The Freak on government telling us how to behave
In response to my posting on Senator Santorum and my disappointing interaction with him, The Freak has written a comment which is so good that it deserves a blog posting of its own.
That’s a great anecdote, although it’s not one that gives us that much useful insight on Senator Santorum. It does, however, speak volumes about the state of American politics and the fact that both sides are now clearly speaking past each other.
Most people in the US (all except a handful of true anarchists) agree that government needs to tell people how to behave. The real question is what is in scope and what is out of scope. Almost all, whether from the right or left, will state some trite platitude such as “public behavior should be regulated but private behavior should be left up to the individual” or “liberty ends when it infringes on somebody else’s” or “individual behavior must conform to the necessity of the common good” or (one of my favorite stupid sentences) “government should not legislate morality” (that all laws are an expression of moral choices seems to escape certain people).
Sadly, all these sentences say absolutely nothing about the fundamental issues and we, as a society, have become quite adept at avoiding these underlying fundamentals. Liberals, in the mind of conservatives, regulate private behavior (example: child rearing by forbidding independent home-schooling as it is currently in California). Conservatives, in the mind of liberals, regulate private behavior (example: any number of state laws that criminalize sodomy which, although unconstitutional, are still on the books and still subject to enforcement should the supreme court change its mind.)
Since we sit in very different places and take our individual moral compasses for granted, we end up talking past each other. The discourse then degenerates into repetition that provides absolutely no value or insights. One solution, and one I rather like, is local control which permits migration and geographic polarization. I moved from California to Virginia in part because I could not stand my neighbors, my candidates for office (and consequently my elected representatives), my employer’s policies, etc.
Another solution is to educate one another and shift from strident, emotional screaming at each other to rational discourse. This is not easy; my only suggestion for getting there is to improve our educational system. I have ideas about how to effect this last objective but lack the power to make it happen.
Let me bring up some issues that are near and dear to conservatives and liberals alike. I hope that by dissecting each one I can show that it is possible to move the discussion away from irrelevant statements and into a more constructive place.
Abortion polarizes our country. Many believe it’s an individual moral choice to be left up to each individual woman. Others are convinced it’s an act of murder. How do we solve it? There are a number of arguments for and against abortion, and at different stages of pregnancy, that are at least facially tenable. These are:
a) Human life begins at conception and immediately acquires juridical status as a person and, therefore, the protection of law. Thus all abortion is murder and may be banned the same way any other murder may be.
b) Human life begins at conception, but does not acquire juridical status or protection of law until some later stage (for instance: viability, birth, 2 months post birth, recognition by the pater familias, etc.) This theory allows for abortion (or infanticide) under different circumstances for different reasons and at different stages in development. Lest anybody bristle at the notion of post birth infanticide, I would mention that many societies throughout history have held the view that newborns could be murdered for any number of reasons. It may be an odious idea, but not an irrational one.
c) Human life begins at conception and acquires protection of law that is subject to the superior claim of the mother until some later stage; in other words, the rights of the mother supersede the rights of the new person until that later milestone is crossed. This is a conflict of rights similar to that of Roman law involving individuals sui juris versus alieni juris and generally requires analysis and rules to resolve the conflict on any given situation. It is not open to quick and easy solution.
d) Human life begins and acquires juridical status and protection of law at some other stage (e.g. viability, birth, 2 months post birth, etc.). This allows for abortion at different times depending on the stage.
Many of those who call themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice” have never stopped to think about what these arguments mean, and what it is that shapes their position. Unfortunately, unless these are articulated and discussed, policy cannot be constructed in a consistent and rational way. For instance, if we argue (b), (c), or (d), don’t we need to define when legal treatment changes? Is it to be abrupt, or gradual? Do we blend some of these theories?
Thus, the argument that abortion is a private matter is disingenuous. Its privacy rests on the presumption that a fetus, embryo, or a just fertilized egg is not a human being; a new human life begins at some point – the question is when. Arguments can be made on both side of this presumption. If humanity is found at some point during the development in-utero, then, ipso facto, two human beings are involved. Most, liberals and conservatives alike, would agree that government has a role resolving conflicts between two individuals – this is public behavior. The challenge then, is to recognize the arguments on both sides, and come up with policies that, while not pleasing to all, are at least clear, rational, and defensible.
Home schooling is another issue that polarizes the right and the left. Child rearing, in general, is considered a private matter by both sides of the argument. However all also agree that parents are not free to abuse their children (and here, another lengthy post could grow out of arguments for and against corporal punishment).
Thus, the conflict begins.
On one side, parents argue that home schooling is akin to abuse (I’m not making this up, I’ve heard it in California). The arguments for abuse are the following: children are not exposed to a sufficient variety of other children; children are not educated properly; children’s social development will be stunted; children will be indoctrinated in the parents’ intolerant religious and social views. On the other side of the issue are arguments grounded in statistics showing sufficient socialization and development in home schooled children, the fact that home school children tend to outperform children educated in schools, and the fact that religious and social education belongs to the parents and not the state and that outcomes are nobody’s business. On this last point, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed while in California the opposite result was reached.
Once again, it’s easy and flip to say that this is private behavior and become dogmatically enraged at opposing view. It is equally easy to become incensed by the suggestion that the government should not become involved in relationships between two human beings – particularly when one of them is a child.
Almost all agree that government should not regulate private behavior. The same lot probably agrees that government should protect children. Ah, but where to draw the line, that is the question.
Unless and until we stop repeating useless platitudes and get to the issues, we won’t get very far. Stating that government should not regulate behavior is just as wrong as suggesting that government should. The real question is what behavior, under what circumstances, and why.
You and Santorum probably do disagree on issues. But your exchange in the elevator shed no light into which issues and why. And the “why” is probably just as important as the what.
And here was my short response to The Freak after reading his excellent and even-handed comment:
To be clear, the context of my use of the word "behave", based on the few sentences Santorum and I spoke to each other before, was in the realm of what people do in what we would consider their personal lives and not about business or criminal behavior.
In any case, my views on the issues you bring up above is this:
It is debatable whether there is a legitimate government role in either abortion or education. But it is very clear to me that there is no Federal government role. To the extent that there is government involvement it should be on a state-by-state basis, as you suggested, so that people can "vote with their feet". We are a republic for a reason, with each state meant to be a laboratory of democracy. I am sick of both parties trying to use Federal power for which there is no constitutional authority to impose their visions of morality on us.
|Print article||This entry was posted by Rossputin on 07/01/06 at 03:21:05 am . Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0.|