spy versus (perhaps) spy
21 March 2006, 2:55 PM
Your Blogger has had neither the time nor the energy nor, frankly, the inclination to blog overmuch of late. In part, this is because I am very bad at quick posts, so anytime I think I should post on something I realize I’m looking at half-an-hour, at least, to produce an essay with which I will still be dissatisfied. With. So I postpone. I have enough to do.
This afternoon it occurred to me that one thing that appeared in common in my musings over entries I did not, in fact, write, was a philosophical point about priorities. Amongst the potential subjects were a note on Lawyers, Guns and Money by djw about eliminating the age requirement for voting, several posts there and other places about abortion, the very odd John Tierney piece on polygamy in the New York Times, and of course the continuing military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ll emphasize that I didn’t actually get as far as writing anything at all, let alone anything coherent, but there was an idea which kept coming up, and which I will quickly lay out, for fear of losing it altogether. It’s not a new idea, or really a complicated one, but here it is:
Anytime you have to balance real harm to real people, or even real denial of actual rights to real people, on the one hand, with a probable or speculative harm to society on the other, you should be very, very, very skeptical of the claim that the harm to actual people is justified. This is particularly true when the actual harm is already being done, and it is possible to help, and the costs are primarily speculative. I’m not saying that it’s possible to arrange things so that nobody ever comes to harm, and I’m not saying that it’s possible to arrange things so that nobody’s rights ever get infringed or even delayed. I’m just saying that, as categories of argument, one should take precedence over the other, and that any argument that goes the other way has to be pretty damn’ good to be persuasive.
For instance, in the case of votes for children, the argument that we can’t allow sixteen-year-olds the franchise because they might elect people who might pass laws that might be bad policy is pretty specious. I think it’s possible to construct arguments for a minimum age, but they can’t depend entirely on what might someday happen, if. Similarly, forcing a woman to bear a pregnancy to term because abortion is terminating a potential life is bollocks. Oh, there are arguments, and good ones, to be made all around the issue, but first we need to acknowledge that real, observable harm trumps potential harm. Yes, that means we need to define harm, at least well enough to go on with, and the arguments can go on from there, but start with what can be seen. When we restrict who can marry whom, and again there are compelling state interests involved in all this stuff, but first we need to acknowledge that if we are preventing people from marrying whoever they can convince to marry them, we need something pretty concrete to stack up against it. Not a vague, hell-in-a-handbasket sense that Things are Wrong, but an actual instance of actual harm to a person or even to the state’s aforementioned interests. Otherwise, you got nothing.
Does this make all policy choices easy? Like hell. When we invaded Iraq, there were people already being harmed, people who it was in our power to help. For all the speculations about a democratic domino effect, and they should never have been sufficient to invade, there was a case to be made on the basis of actual harm to actual people. And there was, besides, a case being made, however fraudulently, for the Ba’athist regime being an actual threat to millions of others, by using or supplying Death Rays. And the invasion was admitted to result in people being harmed, of course. I’m not going back over the decision, which of course was a bad one, for all the reasons I admitted at the time and most of the ones I didn’t, but the simple calculus of actual harm vs. potential harm was not enough to cover the situation.
Most policy decisions are actually quite difficult. Difficult enough, I mean, without losing sight of actual harm and actual people. Most policy decisions, though, ultimately create or alleviate actual harm to actual people. So when you argue them—state’s rights, and constitutional provisions, and qualifications for the high court, regulations on business, military invasion, and restrictions on this, that and the other—if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who has lost sight of the people harmed, or you discover that you have lost sight of them yourself, take a step back, and divide the arguments into those categories. Then go back into it. It won’t be over.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,