Why Does Anybody Need…Liberty?

One thing that depresses me whenever the gun control debate re-emerges after some horrific incident is that many people will inevitably start saying/writing “Why does anybody need X?” (where X is often, but not always, some aspect of the weapon used in the latest incident, e.g., a(n) “assault” weapon, automatic weapon, semi-automatic weapon, hand gun, bump stock, high capacity magazine, AR-15, etc.), and then they will pause with an air of self-satisfaction, as if they had just given a knock-down argument in support of legislation to ban X.

This point is not just about gun control. It’s not only gun control advocates who use this formulation to support their policies, but they’re the ones I notice doing it most frequently.

When I hear somebody use this expression (Why does anybody need X?), my impression is that this is a person whose political philosophy default is set much closer to tyranny than to liberty.  They assume that if a group has the will and power to prevent another group from legally doing or using something peacefully, and people in that second group don’t “need” that thing, then it should be perfectly fine to deny it to them.

People don’t “need” very much to survive or, let’s be generous, to make their lives worth living.  So, it seems to me that “need” is a very low threshold to justify coercing people to refrain from owning or doing something (as long as they’re not coercing others, or imminently threatening to, at the time).  If that’s the standard, then nearly all of our liberties are in jeopardy of being abrogated, as different interest groups gain power over time.

I understand that it’s natural to want to control as much as you can, and to respond to human-caused tragedies by implementing a regulation of humans.  But, that doesn’t mean that converting those wishes into violently (and each law or regulation is ultimately backed up by the threat or use of violence) enforced regulations is a policy that will lead to human flourishing.  Often, we’re better off resisting our natural impulses.

It seems to me that life will be much better if we take the political position of always trying to leave people the maximum amount of liberty to peacefully do or own whatever they want to.  Their choices shouldn’t have to be necessary, or popular, or even correct in order to make this a better policy than alternatives. Other people don’t have to agree with or understand their reasons, and they don’t have to withhold peaceful criticism; they should just refrain from coercion.  We all benefit, and sometimes suffer, from other people being free to try out ideas that we don’t share.  It’s clear to me that the net result of tolerating this experimentation is a huge benefit to humanity.  Not always, but I think we’re much better off, overall, honoring the liberties of others than indulging our tyrannical impulses.

People don’t “need” liberty (or guns, or (usually) abortions, or masturbation, or pornography, or tattoos, or musical instruments, or books, or privacy, or the public expression of their own ideas…) in order to survive or even to make life worth living.

But they do need liberty to flourish as human beings, and that’s my standard of value.


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