Watching the Indiana legislature is sort of like driving past a big wreck….hard not to slow down and stare, even when you know you should look away. The debate over a measure intended to close down “clinics” (aka Planned Parenthood) by requiring them to build mini-hospitals and force patients to undergo two trans-vaginal ultrasounds got me thinking more generally about the nature of law in our contemporary society.
I often tell students that the underlying premise of the Bill of Rights is “live and let live.” There was a libertarian philosophy that heavily influenced our approach to government, a respect for the individual right to personal autonomy, best summed up as: people have a right to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they don’t harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as they are willing to extend an equal right to self-determination to others.
The seeming simplicity of that construct belies the difficulty Americans have had in applying it. The confounding issue is the nature of harm (and sometimes, as in the so-called “abortion wars,” the definition of “person”).
Smoking is a good example. If you are an adult, the government has no business interfering with your choice to engage in a bad habit. When it became known that passive smoke is harmful, however, the government was justified in stepping in with regulations intended to protect non-smokers from the effects of your bad habit. Seat belts are a more dicey proposition; there is an argument that drivers who fail to buckle up sustain more injuries in accidents, thus driving up the insurance premiums for everyone else, but that’s a pretty speculative harm on which to base a fairly substantial intrusion.
The problem is, as a society, we are becoming more and more connected. Increasingly, the actions of one person affect many others, and if those actions threaten some sort of harm, we look to government to intervene. Worse, the Puritans who have always been a part of American culture remain with us, insistent scolds who want government-as-moral-nanny-state, government that both protects us from ourselves and prevents us from sinning (as they define sin).
We may never agree on where to draw the line. Government surely has the right to tell us we can’t rob the local liquor store, and it just as surely has no right to insist that we eat our broccoli, but between those poles lies great conflict.
We need to become much more thoughtful about the nature of the harms that justify government interventions in our lives. I understand the ongoing debates about abortion–those debates spring from very different beliefs about “personhood.” Seat belts, not so much.