Saturday, June 28, 2014

Are opinions and legislation the same thing?

There is belief on both sides of the political aisle that the discourse in this country is more partisan than ever. In fact, many claim that it is downright nasty, with name calling and people shouting down those they disagree with. I am not sure if discourse is any more uncivil today than in the past (I think far too often an ignorance of history makes it appear that we are living in a unique time) but I do think that there should be an open debate about ideas and that people can agree to disagree in a polite way.

That being said, there comes a point when what your opponent says is no longer just their opinion, but instead crosses a line and turns into proposed legislation. Economists can respectfully disagree on the effects of a minimum wage, or taxation, or tariffs/quotas. But disagreeing over dinner is not the same thing as disagreeing over policy that has the force of the government behind it. I will respectfully disagree with economists who claim that a minimum wage does little damage to low skilled workers. But when that same economist takes his or her opinion and tries to make it law I will strongly disagree with them. That is because as an opinion it can cause no damage, but as a law it can cause the exact harm to low skilled workers that I believe it does. In that case I feel that I have a moral obligation to try and prevent that damage from occurring.

To say that each of us should be respectful of different opinions seems to apply when each of our opinions are just that, opinions. Once people try to make their opinions laws, laws that use the government monopoly on legitimate force to be executed, those opinions can actually cause real harm to people. For example, we can agree to disagree with someone who has the opinion that theft is OK, or murder, or rape in so far as they DO NOT ACT ON IT. We can think that they are a terrible person, but we as a society do not throw them in jail for their thoughts, and rightfully so. But as soon as they act on those opinions they have crossed a line and when they do actual harm to others society punishes them accordingly.

Many opinions cause similar harm once they become laws. The opinion that marijuana should be illegal is one thing. I disagree, but people can have that opinion. But taking that opinion and turning it into a law e.g. the drug war causes incredible harm to real life people. It is difficult to respect the laws that have followed from people having that opinion because those laws have led to thousands of deaths and incarcerations, destroying families and entire communities along the way.

As another example, many people do no think that American citizens should be able to burn the American flag. I disagree with them, but we can have different opinions on that topic. But the minute someone who has that opinion seeks to make it illegal to burn a flag it becomes more challenging to simply agree to disagree. While some civility should remain, people who resort to the use of government to sanction their opinion are in a way suppressing the opinion of others in so far as the dissenting opinion can no longer be carried out. Once it becomes illegal to burn a flag it can no longer be done sans punishment.

I think that people should politely agree to disagree and that civil discourse is important for a well functioning society. But when opinions cross the line into legislation there is a gray area as to how those "opinions" ought to be treated. Do they deserve the same tolerance as opinions that do not have government force behind them? Or can they be demonstrated against, shouted down, protested against, etc.? History is full of examples of opinions that became laws and then were eventually repealed after people protested against them. Is it always necessary to wait for an opinion to become a law before it is protested against or shouted down? I am not sure that it is, though that is a difficult issue.


  1. It sounds like you are just saying 'it's not right for the world to enforce laws that Adam doesn't agree with.' Otherwise, by your logic, the murderer is justified in his opinion that his right to kill people is being infringed upon because he doesn't believe he has any moral obligation not to physically harm someone.

    Long story short, we all have to live with things we don't like in a democratic society from a legal standpoint. But to say you disrespect anyone who espouses laws that go against your judgement shows a level seems a little on the ignorant side.

  2. There is no such thing as a right to kill people. I don't know what that means.

    And I never said I will disrespect a person. I said I will not respect their opinion. If their opinion is for a policy that causes people harm I will try to educate them and persuade them to change it. And if they want their opinion to be forced on others I will tell them that is wrong; I will not simply agree to disagree in that case.

  3. 'There is no such thing as a right to murder. I don't know what that means.'

    The 'rights' of anyone is subjective given the values and mores of the society in which he or she lives. In some societies there's a 'right' to private property, free education, health care, etc. and in others there is not. In some societies you have the 'right' to murder the man who takes away your daughter's virginity before she is married.

    You can say you have the 'right' to live your life free of government interference as if it is a natural law of the universe, like gravity. But it's not, you just happen to live in a society that values that and bestows that 'right' upon you (to a certain extent). There are no rights in absolute terms across space and time.

    And to your second point, I would say name calling would qualify as disrespecting a person, not their opinion.

    1. Governments do not grant rights, they can only protect them or take them away.

      Societies that allow people to murder others do not grant a right to murder, they take away the right to life. That is very different.

      If you think that you need a majority of society to grant you rights, such that you live because of their good graces, I hope you go quietly if the majority ever turns on you. After all if the majority grants the right to life based on their "values and mores" it is theirs to take as well. If only the Jews had thought like that we could have saved a lot of blood and treasure rather than fighting WW2.

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  5. I agree with your first sentence, as that's what I just said. Your second sentence is just semantics. A government not punishing me from murdering someone (taking away right to life) is no different than granting me a right to murder. Your third paragraph makes no sense. If the Jews had given into the majority we wouldn't have fought WWII? Is that not exactly what happened?

    All I was saying in my original comment to your post is that you're being ambiguous. You feel the government has no right to take away our freedoms, but thank God the government takes away some of our freedoms to prevent us from killing each other. You're contradicting yourself.

  6. My second sentence is not just semantics.

    From what you have said, it seems that you are denying that there is any right to live unless it is granted by a government. I quote you:

    "The 'rights' of anyone is subjective given the values and mores of the society in which he or she lives"

    "There are no rights in absolute terms across space and time."

    So the right to life is not universal across space and time according to you. Genocide is OK as long as it is the majority against the minority. You or I have no claim to any moral superiority; all morals are subjective.

    Slaves had no rights in the 1800's because the majority of the society in which they lived said the did not. The Jews in Nazi Germany had no rights because the majority of the society in which they lived said they did not. Rwanda, Stalin's treatment of Ukraine, Mao's China, all of these events were acceptable given the subjective mores and values of their societies at that place and time.

    Either there are some universal rights across space and time, or any act of violence committed by a majority against a minority cannot be judged outside the government's rules of that society. I personally do not believe that and I don't think too many people do.

  7. Your words: "Slaves had no rights in the 1800's because the majority of the society in which they lived said the did not."

    If slaves had no rights, how can there be any universal rights, by the definition of the word?

    Again, you're using semantics.

    You're misinterpreting what I said and using that to put words in my mouth. Obviously everyone deserves the right to live. But does that right it exist everywhere? No. How can it if we see things like the Holocaust and other atrocities occur. Ergo, no rights are absolute...they can be taken away just as easily as they are given, usually as judged by the sentiments of the people in any given society.

    Rights are reflective of the views of a society at any given point in time. Fast forward a thousand years and society may very well feel a world in which each individual doesn't have the "right" to free education and health care provided by the state is just as egregious as a society that allows genocide. From today's point of view that is subject to interpretation...a hundred and fifty years ago it would be laughable, a thousand years ago it wasn't even possible.

    To my original point, you've still never addressed how you have the right to freedom from government intervention into your actions as well as the right to protection from that same government.

    1. The right to live does exist everywhere, even if it is violated en masse sometimes. If an American is murdered we don't say his right to live didn't exist because it was violated at that moment; it was always there. As a principle this is true around the and world throughout time. A violation of the right to live by the majority against a minority is no different in principle than one American violating another American's right to live.

      And I will let Frederic Bastiat answer your question, as he is much more eloquent than I:

      "If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense."

      "Collective right, then, has its principle, its reason for existing, its lawfulness, in individual right; and the common force cannot rationally have any other end, or any other mission, than that of the isolated forces for which it is substituted. Thus, as the force of an individual cannot lawfully touch the person, the liberty, or the property of another individual--for the same reason, the common force cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals or of classes."

      That passage comes from The Law. It's a good read, I highly recommend it.

  8. Just admit the government is useful for creating and protecting people's rights and we can call it a day.

    1. For protecting, it can be. I won't agree to the creating. We will have to agree to disagree on that.