Thursday, May 31, 2012

The freedom of self-destruction?

Freedom is a funny thing. There are a lot of ways to describe and define what "freedom" means. Freedom will mean different things to a libertarian, a liberal, a conservative, or an anarchist. When it comes to US domestic policy, Freedom is a powerful buzzword. And it raises an important question. What do the American People have the freedom to do? What is it that we are allowed to do in the name of personal liberty and freedom? What are the limits to our freedom?

In New York, for example, there is a controversial debate going on now as Michael Bloomberg recently announced that he is planning to ban the sale of sugary drinks and soda above a certain size. The argument is that these drinks, especially in excess, contribute overwhelmingly to obestity in children and adults, and can lead to diabetes due to their high sugar content. The opposition claims that, like cigarettes, people should have the right to buy something that they know is unhealthy for them. They invoke the "slippery slope" argument, which is pretty poor logic in any circumstance. Where does it end, they ask? Will they ban all soda in any size? All candy bars? What about banning sugary juice drinks? Will we be forced to drink only water? Clearly, that is not the case, but it is worth having a discussion over just what people should have the freedom to do. Should people have the freedom to drive without seatbelts, even though it is in their best interest to wear one? States like New Hampshire certainly think so, while other states say no.

In the case of cigarettes, there is an additional level of complexity because smoking can harm people who are nearby, and not just the person who is smoking. Should people have the freedom to smoke wherever and whenever they want? Traditionally, lawmakers have said "no." When I was living in New Hampshire, I saw the state change it's law to ban smoking in public restaurants. Overnight, it became more healthful to go out to dinner because you didn't have to breathe in the smoke from the "smoking section" of the restaurant.

And what about the freedom to know? How much should we be allowed to know about what our country is doing, domestically and overseas, to ensure our safety? A recent report by NPR highlights a committee that was meant to oversee these government operations, but that has not been active for years because Bush and Obama have both either failed to put forth individuals for consideration or have had those appointees stonewalled in the Senate. The question then becomes, do Americans have the right to know and the freedom to request information about our government's operations? And where does that freedom stop in the name of safety, security, and privacy?

This is an important, ongoing debate to be having at the national level. The more we discuss and keep this at the forefront of policy, the more it will be defined and reflected in legislation. We as Americans have a lot of freedoms, even the freedom to choose things that are harmful to ourselves like oversized sodas or cigarettes. What we have to discuss is what the limits of our own freedoms should be, and what the government's role should be in either maintaining that limit or changing it in the name of liberty. Should we have the freedom to live in poverty? Should we have the freedom to treat our children the way we want, no matter what? These are the questions, along with many others, that will drive this debate in the future. As with everything else, no answer is set in stone, no position is final, and the discourse will only strengthen us as a nation.

No comments: