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The Surrender of Choice

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Why do Americans continue to support such governmental programs as public schooling, Social Security, and drug laws? Advocates argue that these programs display a deep regard for education, compassion, and responsibility. However, isn’t it possible that by surrendering the power of making individual choices in these important parts of life, education, compassion, and responsibility have actually been stultified?

Consider public schooling. In the absence of compulsory-attendance laws requiring a government-approved education, parents would have to decide between a multitude of market-provided educational vehicles for each of their children. They would have to consider each child’s special educational needs and then search the marketplace for the educational program best suited to meet those needs. That might not be an easy process, as it would entail a series of choices based on much imperfect knowledge. Moreover, since the choices would necessarily affect the future of their children, the responsibility would be enormous.

With public schooling, people have permitted the state to effectively remove the burden of such difficult choices. The only real choices with which people are left are: Which public-school district should I live in? Should I homeschool?

Consider Social Security. Here, the state interferes with the ability of people to make two of the most important choices of their lives: how to handle their own retirement and whether to honor their mother and father, especially in times of need.

Through Social Security, the state seizes a large portion of a person’s income during his younger, more productive years, with the promise that the person will be taken care of by the state when he grows old. But if a person is shielded from the consequences of his own spending and investment decisions, how can he possibly nurture a sense of individual responsibility? Moreover, if a person truly needs help in his later years, doesn’t that provide an opportunity for his children, neighbors, friends, and church groups to display a sense of compassion by voluntarily choosing to help him out?

By delegating these decisions to “society” through Social Security, people have chosen to escape the difficult process of making such individual choices. Should I go on that vacation or should I instead save for my retirement? Should I help my parents who are desperately in need or should I abandon them? Wouldn’t such inner struggles be more apt to nurture traits such as responsibility and compassion than rendering decisions to the state through majority vote would be?

It would be difficult to find a better example of government failure than the war on drugs. This war has been waged for eight decades and not even the most ardent drug warrior would suggest that victory is just around the corner.

One argument that proponents of the war still use is that if drugs were legalized, drug abuse would soar. In other words, we need drug prohibition because American adults need to be protected from their own choices. We can’t have heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or any other harmful drug (well, except alcohol and tobacco) available for purchase in stores because Americans are incapable of handling so much responsibility.

However, when people surrender the power to make peaceful choices to the state, isn’t the result the exact opposite of what is intended? Don’t we instead end up with a society of irresponsible, uncaring, uneducated, childlike adults who are scared to death of making choices in their lives and who want to be shielded from the responsibility and consequences that come with making choices?

The tragedy of all this is not simply a moral one – that is, one in which people have relinquished to the collective much of the individual free will with which they have been endowed. It is also a psychological problem, for oftentimes it is through the process of making choices – even erroneous, irresponsible, sinful ones – that a person discovers what is important in life.

Thus, by surrendering the power to make choices over a large portion of their peaceful activities, 20th-century Americans have deprived themselves not only of opportunities individually to do the right thing but also of opportunities that would have helped them to find greater meaning in their lives.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.