Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Minarchy is Good, but not God

At Reason's Hit and Run, Cathy Young has an excellent new article up about the Starchild Abraham Cherrix affair (and no, I didn't make that name up). The short version of the story: Abraham is a 16-year-old cancer victim. He went through a painful chemotherapy treatment, only to suffer a relapse. Deciding he didn't want to suffer through another chemo course, he declined and pursued an "alternative medicine" treatment, the Hoxsey method, with his parents' support.

If that were the whole story it would just be another example of idiots determined to prove Michael Behe wrong. But Abraham's parents were sued by the Department of Social Services for neglect. A lower court judge ruled that Mr and Mrs Cherrix were neglectful and made Abraham a partial ward of the county; a circuit court judge reversed temporarily pending an appeal.

This cast the blogosphere—or at least the (mostly libertarian) part of it that I read—into an uproar. Half of them are in an uproar because Starchild Cherrix is getting himself killed, and half of them are in an uproar because the government is screwing with the Cherrix family's right to make decisions for itself.

And the case does raise important questions for any reflective libertarian. It would pretty clearly be better for everyone involved if Abraham Cherrix would either go back and take chemo, or find a quick and painless method of suicide to replace the long and torturous method he seems to have chosen. It's easy for those who wish to defend government-regulated or -mandated treatments to point to this case and say, "See, your 'libertarian' position just doesn't work in the real world; if you had your way you'd condemn this kid to death." Anyone who has no response to this can't really hold libertarian beliefs in good conscience.

This case is particularly tricky because it touches on what I think are the two most confusing areas for libertarian philosophy. First is the treatment of children (and other minors, since I have a hard time calling someone two years younger than I a child). On the one hand, we want to treat every human being as an autonomous agent with the right to make his own decisions toward his own ends; on the other, children have little experience and their parents need authority over them to guide them. We hate forcing upon anyone unasked responsibility for another—on principle because we disdain coerced charity, and in practice because undesired responsibilities are often shirked; but a child must be cared for by someone, and the parents who brought him into the world have an obligation to see that he is cared for. We want everyone to take responsibility for his own decisions and his own life; yet many minors aren't really capable of consent, and shouldn't be held responsible for that whose consequences they can't be expected to understand. And most pertinently, we think families should be able to make private decisions about their private lives without interference from the government. But we recognize that some parental obligations—most obviously, the obligation not to physically abuse your child—merit some sort of outside enforcement.

I don't pretend I can answer really all, or indeed any, of these very real and difficult questions. But I think this is a bad place for the government to stick its nose into. First, Abraham Cherrix is sixteen; even if we've decided sixteen-year-olds can't be granted full autonomy, their opinions on how their lives should be lived ought to command a bit of respect. But even if this Starchild were six, decisions about (quasi)-legitimate medical treatments may be the worst place for the state to intervene. Does the FDA make a list of treatments children can't be given and those they must receive? Do we socialize health care and require regular checkups to make sure parents aren't hiding their kids' ailments to shield them from state-mandated treatments? And what happens when we get into psychological illnesses, and we have mandated treatments for thinking in the wrong way? I could easily see a government forbidding religious teachings because they're damaging to a child's psychological makeup (incidentally, why do we give a pass to stupid religious reasons to reject medical treatments, a la Christian Scientists, and not to plain-old vanilla stuipid reasons?).

The second diffucult area is the tradeoff between extremely rare and nasty events, and much commoner but less troubling problems. Does the real damage drug addiction can do justify the War on Drugs? How many rapes do we need to stop to justify Megan's Law? Should we crack down on parents who take pictures of their naked three-year-olds on a camping trip in the hopes of catching a child pornographer? Ban Myspace because it gives teenage girls a new way to find sexual predators? We have to draw a line somewhere (I mean, laws against breaking and entering on occasion inconvenience honest innocents too, but I think we need those). But a large part of anyone's political orientation is defined by his answer to this question.

And I think the government should lean on the side of inaction here. No matter how many laws we pass, how many regulations we enforce, people will still do Bad Things. We can't stop all of them, and if we try we'll make sure no one else can ever do anything fun or interesting. I won't convict a hundred innocents to stop one child molester; I won't screw up a hundred families' lives for one situation like this. This statement verges on axiomatic for me, so I have trouble defending it beyond a Kantian appeal to the fact that it's just wrong to roll over people like that, even if you feel you're achieving some greater good. Perhaps a detailed analysis of this idea in a future post; for right now, I'll just say that I'm a libertarian largely because I make this tradeoff the way I do.

Part of a mature libertarian worldview is the recognition that the market and minarchy won't solve all the world's problems. We aren't God, so that we can solve all the world's problems and guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong. But the state isn't God either, and things will go wrong with much regulation as surely as with little. Libertarianism doesn't solve all our problems, but it does keep them manageable, and on balance causes fewer than any other system. On occasion we get a situation like Abraham Cherrix's and sigh, in recognition of the costs of a free society. But there is no free lunch; and sometimes the costs are something we have to accept.


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