Friday, November 03, 2006

The Lunatic Fringe

It seems to me a lot of libertarians reason themselves into the lunatic fringes of politics.

I'll use gun control as an example, because it's an issue a lot of libertarians love to debate.

The extreme, lunatic fringe position is "anybody should be able to own any sort of weapon they want, and should be free to do whatever they like with it as long as they don't physically harm somebody else (or somebody else's property) with it."

BUT: I believe there are some weapons that need to be regulated because allowing joe-random-person to own them poses a significant risk to the well-being of me and my family. You gotta weigh that risk against the benefits of the weapons.

Take shoelaces: There's a risk there. You might decide to take off your shoelaces and choke me to death. I'm willing to live with that risk (heck, even our "chicken-little" government still lets your shoelaces onto airplanes). Pocket knives are maybe a little riskier (I bet you can kill somebody as easily with a shoelace as a pocket knife, though). Carving knives, axes, chain saws, crossbows, muzzle-loaded muskets, rifles, revolvers, machine guns, dynamite, hand grenades, shoulder-fired surface to air missiles, Sarin gas... there's a fairly continuous range of weapons that vary from "useful tools that can be dangerous" to "weapon of mass destruction."

I don't want my neighbor to keep a nuclear warhead in their basement. Even if she's the sanest person I know, there's a very small chance she'll go nuts and blow me up. That tiny risk, multiplied by the huge consequences, outweighs any benefits she might get from owning such a dangerous weapon (I have no idea what the benefits might be, but I don't collect things-- maybe it would be a status thing, and if owning nuclear weapons was legal you'd have rich collectors competing to see who had the biggest nuke...).

It seems to me most libertarians don't see that gun control is an argument in the middle, grey area between outlawing personal ownership of shoelaces and outlawing personal owernship of nuclear weapons. Most non-libertarians don't see that, either, but I think it would be really helpful if libertarians were more honest in acknowledging that there IS room for argument, and that reasonable people will have different tolerances for risk and different ideas about how much weight to give to the benefit of individual liberty.

Footnote: Personally, I'd say regulating anything that can kill more than, oh, 6 people in a short period of time is perfectly reasonable. That would include cars (plow your car into a crowd of people and you can probably kill a dozen or two), but wouldn't include small handguns or shoelaces.


Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I have a lot of Libertarian leanings myself, but not in the area of gun control.

Here’s a conundrum I’ve often pondered: motorcycle helmet laws. I think not wearing a helmet is idiotic, but if someone doesn’t want to, I’m inclined to think that’s fine – it’s your head, pal. That choice doesn’t affect me. Or does it? Suppose I am driving a car, and I lean over to grab my coffee, and I hit the motorcyclist. It is clearly my fault. If he is wearing a helmet, he might just break some bones. If he isn’t wearing a helmet, he might be dead. Does that mean I am now liable for vehicular manslaughter rather than plain old reckless endangerment or whatever another lesser charge might be? If so, is that fair? The outcome and my liability are completely different based on his “right” or choice. Seems weird. So in effect, the helmet law is protecting me, even though I’m not the one wearing the helmet.

Just a little food for thought.

Gavin Andresen said...

There's a bit of a slippery slope there-- "He wouldn't have died if he was wearing a helmet" to "He wouldn't have died if he was driving a car."

But that IS the hardest thing to swallow about libertarian philosophy-- with personal freedom comes personal responsibility. We'd all be free to do dumb things, but we'd all be more responsible for the consequences of our actions.