpetrate the worst human rights violations in Iraq. That dishonor belongs to the Iraqis themselves, whose treatment of one another has been nothing short of barbarous. Indeed, dampening the free play of sectarian hatred and factional rivalry among Iraqis appears to have been the main object of the Department of Defense in classifying the documents. In revealing the names and particulars of these horrors, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who leaked the documents to begin with, has endangered the lives of many Iraqis. The people of Iraq now have much less hope of cutting short the bitter cycle of vengeance.

     Manning is facing court-martial charges, which include several military and civilian offenses, but which do not include treason. Under Article III of the Constitution, someone commits treason by levying war against the United States or by aiding the enemies of the United States. Pfc. Manning has not levied war. However, he has arguably aided the enemies of the United States, by promoting chaos and inter-faith bloodletting that could undo all the good of the American liberation of Iraq from Saddam. With this in mind, could the Justice Department charge the editors of WikiLeaks with misprision of treason, under Title 18, Section 2382, of the United States Code?

     Misprision of treason is just the crime of covering up someone else’s treason. The law reads as follows: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States and having knowledge of the commission of any treason against them, conceals and does not, as soon as may be, disclose and make known the same to the President or to some judge of the United States, or to the governor or to some judge or justice of a particular State, is guilty of misprision of treason and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than seven years, or both.” Prosecutors always have to evaluate the evidence in a case, to which members of the public usually do not have access, in deciding how to charge criminal conduct. In the WikiLeaks case, federal prosecutors may not have the evidence to support a charge of misprision of treason, especially since Manning himself is not facing treason charges. There is also the fact that although WikiLeaks apparently had planned to release the documents without disclosing the identity of the leaker—and thus failing to disclose his treason—a confidant of Manning’s had already turned him in to the authorities before WikiLeaks published its first set of documents. Therefore, if only by accident, WikiLeaks is probably insulated from prosecution on misprision charges. Prosecutors may eventually charge WikiLeaks on other grounds, such as encouraging Manning to commit his offenses.

     Whatever the legal outcome, it is obvious the editors ultimately decided that any damage they would do by publishing the documents was not enough for them to keep quiet. The case of WikiLeaks presents a clear illustration of competing values. On the one hand, the Constitution does enshrine freedom of the press. On the other hand, irrespective of lawful duty, every American ought to feel a moral allegiance to the United States. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates lived and died by a personal code of honor that placed his allegiance to Athens over his own life. Certainly, Manning’s fellow soldiers have adopted a like code.

     It must be granted that some of the WikiLeaks material does implicate some Americans in war crimes, and clearly not all soldiers are saints—as Manning himself proves. But such soldiers are a sliver of the total Army. Thinking of the sacrifices of the thousands who have endured family separation, primitive conditions, daily combat, the threat of injury and death—not to mention injury and death themselves—the politically correct pieties of the WikiLeaks editors seem no more than an orthodox pose. Whatever value there may have been in publishing Pfc. Manning’s files, WikiLeaks has harmed Iraq and endangered the lives of real people. In their own defense, the WikiLeaks editors would no doubt cite journalistic integrity. However, one test of the value of an abstract principle like journalistic integrity is its effect on real people. We can only hope that WikiLeaks’ “integrity” will not impose too high a body count.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

British Also Demonstrate Over Budget Cuts

     As a bit of an update to the theme from the last post, it seems budget cuts in the UK are also causing protests. Some of the signage is worthy of the most histrionic of the American Left, calling even the Lib Dem Business Secretary a “Nazi” and “666.” See it at the Guardian.

     So, that’s one more example. Civic virtue demands self-reliance and shared sacrifice. Three generations of public assistance are quite enough to create the sense of entitlement and to kill any expectation that one can pull one’s own weight, much less that one should. The old saying went like this: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” By shielding everyone from necessity, the socialist welfare state kills invention.

     The American tradition of pioneer spirit and immigrant toughness is precious. If the United States really is an exceptional country, it is largely because of that tradition. For a long time now, however, Americans have been told “it’s not your fault” and “you’re entitled” and “the government should do something.” Name a recent disaster when there was not a call for government aid. This is not to say such aid is unwarranted. But when people expect help as a matter of course, when they demand it, when they fire all the artillery of guilt and entitlement, we know at least that they are different from their grandparents. The grasping and the demanding will never overcome their limitations. They will never know achievement. They will never be free.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? To Paris

     Yesterday was the fifth day of demonstrations in France against cost-saving measures under consideration by the government.  According to the BBC, the French Senate has endorsed the major provisions of the plan, which would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67.  The demonstrations have involved masses of people marching in protest.  The police estimate for yesterday’s activity was 825,000, while the unions put the figure as high as three million.  The union estimates are revealing, given the role of the unions in calling for public- and private-sector union members to march.  They have also ordered widespread strikes, which have partially immobilized petroleum refineries and caused fuel shortages.  Nor have these protests all been orderly, with some so-called anarchists breaking café windows and setting fires.  So, it appears even the gentle, epicurean French are still capable of vigorous action.  What does it take to stir them?  A threat to their entitlements.  Americans should view these events as a cautionary tale for our own looming iceberg awaiting our own Titanic entitlement programs. 

     It is an open secret that the American entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, will eventually wreck the ship of state.  As the Baby Boom generation swells the numbers who are entitled to draw from the national treasury, the national treasury is not swelling enough to keep ahead of the bow wave.  Since the Boomers have not kept up with their parents in having children, the succeeding generational cohorts will provide too little tax base to support the geriatric flower children.  This is a fact of demography and economics.  It also reminds us of a universal moral failing.  For once implemented, entitlement programs become perverse incentives, government-sanctioned hazards to self-reliance and liberty.

     The news from France, and news of similar demonstrations in Greece and Spain in the face of similar austerity measures, shows what people anywhere will do when they are threatened with even a slight diminution in government support.  The attitude is stark in its selfish simplicity:  “I am entitled to x, and someone must provide it no matter what.”  But for all its unlovely selfishness, the attitude of those who cling to their benefits regardless of the cost to others takes some time to crystallize.  What the first generation receives with gratitude, the second generation will receive as a matter of fact.  After three generations of government payments, the beneficiaries will generally react with sacred indignation to any proposal to disturb their entitlement.  In Europe, there has been plenty of time for the expectation of generous pension support to become crystallized.  The same may be true in the U.S. regarding the legacy entitlement programs, but the new entitlements instituted during the past two years have not yet had a chance to become fixed in the national psyche.  There is some hope that the country can be spared these latest moral hazards.

     The classic moral hazard occurs when one person shifts the risks of his own behavior onto someone else.  Another form of the phenomenon arises when one person receives a guaranteed benefit to be paid for by another.  Since the beneficiary need not pay for the benefit, there is no natural constraint on the beneficiary’s demand for the benefit in question.  For benefits that have been around long enough for a sense of entitlement to coalesce among beneficiaries, the natural lack of constraint on demand combines with the feeling of entitlement to create a fiscal implosion.  Such demand cannot be satisfied indefinitely, not by France or Greece or Spain.  Nor can it be satisfied by the United States, where unions are already preparing their own opposition to any adjustment in entitlement spending.

     Last February, the president commissioned a bipartisan panel to study the deficit problem and recommend solutions.  The panel obviously has had to consider what to do about the major American entitlement programs.  Predictably, when some panel members floated the possibility of curtailing Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, American unions instantly protested the very idea.  In doing so, they have taken a page from the script of their French counterparts and proven that the problems of France are universal.  It remains to be seen whether the French government will stand up to the unions after all.  In this country, the more likely course is what has been done in the past:  eyewash reform that will allow another decade or so of pretending there is no problem.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dodging the non-Draft

     There was news yesterday that yet another judge has found yet another right in the Constitution.  U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips of the Central District of California proclaimed that the 219-year-old language of equal protection found in the Fifth Amendment actually means there is a right for homosexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military.  Well, it was bound to happen.  The creativity of the activist judiciary is apparently without limit.  Besides the old story of David Copperfield judges pulling rabbit opinions out of Constitutional hats, two points remain to be made.  First, there is no draft.  Second, heterosexual service members apparently have no claim to equal protection.


     One comment heard often in the debate on gays in the military is that forbidding homosexuals from serving openly “forces” them to live a lie.  But of course no one, not anyone, anywhere, can be compelled to serve in the U.S. military.  We have an all-volunteer force.  No one has been drafted into military service since 1973.  What’s more, could anyone have been in doubt about the military policy on homosexuals?  Did the services keep it a secret?  Did Congress hide the ball?  Isn’t it true that every single homosexual who joined the service did so knowing he or she would not be able to live an openly homosexual lifestyle?  If they wanted to live openly gay, why did they sign up?

     The other point is this:  Imagine that a group of heterosexual male employees at a Fortune 500 company filed a petition demanding the “right” to shower with women employees in the company locker room.  If they somehow got the company to accede to their demand, the women would immediately file a sexual harassment lawsuit…and win.  No court in the land would condone forcing women to accept straight guys in their showers; any court in the land would fine the company for allowing such harassment.  But how is that different from making straight soldiers and sailors accept gays aboard ship or in the barracks?  Aren’t there showers there, too?  What is the distinction in logic between the legitimate sexual harassment suit of a woman forced to shower with a straight man, and a complaint by a straight soldier who is forced to shower with a homosexual?


     Opposition to open service by homosexuals remains strong among military personnel.  These are the people who have volunteered to defend the rest of us.  More than any other group, they deserve a certain deference.  Now, a judge who has never served under arms is trying to force her own moral values on those who do.  (So much for claims that only Conservatives attempt to impose their values on others.)


     Under a neutral reading of the Constitution, there is no right of homosexuals to serve in the military.  In fact, no one has a right to serve in the military.  The military does not exist to provide opportunities for personal fulfillment to everyone who wishes to join.  The armed forces exist for one purpose:  national defense.  Some few among us are willing to answer the call of national defense, and they serve, often, in conditions the civilian population cannot imagine and would not accept.  The majority of these stoic patriots remains understandably ill at ease in intimately close quarters with people who bring with them an inevitable sexual tension.  Over time, that opposition has begun to decline.  If it ever disappears, well, then the services could reasonably allow gays to serve openly.  But until such time, forcing the bravest among us to conform to the moral views of activist judges ought to be unthinkable.


     Judge Phillips could have waited a few months and let the lame duck Congress do her work for her.  At least Congress represents the will of the majority.  Even so, would any on the Left have leaped to defend the minority rights of those in service?  Men and women actually serving in the armed forces are a tiny minority of the population.  They are an example of a minority by choice, by conscience.  We recognize the rights of religious minorities, although religion, too, is ultimately a matter of choice and conscience.  How curious that the wishes of service members are immaterial.  How curious that they are undeserving of equal protection.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

De Tocqueville to the Rescue

      Over on The Atheist Conservative, the staff have taken to task Dennis Prager for a piece he published recently on Townhall. The piece on TAC, one of our fellow Skeptical Conservative sites, is (as usual) superb. The full post is worth reading, but the gist of it was that Prager claims it’s no accident Americans are the freest and most religious people in the West. TAC cried rubbish. Here follows your author’s commentary:

      “My beloved Dennis Prager. Dispenses advice on male-female relationships from the vantage point of a third marriage. Still, I’m somewhat nonplussed to agree with most of what he says about that and other issues.

      “On religion, I’ve become a kind of ally of his even though I’m technically a-theistic. The thing is, I don’t blame him for his faith. Most people believe in their gods because they can’t help it. The details of religion are down to culture, but (I think) the propensity for belief per se is hard-wired. Clearly progress can be made, since even in the U.S. the fastest growing religious category is ‘none.’ On the other hand, the people in the ‘none’ category probably believe in crystal power or magnetic bracelets or some other hocus-pocus. Only something very, very strong could explain the persistence of faith (exact form immaterial) among 21st century westerners. Since I don’t believe in God, I’m prepared to entertain the hypothesis that it might be a genetic propensity.

      “Whatever the reason, I think we’ll have religion with us for a long time. Even in godless Europe the trend is more away from the demands of church attendance rather than toward hard atheism. What people seem to want is a big, avuncular, undemanding person in the sky to take care of them even when they flout his rules. To the extent Europeans (or American Leftists) adhere to a faith, it tends to be Leftism itself (i.e., political correctness and socialism and environmentalism).

      “But what about freedom? De Tocqueville pointed out that for democracy to work people have to control themselves. Without self-limiting norms, a citizen population requires ever more explicit laws prohibiting ever more creative ways of plundering each other or the state. There’s a natural creep toward multiplication of statutory prohibitions and commandments, as we are seeing even in the land of the faithful. The one thing religion can do is remove some of the need for such regulations. When there was more fear of Hell, for instance, there were fewer bastard births. Now we have ‘single-parent families’ drawing government aid and relying on child support laws to force deadbeats to do what they used to do on grounds of religion. I think I’d rather have them more scared of Hellfire. (What’s that? We should just expect people to give up their faith and behave rationally? Uh...how to put it?...that’ll happen the day after Hell freezes over.)

      “Now, it very much matters what religion we’re talking about. Medieval Catholicism was totalitarian, as you point out (think of autos da fé and Galileo under house arrest). Islam today appears to be drifting back toward an even less tolerant version of itself than usual (though it’s worth remembering that Saladin was far more tolerant than his Christian antagonists).

      “So, in my view, Prager apparently goes much too far in his piece if he argues that ‘religion’ per se makes people free. Whether or not freedom and religion have been associated throughout history is an empirical question; if they appear to be today, well, that could be a sampling error. Still, it’s not crazy to see some connection between moderate religion and freedom, at least under the Tocquevillian model.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

National Health Service Sinks Royal Navy

     In news that made hardly a splash at this end of the pond, Britain’s Royal Navy has offered to scrap half the fleet in order to spare its two aircraft carriers from the budget bludgeon.  With a force reduced to only 25 vessels, the senior service of Great Britain, which was for perhaps 200 years the most powerful navy in the world, will shrink to its smallest size since the reign of Henry VIII.  It will be about the size of the Italian navy, and half that of the French.  According to the Telegraph, even if the carriers are preserved, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) may not be able to afford aircraft for them, leaving MOD to borrow aircraft from allies.  At the same time, the budget for Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has risen to over £100 billion, more than double the amount for MOD.  There could hardly be a clearer illustration of the old economics problem of guns versus butter.  That the British, like the rest of Europe, are able to choose butter over guns is due to one major enabler:  the United States of America.


     American military power has guaranteed the peace and security of Western Europe since the end of World War II.  Increasingly since the fall of the Soviet Union, our European allies have been able to rely on the Pax Americana.  With American security guarantees, Europe has been free to pursue socialist ideals like universal health care.  But even without a heavy defense funding burden, Europe is beginning to experience the fundamental problem inherent in treating a market commodity like health care as if it were a citizen right.  That problem, of course, is cost.

     Governments guarantee their citizens various individual rights.  In the U.K., these rights interestingly do not include U.S.-style freedom of speech.  But among the guarantees the government has made to the subjects of Her Majesty is health care.  Every Briton has the right to walk into an NHS surgery (doctor’s office, for us Yanks) and see a physician.  Some patients pay a small contribution to the costs of prescription drugs, for instance, but otherwise the visit is essentially free—if you ignore the patient’s tax burden, that is.  The demand from the consumer for anything that is (or is perceived to be) free will never be constrained by price.  As long as the costs are hidden, people will continue to use a “free” resource beyond the limit of real need.  Health care is already high on the list of precious resources.  In an environment where patients pay for their own care, demand is already nearly inelastic.  When you add a pricing scheme that conceals the real costs to each patient, it should be no surprise that you find demand rising without limit.  The British are not peculiar in this matter; people anywhere could be expected to behave the same with similar incentives.

     When price does not constrain demand for a resource, what can?  Essentially, rationing by delay.  As noted above, Britons have the right to walk into a surgery and see a doctor.  Of course, what actually happens in doctors’ surgeries is that the patient has the right to join the queue of people waiting to see an NHS doctor.  How long are these waits?  In a nod to reality, Britain’s coalition government has abandoned the goals of the previous leadership.  Under the recently ousted Labour government, the goal for getting in to see a general practitioner (GP) was 48 hours, while the goal for seeing a specialist after referral from the GP was 18 weeks.  Some have reported that the actual waiting time for follow-on care was 26 weeks, which no doubt played in the new government’s decision to abandon the 18-week goal.

     The solution is painful but obvious:  Stop pretending health care is a right. Over the long term, no government can guarantee an unconstrained market commodity to its citizens as if it were a political right.  Speech and religion are cheap.  Even the right to counsel is constrained by a limited demand pool (indigent criminals).  But health care is very important to every one alive, or will be at some point, making the demand pool approximately equal to a nation’s population.  Since not all of a country’s population pays taxes, the demand pool for health care is larger than the tax base that could support it.

     For better or for worse, the sun has long ago set on the British Empire.  It may be just as well that the once unchallenged monarch of the seas now will diminish even further in might.  After all, might does not make right.  On the other hand, power vacuums on the high seas invite piracy and give unscrupulous regimes the idea that they could step in where the more benevolent hegemon has stepped out.  Overwhelming military strength is the only guarantee of peace and stability.  Fortunately for Mother Britannia, her American child has been willing to step up as bobby for the world.  The question for Americans now, though, should be all the clearer given the Royal Navy’s order to scuttle the ships:  If the U.S. chooses butter over guns, who will take our place?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Unions Hobble Hobbit

     Last week, the filmmaker Peter Jackson returned fire in a skirmish over his planned prequel to the award-winning trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.  The movie in development, to be titled The Hobbit, has already had more than its share of trouble.  The latest barrier to progress, however, has come from a coalition of actors’ unions that opposes making the film in New Zealand.  Jackson suggests a desire to boost membership and influence, by holding a top-profile production hostage, has motivated the union opposition.  According to union allegations, The Hobbit is a “non-union” film.  Not so, says Jackson, who has already committed to providing actors many benefits beyond his legal duty.  One example is creating a second residuals arrangement for actors who are not members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and therefore not eligible for the SAG residuals contract.  To hear the unions tell it, Jackson is refusing to employ union performers at all.  In fact, he is employing both union and non-union performers, while taking the lead in matching union benefits for the performers he hires who do not happen to be members of SAG.



     For many people, this latest imbroglio will evoke another sigh of frustration.  Jackson’s Ring movies are some of the most successful films ever made.  In their time, the books from which he derived the films were equally successful.  Written by Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the novels have pleased the reading public despite critical disdain.  In 2004, The Lord of the Rings topped a retrospective BBC poll as the “best book of the [20th] century.”  Nonetheless, serious literary scholars have found the work sophomoric, lacking depth of character, and suffering from a simplistic morality.  Ironically, it is the moral structure of Tolkien’s imaginary world that captivates and reassures many a lay reader.

     Tolkien was a devout Catholic.  For him, there was a moral order in the real universe, in God’s creation, and so it was perfectly natural to write about an imaginary world in which there was an inherent moral order as well.  He considered such writing “sub-creation,” a species of religious devotion.  It turns out that many of his college-campus fans of the late 1960s were themselves fairly secular.  It is high irony that Tolkien, a royalist (like T.S. Eliot) who gently distrusted democracy, should have had such a large following among counter-culture types.  For many of his irreligious fans, Tolkien presented the closest thing they had ever known to a world in which moral and aesthetic principles were woven into the structure of reality.

     Religious skeptics—among whom your author counts himself—are usually accustomed to taking morality as ultimately provisional, a matter of consensus and culture.  Conservative religious skeptics may even be nimble enough to distinguish between their provisional morality and the full-blown moral relativism of the Left.  But there are also, always, moments when the imagination tries to conjure how it might feel to live in a moral universe with a benevolent Creator.  For such imaginative skeptics, the works of Tolkien may still give a hint of that feeling without the overt iconography of any extant religion.  Perhaps, if Big Labor relaxes its grip, Mr. Jackson will be able to bring us one more pearl on that strand.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Standing the Consequences

     Two weeks ago, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released its report on American drug abuse in 2009.  The study, titled Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reports significant increases in illicit drug use.  For example, the study found 16.7 million people age 12 and over used marijuana within the month preceding the survey (the so-called “past month” figure).  That is the highest level of use reported by the National Survey since at least 2002.  The level remains significantly lower than rates reported in the 1970s, before the dramatic declines that resulted from the 1980s War on Drugs.  With marijuana legalization on the ballot this fall in California, the usual background noise about a purported individual right to abuse drugs is turning into a clamor.  Such measures may be defeated by heroic advocacy highlighting the medical and social costs of drug abuse.  However, the arguments from those in favor of legalization could easily prevail because of the special susceptibility of western democracies to an abuse of enlightenment ideals:  the doctrine of radical individualism.


     Fundamentally, Americans have trouble defending against claims of individual right.  Those who favor legalization of marijuana, like those who favor legalization of prostitution and other so-called “private vices,” argue from a position that at first appears impeccable to American eyes.  Almost all people in this country will easily take the first several steps down the road toward radical individualism.  The typical cross-examination might go like this:

     “Isn’t it true that our Constitution guarantees the right to live your life the way you see fit, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else?”

     “Of course.”

     “In fact, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, you can do your own thing, right?”

     “Sure.”

     “And isn’t it true that you can do your own thing even if some other people don’t approve?”

     “Absolutely.”

     “As long as you are an adult, you can also do your own thing even if it’s bad for you, correct?”

     “Correct.”

     From here, it is a short step to the end of the trail, because once we’ve accepted in the abstract that the Constitution guarantees every adult the right to be unhealthy and self-destructive it’s almost impossible to argue against legalizing marijuana.  All the data on health effects are already put outside the discussion since we’ve established that you have a right to be unhealthy if you want to.  Even a first-year law student could close the logic loop (and the rhetorical noose):

     “So, isn’t it true that nobody should be able to say you can’t smoke marijuana in the privacy of your own home?”

     “I guess that’s right.”

     It is instructive to note how many people seem to fall for this line of advocacy.  Different polls give different results, but Reuters reported in its article on the California marijuana law (linked above) that forty-four percent of Americans favor legalization.  Hedonism has conquered much of the national psyche, but it is hardly likely that forty-four percent of Americans favor legalization out of a desire themselves to partake of cannabis.  Even today, it is still more likely that most of those who favor legalization have been convinced by something like the line of questions above.  Given our history, perhaps that should not be surprising.

     The American experiment derived a great deal from Enlightenment philosophy.  If the traditional rights of Englishmen provided the context for articulating the offenses of George III against the colonists, the language of the Declaration owed much to the Enlightenment philosophers.  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Earlier phrasings of this assertion had included property as a right, and the American Constitution eventually guaranteed, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, that government could not deprive citizens of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.  Still, the pursuit of happiness is part of the American political catechism.  While the Founding Fathers did not mean to safeguard private vice, it is easy to see how modern advocates have borrowed the illustrious tricolon to defend the most self-indulgent conduct.

     Along the way from Philadelphia in 1776 to California in 2010, the notion that private vice should be considered a right received some invaluable support from John Stuart Mill.  The English philosopher is justly revered.  His work was crucial to defining the old, classical “liberal” who was in favor of limited government and free markets.  Still, some of his work is particularly liable to abuse, as for instance thoughts like the following:  “[W]hen a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself…there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.”  Mill did not mean this to be taken as license for people to act irresponsibly, but, taken out of context, it is perfect fuel for radical individualists.  What’s worse, when Mill wrote On Liberty, there was nothing in England like the current spread of generous public supports to private life.  Even in this country, we now have social protections far more generous than anything Mill would have had in mind in 1859.  This expansion of government aid carries with it a fundamental change of condition sufficient to alter the force of Mill’s central point about consequences.

     For today, we don’t so much stand the consequences of our bad decisions.  We are protected from our own foolishness by repeated extensions of unemployment benefits, aid to unwed mothers, social security, and the rest of society’s guarantees.  Of course, these protections are sadly imperfect, and inevitably some people still slip through the safety nets.  But for more and more Americans, there is pretty good insulation between the actions we take (or omit) and the consequences of those actions.  Everyone wants such insulation, of course.  But when people are protected from the consequences of their bad decisions, they naturally take less care in making decisions.  The resulting moral hazard creates a financial interest on the part of society in guiding private conduct.

     Our courts have sorted all this out in a series of cases that purport to balance the interests of society against the freedom of the individual citizen to do as he pleases.  There have been cases exploring economic rights, such as the right of a farmer to grow and consume his own wheat on his own farm.  The Supreme Court held at the time that his right to do so was subordinate to the federal government’s interest in overseeing interstate commerce.  (If you’re interested, the case was Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942).)  There have also been cases with different analyses in reproductive rights, free speech, and religion.  So far, no one has found in the Constitution a right to smoke marijuana, but who can say how long the judges will restrain themselves.  One way to bolster judicial restraint might be to articulate how the new entitlement paradigm changes the old calculus of liberty.

     In the modern welfare state, individual rights are not just costless guarantees of government.  In the old days, for instance, the government could easily guarantee freedom of worship at little or no financial cost.  Whether citizens believe one way or another is, on its face, fiscally neutral.  Thus, the only costs associated with the free exercise of religion were limited to rare and essentially trivial compliance costs (like policing unpopular religious demonstrations).  On the other hand, when individual rights become essentially market commodities (like, say, health care), the government is on the hook to protect the right by providing the commodity itself.  The “right” becomes a call on the resources of society; it becomes an entitlement.  Because they are entitlements, modern welfare rights instantly impose costs on government that dwarf all the expense of guaranteeing traditional political rights.

     In this environment, the choice of a citizen to forego a productive life and waste his days and nights with drug abuse will cost the taxpayers money.  Fair enough, not every pot smoker is an economic parasite, but legalization would make sure that no potential drone would be denied his or her fix.  Honest assessment cannot predict that we will have a more dutiful, more self-reliant population on the whole if marijuana is legalized.  And to the extent the perpetually high are less likely to support themselves, the state has a legitimate interest in discouraging their indulgence. We simply cannot afford radical individualism.

     Interestingly, many people who approve of legalizing marijuana don’t want to legalize “the hard drugs.”  Why not?  To be intellectually honest and consistent with the reductio ad absurdum argument from radical individualism, we should all be free to wreck our lives if we want to.  But the population still retains an instinct about the degree of harm we may cause ourselves before we become a burden on society.  The danger is that either judicial activism or the rapid erosion of moral standards will overcome this healthy instinct.

     While we Americans have been transfixed by our rights for at least two generations now, we would do better to turn our attention toward our obligations.  Moral standards properly describe duties to our fellows and ourselves.  All societies impose duties on their members, the first of which is generally to do no harm to others.  The first duty that is unique to free societies is self-sufficiency.  The more a man takes care of himself the less his neighbors have to care for him.  When the burden of that care includes high costs like lifetime welfare, the importance of self-reliance is heightened.  The state may—indeed, must—take action to discourage self-destructive behavior despite the overall paradigm of liberty.  After all, a government-subsidized parasitism is not liberty.  It is merely license.