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The Calling: Risk, Tradeoffs, and Freedom

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In the wake of the Newtown massacre, people from all over the political spectrum are chiming in with their own recommendations of what should be done to prevent this kind of horrific tragedy. For my purposes here, I want to put aside two rather obvious points in order to explore some more subtle ones.

First, for American politicians, especially President Obama, to express anguish over the murder of children while they continue to sanction the murder of children in other countries by unmanned drones (an even more cowardly sort of murder) is hypocrisy of the highest order. Second, the more places designated “gun-free zones,” the more opportunity exists for people to commit mass mayhem with firearms. Our “success” at “solving” the “drug problem” by outlawing drugs and declaring drug-free zones should tell us how unlikely it is that gun bans and gun-free zones will work.

With those points out of the way, there’s a larger set of issues worth considering. Is it even possible to completely prevent the sort of atrocity we saw in Connecticut last week? What would it mean to stop such mass murders forever?

Absent some change in human nature, we will continue to see evil in our midst, not to mention various sorts of psychological disorders that can lead people to do very bad things. To attempt to foreclose any possibility of mass murder would require a surveillance state that I hope would be utterly unacceptable to anyone who values human freedom to any degree.

In his remarks over the weekend, the president said, “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” Aside from the fact that this is exactly the argument his administration makes to justify the murder of innocent children abroad, it must be pointed out that no society worthy of free and dignified human beings can be risk-free.

In other words, the possibility of a Columbine or a Newtown or an Aurora indeed is, at least to some degree, the price we pay for a free society. There are surely ways we can reduce the frequency and severity of such incidents, but we cannot promise to eliminate them.

In the language of economists, “corner solutions” such as those aimed at achieving total security are rarely true solutions. A free society is one in which we are always forced to make tradeoffs; this is one of the prices we pay for freedom. Perhaps a world with 24-hour government monitoring, embedded chips so the state could track our every movement, and the (competent) equivalent of the TSA at the doors to every building could come close to preventing mass shootings, but is that the kind of society in which we want to live?

What is the point of eliminating each and every risk if the cost is our far-more-valuable freedom? (And how do we prevent our armed guardians from going on shooting rampages? Are they immune from evil and from personal problems?)

Unfortunately, the perception that life can be risk-free is too often inculcated in our young people from their earliest days, as their parents and other adults continually restrict their freedom to play and grow on their own because of irrational fears of even the lowest-probability calamities. So-called helicopter parents also look for the corner solution of the perfectly safe childhood — and in the process deny their children the ability to develop independence and the capacity to negotiate conflict.

Few things in life worth achieving come without risk of failure and perhaps even physical harm. The more we raise children who don’t understand this viscerally, the more calls we will see for public policies that aim to eliminate the risk and uncertainty associated with freedom. One can certainly interpret support for expansion of the welfare state, as well as corporate bailouts, as evidence of this way of thinking.

The economist Thomas Sowell has said that “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs,” and he is right. Freedom means making choices; making choices means accepting tradeoffs; and accepting tradeoffs means we can’t have all of everything — nor, most of the time, all of anything. Learning to live with the fact that there isn’t any truly “safe place” for us or our children requires that we take responsibility for our own actions and our own safety. To expect others to make the world perfectly safe for us is both utopian and an abdication of the responsibility that freedom entails.

I hope we, as a nation, can recognize this and be worthy of living in a society of free, responsible, and dignified people. Recent history and the culture of safety do not make me optimistic.

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    Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family. His work has been published in professional journals such as History of Political Economy, Southern Economic Journal, and The Cambridge Journal of Economics. He has also done public policy research for the Mercatus Center, Heartland Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Cato Institute. Horwitz is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada and a contributing editor of The Freeman. He has a PhD in Economics from George Mason University and an AB in Economics and Philosophy from The University of Michigan. He is currently working on a book on classical liberalism and the family.