I’ve talked about how these rules affect my religious practice and my everyday life. Now we move on to a bigger sphere: politics. How do I consistently apply these rules to my political philosophies? Those of you who know me, know that I consider myself a Libertarian. Most pagans that I know are Democrats, so I find myself a pretty rare bird, although I’ve met other pagan Libertarians (and I’ve even heard there are pagan Republicans in the wild!). I sympathize considerably with anarcho-voluntaryists like those leading the Free State Project, but I feel like the Libertarians are the next best step along the path to freedom, rather than aiming straight for no government at all.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary out there denouncing the very idea that pagans can be libertarians without being hypocrites. Obviously, I disagree. Let’s look at some details.
The basic Wiccan Rede is the most obvious connection between my religious ethics and my political ethics. I see no reason to control somebody else’s behavior if they are not harming anybody.
There are those who would extend this to “harming themselves,” but I do not feel comfortable drawing that line. I do not know what may be driving a person to addiction, to physical self-abuse, to what I might see as self-harm. I can not see the world from inside their heads. Where I feel uncomfortable with the thought of smoking a pack a day, for some people they truly enjoy it, and are accepting of the possible health sacrifice that accompanies it. Likewise, my personal enjoyment of a beer and a smoke at the end of the day, perfectably acceptable comforts for my life, might be offensive to somebody else. We need to be able to determine our own level of comfort, joy, and acceptable risk, and these will be different for everybody. Obviously, I am against the drug war, but I am also against draconian smoking bans, government food edicts, sin taxes, government involvement in marriage, illegal prostitution, and bans on suicide.
When a person’s behavior begins to harm others, then it becomes appropriate to step in. Some of these are obvious, like murder, rape, assault, theft; all of these should be illegal, and justify intervention. Some are not so obvious, and will always involve a constant oscillation of litigation, regulation, and debate. When it comes to things like parenting, property rights, noise, driving, and other areas that currently come under a plethora of laws and regulations, I tend to prefer erring on the side of freedom, and counting on civil litigation for truly egregious cases. I tend to see more lives being harmed by the state stepping in too soon and too forcefully, than would be harmed if we relaxed the rules a bit. We cannot eliminate all the harm in the world simply by making more rules and regulations. Therefore, in the name of minimizing harm, I believe it is very, very, very important to look at all possible effects of a law or regulation before implementing it, including negative side effects and ripples. When we only look at the positive effects, we are blinding ourselves to the certain harm that will come along for the ride. That harm needs to be brought out into the open, weighed and measured, balanced against the potential good. I do not believe it is right to lower the standard of living of a thousand people in order to raise the standard of a few. I do not believe that there is no societal cost too high for saving a human life. I do not believe that you have to acceptable collateral damage in the name of the greater good.
I would be very happy indeed if something like this rule became a little more prominent in our nation’s concept of justice and retribution. If you cause harm, you must pay the price for it. If you cause no harm, there is no price to pay. (That would eliminate a lot of obnoxious nuisance laws right off the bat!) And unless your crime is locking another human in a cage, I don’t see that as an appropriate response. My thoughts in this area are constantly evolving, but I do find myself somewhat offended at the idea of locking people in cages for things like littering, smoking, drawing with chalk, dancing in a public space, making obnoxious statements, ingesting certain substances, or trying to end their life. (Seriously, how stupid is that?) When it comes to murder, my first instinct is to support the death penalty, but knowing how easy it is for the justice system to get it wrong, I just can’t do that, as I would be supporting the certain execution of innocents. Perhaps prison is the only viable solution, then, for high crimes like murder, but it should be used much more selectively, with punishments instead tailored to the crimes committed and harm inflicted.
I support jury nullification, creative sentencing, work-release programs, and fines. I oppose mandatory minimums, “three strikes” laws, most licensing requirements, requirements that involve carrying the correct paperwork with you at all times, police or judicial “fishing expeditions” and roadblocks, and the general trend towards militarization of the police and the creation of a police state.
This is an area where, if this rule is correctly applied, I think some of the problems other pagans have with Libertarianism could be fixed somewhat. Compulsion is wrong, in both directions. Most of the time, this rule comes into play when Libertarians say that employers, business, and individuals should not be forced to do things against their will. In general, I tend to hold with that. I would rather support education than regulation. Rather than compel all bars and restaurants to ban smoking entirely, I would prefer to allow each business to make their own choice (many were making that choice on their own, before laws went into effect) while allowing non-smoking advocates to make their case as loudly as they want. Rather than compel employers through anti-discrimination laws and quotas, I would prefer to support continued education and voluntary boycotts, allowing the tide of public opinion to continue to overwhelm those who continue to hate. (Before anybody says anything, I am willing to accept that government intervention in this area was necessary 50, 100, and 150 years ago, mostly because government intervention helped cause the problem in the first place.) Rather than compel businesses across the country to take on accommodating expenses that could cause them to shut down and may never be needed, I would rather support continuing education and public advocacy, again combined with voluntary boycotts.
Harm via compulsion applies in another direction, though. I think there is a place for government recognition of harm caused by discrimination and harrassment. I just think that it may be better handled through civil litigation than through the constant growth of laws and regulations. In these areas, when the government makes proactive regulations, requiring paperwork and expense, it is assuming everybody is guilty and needs to be watched and controlled. I would prefer to assume that everybody is innocent until proven guilty and in need of watching and regulating, particularly on issues that are in obvious societal flux.
This is a pretty basic look. When you get into the political realm, the scope is so incredibly broad that it is impossible to apply any one hard and fast rule to all situations. Everything lies amidst shades of gray, with compromises a constant necessity. I think too many people of any political stripe forget this, trying to treat every situation as black and white when it can’t ever be that way. I will never see any kind of Libertarian utopia in my lifetime, and it will probably never happen. But I will continue to approach situations and controversies from that point of view, and make my own decisions in that light.