Against Busybody Moves to Limit Liberty


I grew up in a fairly densely populated but suburban area, primarily with single family homes and duplexes. Each home had a yard, perhaps 30 feet by 75, mostly fenced in. We knew all of our neighbors on the block—say a dozen homes on each side—and a few on surrounding blocks. Many moved there from more crowded, mostly urban areas. Some people had vegetable gardens in their back yards, most did not. (Almost) no one had farm animals. I am not sure if there were any laws prohibiting such. A neighbor on the next block over (but only 4 houses away from us), had chickens in their yard. Chickens! For some, this was scandalous. The idea that someone might keep live chickens in their yard in our neighborhood was just appalling to them. And they did their best to rid the neighborhood of this apparently appalling pox on mankind. I no longer recall if they succeeded—I don’t think they did, but I may be wrong.

To be honest, back then I didn’t think much about those chickens—or those adults seeking to get them out of the neighborhood. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about such people and the immense variety of things they would prohibit. Of course, some things should be banned—involuntary slavery, for example. Unfortunately, though, the list of things for which there are advocates of prohibition is extremely lengthy. That list includes:

large sodas; alcohol; cigarettes; marijuana, cocaine, other currently illicit drugs; certain books and magazines; curse words and profanity; hateful speech; guns; chickens, pigs, and rabbits (in suburban or urban areas); tall grass; parking on an unpaved space, even on one’s own property; crossing the street against the light, even when no cars anywhere around; non-standard building structures; non-standard colors for homes; homes built less than 30 feet apart; homosexuality; non-monogamous intimate relationships; intimate relationships with more than 2 partners; picking up prescription medications for one’s spouse; working for a wage below some minimum (perhaps a legally enforced minimum, perhaps someone’s idea of a “liveable wage”); grants from corporate donors; and far more.

As noted, some things should be prohibited. Involuntary slavery, murder, and rape are obvious examples. None of the items on the list above are like those three. All three necessarily make use of unconsented-to force against another. (In language I use elsewhere, all necessarily involve the wrongful setting back of one or more person’s interests by another.) None of the other things I’ve named above do that. And yet, there people have proposed banning each. The arguments for banning them usually involve one or more of four rationales. There are, of course, sophisticated arguments for and against each of these; here I just point out a simple problem with each. The four rationales and a simple objection to each are:

(1) The items in question or their uses are bad for the user, reducing their level of well-being. BUT: It’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that accepting a job for less than a “liveable” or legally minimum wage is bad for you and you thus shouldn’t be allowed to accept it–don’t seem to consider the possibility that they themselves likely do things that might be bad for them. For example, proponents of such bans might work long hours, drink too much alcohol, care too much about the prevailing zeitgeist, etc. Perhaps those things should be banned. More time with family, relaxing, communing with nature, etc, is likely better for you than working long hours after all. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to ban comparatively long hours than it is to ban comparatively low wages. Some people, after all, may be quite happy being productive at some task without making alot of money. Proponents of bans for paternalist based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might think something they like is bad for them. (I am not denying that there are objective standards of what is good or bad for someone; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(2) The items in question or their uses are somehow offensive to others. BUT: Again, it’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that pornography is offensive and should thus be banned–don’t seem to consider the possibility that others might find something they like or do offensive. Indeed, some of us might find the attempt to ban pornography offensive. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to think banning pornography is offensive than permitting it. A ban, after all, might make people mistakenly think there is something wrong with nudity or sexuality, essential aspects of being a human person. Proponents of bans for offense based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like offensive. (Again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of offensiveness; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(3) Banning the items or their use is good for others not using them (even if the items or their use do not offend or harm those others). Robby’s carrying a gun puts others at risk; Jill’s doing meth in the house next door might lower their property value. BUT: It’s not clear how much risk is usually present in these sorts of cases or why someone else’s benefit justifies interference with Robby or Jill. Of course, if the risk of gun carrying is sufficiently high, banning it would really be about protecting others from harm, not merely benefitting them–and that, I agree, would be a good reason to prohibit something. But while reducing the risk of a harm is a benefit, the claim here is only about benefiting someone, not reducing the risk of a harm. If I gift you $1000, I benefit you, but not gifting you the $1000 is not harming you. Banning meth in my neighborhood may well benefit me in terms of raising my property values—something I am very happy to see happen. But does my preference for increased property values justify interfering with Jill’s use of meth? Would it justify punishing Sally for keeping her yard messy? Banning Sheila’s use of an old, falling apart car? All of those things—visible meth use, messy yards, and junker cars— would reduce property values in a neighborhood. And again, proponents of interference with some to benefit others don’t seem to recognize that there are lots of ways to interfere with them–the proponents of interference--to help others. Perhaps they could be forced to teach at a local school, pay higher taxes, clean up messy yards, help out at addiction clinics, fix up cars. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of benefit; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(4) The items in question (or their uses) are themselves immoral. (I’ve written about this here before; e.g., see this, this, and this.) BUT: Arguments for such immorality are usually not forthcoming and of course, proponents of these claims of immorality never consider the possibility that their interference with the way other people choose to live their lives is itself immoral. It’s precisely, of course, the sort of problem solved in Loving v Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges. Thankfully, we no longer abide by the wishes of those who would ban interracial or same sex marriage. The busybodies that wanted to interfere with such were defeated. If only we could defeat the rest of the busybodies wishing to interfere in the lives of their neighbors. Again, proponents of bans for morality based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like immoral. While some think a marriage of 3 or more people is immoral, others think that heteronormative marriage is immoral. While some think cocaine and meth use are immoral, some think alcohol use is immoral. Some of us think banning any of these is immoral. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of morality; I am denying such claims are usually accompanied with good arguments about such, or that they would justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

As suggested, I think the only good reason to ban something is that it is itself harmful or used to cause harm. But it’s not enough merely to assert that something (guns, alcohol, what have you) causes harm. We need—and often don’t get—clear evidence of the harms discussed and why/how they are necessarily connected to the items for which a ban is sought.

So why are attempts to prohibit things so frequent (and too often successful)? It seems clear enough that the proponents of bans that get attention are simply good at working other people into a frenzy to join their crusade, whether the crusade be for good or bad (though it’s always claimed to be for good). Such people, it seems to me, rather enjoy imposing their desires on others–either because they are not satisfied with the degree of control they have over their own life (perhaps it is not enough) or because they are not satisfied with having control only over their own life (perhaps its too much!). It is a desire for power over others rather than a desire for power to live ones life as one wishes that seems to drive these people. We might do well to figure out how to decrease the occurrence of such a desire. (Even if not prohibiting it!)