Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

    States’ Rights: Societal diversity means more fun for everyone

    Last night, celebrating some of our last times at Whitman, some seniors and I returned to our first-year dorm roots; we stayed up really late having passionate discussions about serious topics and making friends. One of the topics we discussed was individual rights, as they relate to cigarette-smoking and gun control. I present to you: why individual freedom coupled with democracy means that we should have freer immigration in this world.

    It’s all about trade-offs. We’ve struck a delicate balance in this country between individual freedoms and ability to control our collective destiny as a state. Part of the purpose of a democratic government is to enforce decisions that we make together as citizens of a state.

    We’ve got a constitution set up to limit really enormous changes to a much higher level of consensus, but otherwise we’ve got quite a bit of leeway on what we want our society to be like. In general, we make policy decisions about actions that affect others; we don’t legislate about what you eat because it only affects you. We do legislate who you can kill and when.

    Right now, as a society thus far, we’ve decided to preference individual freedom on ownership of guns. Pretty much anybody (other than convicted criminals) can own almost any kind of gun; in some places you can carry one on you secretly. Thus, lots of kids can grow up shooting cans in their backyard and having oodles of dangerous fun. And elsewhere, or perhaps not, kids can die of accidental shotgun wounds, or be shot at by a classmate at school. We value the individual freedom to own a gun and thus are willing to make that trade-off. And yes, the Constitution does talk about guns a little, but if enough of us wanted to change it, we could.

    We just don’t.

    Parts of the country are going the other way with cigarettes. Sixty-six housing authorities in the U.S. now ban smoking inside multi-unit residential buildings because it tends to contaminate non-smokers’ apartments. In general, those arguing that they shouldn’t have to be exposed to carcinogens from other peoples’ addictions are winning. We don’t ban smoking altogether, though, because it can be done in a way that won’t affect anyone else’s health. We do, however, raise cigarette taxes quite frequently, which seems to suggest that we think either that smokers are a burden to society, or that fewer smokers is better for society.

    One of my friends last night pointed out that because high cigarette taxes are a burden for smokers, particularly smokers without a lot of disposable income, we should be sure before raising them that we’re achieving the optimum benefit for society. We decided (as you do late at night) that the best way to achieve that would be to make smoking cessation programs less expensive than a smoking habit, by using cigarette taxes to subsidize such programs. That way, we’re pricing cigarettes at what we apparently believe is their cost to society, but we leave people with a real choice.

    A different friend argues that guns are an individual freedom like cigarettes; they don’t have to affect others. Instead of restricting use, we should discourage gun crime by jacking up deterrence. Throw anyone convicted of using a gun in a crime into jail for the rest of their life. Execute gun smugglers. Of course, with this argument you run into the debatable merits of the death penalty, and the cost-benefit trade-off of keeping people in prison for long periods of time.

    So, fine, the society I live in right now has decided no to cigarettes in public, yes to guns in public. I should now have two options: one, stay in my society and accept these decisions or try to change public opinion, or two, leave for a society whose decisions are more amenable to me. For example, I personally would rather give up my right to own a gun in order to live in a place where my future children will not be at risk of dying from gunshot wounds. I should be allowed to seek such a place. “America: Love it or Leave it” only works as a motto if leaving is actually an option.

    This partially explains why I am so crazy about the idea of the EU, despite its many flaws. I love the idea that moving countries isn’t a big deal. Each country has its own society. It is also, in some ways, an argument for greater states’ rights, although I’m not quite sure how I feel about that all the time. If our only option in the U.S. is to move states, we should probably ensure that states are allowed to be different from each other. If Texas decides it wants guns, and Washington decides it doesn’t, then we all have a better chance of being able to live in a society that suits us.

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