Feb 23, 2016

Before We Debate: Government Action

Want to debate about whether the government should take action in a certain circumstance? First, we have to agree about a few things ...

Imagine we're discussing a court case that's in the news, and a debate arises. There is no sense continuing the debate if I believe a person is innocent until proven guilty and you believe a person is guilty until proven innocent. We'd have to start with a shared understanding about the "burden of proof" -- is it on the prosecution or the defense? -- else my arguments would seem insufficient to you and vice-versa. Agreed?

In the same way, we must agree about 'burden of proof' in the case of the individual vs. the collective before we can have a productive debate about government action. I believe that the rights of the individual take precedence over the will of the collective. Therefore, I believe the burden of proof is on the collective to show any abridgment of individual rights is necessary before it can act. Conversely, an individual does not need to show that exercising his or her individual rights is necessary. He or she is presumed free to act. Do you agree with this in principle?

If yes, what standard shall we establish for the collective to meet its burden? One option is majority rule. The problem is that this creates an immediate contradiction. It essentially says that the rights of the individual take precedence over the will of the collective unless the will of the collective is to override the rights of the individual. Majority rule can also lead to oppression and worse. It led to Jim Crow laws, for instance, and is ultimately responsible for the Holocaust.

Another option, the one libertarians prefer, is the idea of "involuntary exchange." When the freedom of one individual interferes with the freedom of another individual to a sufficient degree, the collective has met its burden and can act. The debate, then, should center on this question of sufficiency.

For instance, if we were debating Jim Crow laws we might ask, Does the right of a black person to choose his or her seat on a bus sufficiently interfere with the rights of other people on that bus? If the answer is no, the collective has failed to meet its burden of proof and does not have the justification to act.

An equally important follow-up to the original question is: Should the collective act? This question entertains the often-overlooked truth that action, even that done with the best of intentions, can result in worse outcomes than inaction. Not all change is for the better, and sometimes less is also more.

For instance, an original thinker named Hans Monderman discovered something counter-intuitive about traffic engineering that later came to be called "shared space." Monderman was interested in pedestrian safety at busy intersections. Most people would assume the best way to tackle this problem was with more regulation and road signs. Clearly, the collective has the justification to act in this way: Getting hit by someone else's car is the worst kind of involuntary exchange. But Monderman wondered what would happen if the collective chose inaction. What if less -- or even no -- regulation or road signs was the answer? It turns out that it just might be.

Moderman's design approach minimized "demarcations between vehicle traffic and pedestrians, often by removing features such as kerbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and regulations," according to Wikipedia. He discovered that "traffic efficiency and safety improved when the street and surrounding public space was redesigned to encourage each person to negotiate their movement directly with others."

Applying these insights to our debate, then, we should begin by asking:
1. Can the collective act in this particular case? (Is there a sufficient level of involuntary exchange to justify action?)

2. Should the collective act in this particular case? (How do we know that action won't have worse consequences than action?)