Have you ever seen a motorcyclist riding without a helmet, and thought to yourself, “that dumb bastard – that ought to be illegal?” If so, you might be a statist. Statism is a policy preference for controlling people’s behavior by law. Liberalism, in the classic definition, is the idea that people should be free to do as they please, unless their actions impinge on others.
The motorcyclist is a policy grey area. If he doesn’t have medical insurance, then his carelessness could become a cost to society. The way to fix that is not to require a helmet, but to require insurance. Seat belt laws are similar, and gave us one of the all-time great statist slogans, “it’s not just a good idea – it’s the law!”
Your family and friends may grieve if you crash through the windshield, but – is that the government’s business? What about side impacts and immersions, where the seatbelt becomes a hazard? Is the government responsible if a regulation causes your death? Jeremiah knows someone personally whose life was saved by not wearing a seat belt.
These are trivial examples, but you can see the progression. What about a woman’s right to an abortion? What about cancer patients who wish to try unorthodox treatments? What about keeping your kids out of public school? Smoking pot? Drinking raw milk?
Statism is, at best, a form of policy laziness. Every problem can be solved simply by more mandates and more limitations on personal freedom. Let’s take vaccination as an example, because it actually does present a case for state intervention.
If you omit to vaccinate your kids, they will likely be protected as long as everyone else vaccinates theirs. Other families incur whatever costs and risks are involved, and you ride free. This is what economists call a “commons” problem. A commons problem cannot be solved by free exchange and rational self-interest. Some kind of mandate is needed.
There is a broad and complex spectrum of parents who are vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-uncertain. The common thread among all parents is that they’re trying to do what they feel is best for their children.
So, why do people resist? They deny the science and resist the mandate because they distrust the federal government. The federal level is simply too high, and a federal mandate too broad, to persuade parents that their health concerns have had a fair hearing. A vaccination mandate at the state level would have more credibility. This might be less effective but, as long as each state had some kind of standard, it would be adequate.
The logical unit of legislation for this issue is maybe the school district, or even the individual school. Here, we run into the related problem of federal intervention in local education policy. Imagine, though, that there is a free market for primary education (it’s easy if you try). In this system, parents would choose where to send their kids – according to a variety of factors, including health standards.
If one school is lax on vaccinations, parents won’t want their kids going there. They’ll demand to know that all the kids have had their shots. If the Christian Science school eschews vaccinations entirely, parents will note the occasional outbreak – and draw their own conclusions. At the other extreme, schools that go overboard may encounter some of the side effects feared by the anti-vaxxers.
Remember that this is not an all or nothing decision. There are several different vaccines that can be organized into a variety of schedules. Over time, schools and parents would discover which schedule provides the best mix of costs and benefits.
This is an organic, grass roots, style of decision making. It assumes that people are capable of taking responsibility and making their own decisions. It contrasts with the top down, “command and control,” approach favored by the statists.
The vaccination example shows two principles of the liberal approach, 1) delegate the decision to the lowest possible administrative level, which might be the individual, and 2) match the costs to the actual outcome. The first principle should be pretty clear, and it is referenced in the Tenth Amendment.
The second principle says that the people who use a bridge, pay for the bridge. The toll should exactly support the bridge’s operation and maintenance. If you want to ride without a helmet, you should pay the actuarial cost of a typical head trauma. If you do or do not want to vaccinate your kids, the result should be confined to your group of likeminded families.
Statism starts with banning sugary drinks (for your own good) and then we start down a slope that includes telling the neighbors how to raise their kids – and going to the police if they disagree. Censorship and surveillance are part of the program. Statists believe that they know what’s best for you, and the police should enforce it.
State control of personal decisions flows together with state control of commerce. Together, they form a powerful central bureaucracy, rich with opportunities for cronyism and corruption. Most statists are simply busybodies who enjoy telling others what to do. The leaders, though, are in it for money and power.