Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A common mistake

There is an initiative that will likely be on the ballot here in Washington State in November to provide "death with dignity" (if you support the measure, "assisted suicide" if you don't) rights to terminally ill patients.

While I personally support the idea that government should not prevent anybody of sound mind from deciding to end their life, my purpose in this post is not to discuss the initiative specifically but rather to observe what I believe is a very common error in how people think about such issues, particularly when one is against a particular practice.

In particular, when dealing with something that we find repugnant, our inclination is to support things that ban it. After all, if it's bad we want people to do less of it, and banning it will reduce that. I think that this is a non-sequitur. We should not confuse the desire for a behavior to diminish with a justification for it being illegal. There may be justification for banning the practice, but it must come from other sources.

I happen to support the right to assisted suicide, so I will pick an example of things that I oppose to illustrate my point. Smoking comes to mind. Ideally, nobody would smoke. But banning smoking is probably the least effective - and most freedom-reducing - mechanism for achieving this result. And frankly, it's not government's business to ban smoking just for being a bad idea. Alas, the legitimate reasons to ban smoking all derive from other principles, such as protecting one person from harming another (hence the bans in public places). But smoking is still legal in private locations - as it should be - because there is no legitimate reason for banning people from making decisions like this when they are not hurting others in the process, even if the decision is demonstrably stupid. (Heck, if "demonstrably stupid decisions" were sufficient to justify a ban, then Britney Spears should be locked up for life).

I do not believe that it is a goal of government to protect us from ourselves.

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