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Mar 19, 2014

It’s not Unlibertarian to Acknowledge Weakness of Will and Situational Influences

We shouldn’t deny situational influences on our behavior, but instead acknowledge them and use them as a further argument against big government.

Arguments between libertarians and their statist opponents sometimes go like this:

Statist: “Studies show that states with the highest rate of gun ownership have the highest rate of homicide and/or suicide.”

Libertarian: “Guns don’t kill, people do. And banning guns is useless, because people who want them will get them, ban or no ban.”

Statist: “Obesity has reached epidemic proportions in America! Government must regulate the size of sugary drinks and force restaurants to post calories on their menus!”

Libertarian: “Regulating the size of sugary drinks or forcing restaurants to post calories is useless. Someone who wants to drink a 32 oz. sugary Coke will drink it whether he can get it all in one 32 oz. cup or two 16 oz. cups. Someone who doesn’t care about calories will just ignore the information and order what he wants.”

On their face, both libertarian counter-arguments are sound. Guns don’t pull their own triggers, people do, and people who really want guns for homicidal or suicidal purposes can get them even if they are banned. Likewise, people who really want 32 oz. of sugary Coca-Cola can figure out that they can purchase two 16 oz. cups, and people who care not about their expanding girth will order what they want, regardless of the calories. 

Nevertheless, when offered as the only or best counter-arguments to the statist position, these arguments leave something to be desired. One reason is simply that they say nothing about the wrongness of empowering the state to run our lives: to violate our right to defend ourselves just because some other people might use their guns to commit murder or suicide (not that the latter is any business of the state); to violate the right of businesses and customers to engage in trade on their own terms; and so on. Another reason that these arguments leave something to be desired—and this is the reason I want to focus on here—is that they implicitly deny the fact that our environment or, to use a currently fashionable term, our choice-architecture, can have an influence on our choices. 

True, if you really, really, really want to commit suicide/homicide/sugarcide, you can get a gun or guzzle two—or, for that matter, four—16 oz. cups of Coke, ban or no ban. But what if your desire, though strong, is not quite that strong? Isn’t it true that if you are feeling suicidal, you are less likely to commit suicide if you don’t have an easy way of doing so, such as putting a gun to your head? Isn’t it true that if you’re in a homicidal rage with your roommate, you are less likely to kill him if you don’t have a gun to hand? Or that if you are trying to cut down on your intake of sugary drinks, you are more likely to succeed if the largest cup available at your favorite fast food restaurant is 16 oz.? Unless you think that all human beings have superhuman strength of will, you must agree that these proposed regulations can help some people avoid actions that they would regret in retrospect. This is compatible with pointing out that the regulations might have bad unintended consequences overall. In turn, this claim is compatible with acknowledging that, for all anyone knows, they might have the intended good effects overall—without giving an inch to the statist about the morality of such bans. 

Acknowledging these possibilities is simply acknowledging that we human beings are prone to temptation and weakness of will, and that our environment can make a difference to how well we deal with them. By contrast, denying these possibilities in arguing against the statist suggests that we don’t really have very good grounds for our position. Moreover, any argument that relies on the premise that we are immune to situational influences undercuts one of the best libertarian arguments against big government, namely, that, as even Aristotle recognized, too much power corrupts even “the best of men” (Politics 1287a31-32)—or, to put it differently, that the choice-architecture of big government tempts politicians to grab ever more power. Would any libertarian claim that the problem is not big government, it’s the people in it?