I used to hang out on Slashdot a lot. (That’s a popular news aggregation site for techies.) I remember one signature from a user that said something like “the root password for the Constitution is ‘think of the children’.” The idea was that you could circumvent constitutional protections on free speech by just citing “the children”.
There are two problems with that. The first is the idea that the baseline for free speech is “anything goes”. Freedom of speech has never been absolute, and it’s incredibly frustrating to live in a society where people seem to believe that the primary purpose of one of our most cherished rights is to make porn readily accessible. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Voltaire had in mind.
The second is the assumption that “think of the children” is always an unfounded appeal to hysteria. This is far from true, and two recent articles from the Daily Mail make that painfully clear.
In the first Martin Daubney–former editor of softcore porn magazine Loaded–talks about the research that has convinced him “online porn is the most pernicious threat facing children today.” The gist of it is that new research demonstrates the addictive nature of online porn and so, according to Daubney,
If porn does have the insidious power to be addictive, then letting our children consume it freely via the internet is like leaving heroin lying around the house, or handing out vodka at the school gates.
The second describes how a young boy started viewing porn at age 10 and soon developed an uncontrollable addiction to it. Like any addict, he began searching for harder and harder stuff, until at the age of 13 he was found guilty of accessing child porn and, practically a child himself, he found himself on the Sex Offender Registry.
The libertarian (“libertine” would be more accurate) sentiment sweeping the West replaces old-fashioned notions of liberty that were interwoven with notions of civic duty and personal honor with a banal notion that anything which isn’t causing direct harm to someone else ought to be free. This is, superficially, a compelling proposition. Isn’t this what the Founders fought for? No, it isn’t, and a nation of citizens who cannot control themselves is a nation of fools who cannot be governed by any form of government.
The irony is that we have a very stark example of how bad this logic is unraveling at the same time: the counter-vaccination movement. There is no way that you can argue that refusing to vaccinate your child directly harms anyone else. Shouldn’t this be an issue of freedom? And yet there is ample evidence–theoretical and empirical–that as the vaccination rate goes down we lose herd immunity and diseases that were once thought to be nothing but relics of history begin to make a resurgence.
There’s no way to ever draw a direct link between the individuals who choose not to vaccinate their children and the other individuals who get sick who otherwise wouldn’t have. We can point to aggregate rates, but we can’t ever separate (in practice) how Family A’s decision impacted Family B. But we know that it does. We know that the consequences are real and painful.
The concept of herd immunity is useful because it puts a concrete shell around the nebulous concept of “the greater good”. Because it sounds ruggedly scientific, people accept it when they would reject more nebulous terms like “social fabric.” And yet, at root, there’s a common connection: the actions of individuals do impact the health of society as an emergent system. If this is true, and it is, then the limits on individual liberty extend beyond just direct harm.
How far? Well that’s an important and complex question that I’m not going to try and tackle in this post. The point I want to make is simply that the childish “I can do anything I want as long as it isn’t directly hurting someone else” mentality is not exactly a good summation of the ideals of the American revolution. The health of society as a whole, whether it’s threatened by lack of vaccinations, by pollution, or by easy access to online porn, is a legitimate interest of government and law. The trick is to balance those legitimate interests with individual liberties. If it was just unlimited individual liberties and no balancing this whole government thing would be a whole lot easier.