Civil liberties are the focus of this column, and we all agree that civil liberties are good things, right? But we don't all agree about specific liberties and their defenders. Some people snipe at sexual rights and the ACLU, others at self-defense rights and the NRA ... We may believe in liberty, but we don't seem to agree on what it is. So, what is liberty? The answer, is that it's anything peaceful, or, put another way, anything done among consenting adults.
Some people will answer: But, you have no right to smoke grass, own guns, have gay sex, travel without showing ID, or open a business without a license if the government says otherwise! The law tells us what our civil liberties are, and the government, elected by a majority of the people, makes the law.
To put it bluntly: Screw the government, screw the law and screw the majority.
If you want to marry somebody of the same sex, toast the festivities with marijuana bought at an unlicensed bar, and celebrate with a machinegun shoot (well ... I suggest you reverse the order of the shoot and the toast), it ain't nobody's business if you do.
In fact, Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do is the title of a wonderful book written by Peter McWilliams and published in 1996. In the book, the full text of which is now available online, McWilliams wrote, "You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other."
McWilliams didn't invent this idea. It's an old one, perhaps most closely associated with the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote:
[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
In the modern context, McWilliams elaborated:
Laws against consensual activities create a society of fear, hatred, bigotry, oppression, and conformity; a culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice, and growth. The prosecution of consensual crimes "trickles down" into ostracizing, humiliating, and scorning people who do things that are not quite against the law but probably should be. "They're different; therefore, they're bad" seems to be the motto for a large segment of our society. We are addicted to normalcy; even if it means we must lop off significant portions of ourselves, we must conform.
There's no need to accept the validity of all these arguments; the validity of any one is sufficient reason to wipe away all the laws against consensual activities.
"A culture opposed to personal expression, diversity, freedom, choice and growth"? Isn't that a bit strong?
Not really. You see, McWilliams died in 2000. A cancer and AIDS patient himself, he was arrested while helping another writer conduct research for a book on growing marijuana for medical purposes. His mother's house was held as collateral for the bond that secured his freedom while awaiting sentencing, and the chief prosecutor in the case threatened to seize the home if McWilliams was found with even a trace of the marijuana he used to control the severe nausea caused by his medication.
Unable to control his nausea, McWilliams choked to death on his own vomit.
Some people would make excuses for the prosecutor in the case. He was just doing his job according to the law, after all.
But a law that would deny a man medicine and cause him to choke to death is evil, and so are those who voluntarily help to enforce such laws.
We make a big deal about the democratic nature of our political system, but there's nothing about 50% plus one that could sanctify laws and actions like those that led to the death of Peter McWilliams. If we recognize that you have the right to do peaceful things -- that is to engage in trade, or to love, or to consume -- by yourself and with other consenting adults, then it doesn't matter if the people intruding into your life are lone wolves or a majority of the population. They're wrong to intrude and they're doing evil by sticking their noses where those noses aren't welcome.
Because it ain't nobody's business if you do.
Unfortunately, governments and our neighbors have grown accustomed to interfering in what isn't their business. Occasionally, they give a hat tip to the philosophical tradition represented by Mill and company by arguing that, if you're allowed to smoke grass or own a gun or operate a storefront without a license, others really are harmed by your subsequent (alleged) lower productivity at work, or the possibility that you'll go postal, or the vague potential for you defraud customers in a way that could allegedly be prevented by an official piece of paper.
This stretches the idea of "harm to others" so far out of shape as to be unrecognizable -- except as a dishonest intellectual dodge. Accepting the argument that what you might do, or what could reduce your utility to society, is any business of the government, leaves absolutely nothing beyond the reach of nosey busybodies with official titles.
It also, incidentally, reduces you to a cog in the machine.
Laws that interfere in your right "to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of a nonconsenting other" go too far. They should be defied and sabotaged. Governments that insist on passing such laws are illegitimate and should be dumped. And majorities that put such governments in power? Well, they're just wrong, and should be told to take a hike.
Defending liberty isn't about playing by the rules. It's about judging whether the rules, and the people who enforce them, are worth respecting.