In general, as a libertarian, I’m skeptical of any new laws that people want to propose. Controlling people just goes against my grain. But I’ve noticed lately that people of differing policies seem to be talking past one another. So, I’d like to propose a universal framework for considering laws.
In general, I think any law should be decided upon as a balance sheet–with benefits weighed against costs. The important thing is to recognize fully all the costs and benefits and reject the things that shouldn’t be included.
I’ll start with my libertarian observation that any law, of necessity, entails a curtailment of individual freedom. That’s (for me) a big run up in the costs category. But different people are going to assign different weightings to different rights and freedoms. The important thing to recognize here is that people will assign different weightings to the loss of freedom and to understand that a different weighting isn’t the hallmark of stupidity or evil. The one time I think it’s genuinely fair to discount the cost of freedom is when you have a situation where a law is banning an actual violation of individual rights. I think it’s fair to say we shouldn’t mourn the loss of people’s freedom to rape, rob, or kill other people.
The second consideration is whether the law is going to work. Too often people demand laws because they don’t like something or consider something awful, and assume the legislative process is a magic wand to make the world be the way they want. But it isn’t. And that kind of magical thinking is how we wound up with the wonders of organized crime during Prohibition and the glories of our modern War on Drugs. Generally, trying to ban something that’s wildly popular is a pretty sure recipe for massive flouting of the law. It’s not a perfect guideline, but, if you already have a bunch of laws on the books about something, one more probably isn’t going to do the trick. The benefit you see of a law should be weighted by the probability of the law actually working.
On a related note, ask yourself what the secondary and tertiary effects of your law will be. Sometimes these can be positive, but, much more often, they fall on the cost side of the ledger. In fact, quite a few of the problems people have that they want to pass new laws for are the result of previous laws that people thought would magically change human nature. Consider whether the law you’re seeking to implement is going have some relatively easy workaround. If it is, ask yourself what will be the consequences of huge numbers of people availing themselves of that workaround. Make an entry in cost or benefit accordingly.
Now, ask yourself about enforcement. How heavily are you going to have to enforce the law, and, perhaps more importantly, how heavily are you willing to go to enforce the law. Some laws can be implemented with little attention to enforcement. A lot can’t. If the law would be easy to enforce, that probably counts as a benefit. On the other hand, if you’re not willing to go to the extent you’d need to to enforce the law, you should probably count that as a cost. As a libertarian, I tend to implement this standard through what I’ll call the silver-haired, kindly old grandmother rule – if I’m not willing to shoot someone’s silver-haired, kindly old grandmother in the face over it, it probably shouldn’t be a law.
Finally, we get to motivation and morality. Ask yourself, are you advocating this law as a rational means to achieve a specific policy goal, or are you looking to feel good about yourself without much personal effort or sacrifice? If it’s the latter, you should probably discount your expected benefits of the law accordingly or even throw out the proposal in its entirety. Passing laws doesn’t make you a good person. You don’t get moral credit for what you demand someone else do. If you want to be a good person, just go about doing that in your own life without placing demands on everyone else. The rest of us will respect you a lot more.
So, there you have it. This is a framework that, I think, will allow conservatives, libertarians, progressives and liberals all to discuss proposed laws and much of the rest of politics, in a common framework. As a libertarian, my calibration of the framework obviously tilts against any proposed law. But, it can be calibrated lots of different ways. And at least acknowledging the calibration might lead to more meaningful engagement between people with different politics.