Monday, December 6, 2010

The Right to Harm Oneself

Recently I was at the Princeton Model United Nations Conference, in which I played Alexander Hamilton in a simulation of the United States Constitutional Convention of 1787. I was one of 55 delegates (well, actually 54 - George Washington was played by the chair) attending said committee and it was a lot of fun. I actually took home the award of Outstanding Delegate, which is second only to "Best Delegate" on the Model UN totem pole of recognition. But that's not what this post will be about.

When introducing a resolution I wrote up to the committee, a Bill of Rights, somebody in the crowd took issue with one of the rights I included. It was worded in a much more fancy, official way than I can recall right now, but basically it was the right to do anything that does not harm, or attempt to harm, the person or property of another. Somebody picked up on the word "another" and asked about the consumption of recreational drugs. The room full of teenagers chuckled. I mockingly said I had no idea what he was talking about: "it is 1787, what are these 'recreational drugs' of which you speak?", but eventually I reiterated that this meant any action which does not harm others, and admitted that in the event any person wishes to consume a food or anything else to the extent that it does not do so, that would be allowed.

The chair, wishing to incite debate on a subject that enlightened 18th century rich white males understood, said "So, just to clarify, under this Bill of Rights, suicide is legal?". Without hesitating, I replied "absolutely".

In the audience, people looked at me like I had three heads. Not everyone - some were actually nodding their heads (I'm not the only libertarian out there!) - but many. The next question was unrelated and the issue dropped, but I don't think my stance is all that extreme.

I think this issue demonstrates the disaparate outlooks between liberals and libertarians on what the government's role should be. Liberals say that when it comes to suicide, the government is justified in "saving you from yourself." Libertarians say you have a right to harm yourself. For practices which they deem a bad idea, or cumulatively detrimental to society as a whole, liberals try to make th government decide for you whether you can do drugs, gamble, or even eat McDonalds. Libertarians say you have a right to your own make decisions regarding your own wellbeing.

Liberals want to tax, regulate, and even ban unhealthy foods. San Francisco recently banned happy meals. Yes, McDonalds is unhealthy. Yes, McDonalds consumption may harm the nation's wellbeing, or health stats in comparison with more "progressive" European nations. But if I want to eat it anyway (which I do!) that must remain my right! I happen to have an active lifestyle and a fast metabolism so it is not much of a concern for me. Those are factors the government cannot know, and which cannot be applied to society as a whole: these decisions, like most financial transactions, are better left to those directly involved, not the government. But even if I were lazy and obese, my diet is solely my choice to make. So what if, as a whole, happy meals are deemed bad for the country by a group of people in Washington. They are only allowed to do what's best for the country WITHOUT treading on my rights. And I have a right to gorge myself on Big Macs.

Same goes for those other issues. Liberals favor the "individual mandate" to save you from "irresponsible" decision of not purchasing it (well, actually it's to fund their other regulations, but that's for another post!) Going without health insurance means that if you get sick with a curable disease, but cannot afford the cure, you may die needlessly. For most people, that makes it worth the money, or at least worth the slice out of their paycheck. But not for everybody. Some think your money is better spent at a gym, so that you stay healthy and are less likely to get sick, or just on a new house. Libertarians say that's your money, and those choices don't hurt anyone else, so have at it.

Same with suicide. It harms nobody but you. Your death may cause emotional pain on your loved ones, but you could also do this by enlisting in the army, or by dropping out of Harvard to train as a beautician, or by marrying a hooker during a drunken rampage in Las Vegas. This is not what the word "harm" means, any more than being offended by a political ad you disagree with means that commercial has "harmed" you. None of these things must be criminal offenses.

Nor should even more controversial issues like gambling and drugs. These things can be addictive. These things mess with your mind, making it almost impossible to choose against it. But what they don't understand is that, for this decision like all others, you ARE your mind. Saying "you lack the ability to resist cocaine" is idential to saying "your mind has a chemical imbalance which makes it impossible to resist cocaine." These things can cause you to lose all your money and desperately starve in the streets. But if you decide to participate in them anyway, why should it be the government's business what problems you run into? If you start driving your car while drunk or high, sure that act endangers others and that act should be illegal. But in your own bedroom, do heroine for all I care. If you die, it's a tragedy, but you are a victim of nothing but your own stupidity. This is called natural selection.

Just because a decision in and of itself is almost universally considered a bad one, and just because it may have a detrimental effect on society as a whole, does not mean the government is justified in making it illegal. Suicide is no exception. Our founding fathers knew that; too bad more people today don't realize it too.