Recent public-policy debates have taken an ominous turn. Proponents of new government impositions increasingly justify their proposals by asserting that the individuals who would be adversely affected should not complain because they do not need whatever the government action would deny them.
We’ve heard this during debates over both higher taxes on upper-income people and gun control. Those favoring higher tax rates regularly claimed that wealthier people “don’t need a tax cut,” and in the current debate over new gun restrictions, advocates often ask why anyone needs an “assault weapon” or high-capacity magazine.
It’s not my intention today to rebut the advocates of higher tax rates or new gun restrictions. On those topics I’ll simply say that these policies constitute aggression against nonaggressors, and so are wrong on principle. Instead, I want to focus on the invocation of need — specifically, lack thereof — in justification of government restrictions on freedom.
What’s need got to do with it?
Need of course is relevant to the case for freedom in this sense: We need freedom if we wish to live fully human lives. Freedom is the ability to pursue one’s chosen peaceful activities unmolested by any person or group that would use force or the threat of force to interfere. This prohibition on force logically must apply to the state, because no group of persons can have rights with respect to the use of force not possessed by all other individuals. If you and I have no right to interfere with other people’s peaceful activities or to take their property against their will, the men and women who comprise the government cannot have such rights either.
The state is neither a mystical entity nor something that can acquire new rights by democratic vote. It is an organization of mere people and therefore subject to the same moral prohibitions as any individual. Let those who believe otherwise make their case. Since they are calling for an exception to a commonsense and logical moral principle, the burden is on them.
Since we need freedom to live fully human lives, it can’t be the case that our freedom may properly be curtailed whenever a legislature or the majority of the voting public decides that we don’t need some particular thing, such as a greater quantity of our own money or a particular kind of weapon, the mere possession of which violates no one else’s freedom. Quite the contrary: Freedom requires precisely that each of us gets to decide what we “need” and then to pursue it in peace. The only constraint is that we not infringe other people’s freedom to do the same.
So it can’t make any sense to argue that tax rates may properly be raised on certain people because they don’t need the money. Likewise, it is demagoguery to assert that government may ban certain kinds of rifles or high-capacity magazines because, in someone’s opinion, nobody needs them. How can anyone know what someone else needs or doesn’t need? At the least, the claim is highly presumptuous. People apparently want these things, and it is easy to imagine peaceful uses of them. End of story. Need is irrelevant.
Even if statements about the lack of need could be shown to be true, that could not warrant the interventionist policies. As already suggested, the freedom to engage in a particular activity is not grounded on need. Moreover, think what would follow from the principle that government will allow us freedom to perform only activities it thinks we need to perform. Would government bureaus be set up to assess our need for things, with our freedom to act hanging in the balance? It sounds like a bad dystopian novel.
Are statements about need even meaningful? What does it mean to need something? Two possibilities occur: One may want the thing in question rather badly, or one may want it in order to do or obtain something else. The first is a weak notion of need, if it qualifies at all; the second is a hypothetical notion that can be shown to be true or false only in reference to something else: If I want to stay alive, I need water. One might say we need only those things on which life depends, which would narrow the class of needs considerably. But some mischief-maker will no doubt counter by asking why one needs to live. The old comedian Myron Cohen used to tell a story about a spunky old woman who, when told she had to do something she didn’t want to do, shot back, “All I gotta do is die.”
Suffice it to say that need is a slippery term. We certainly shouldn’t let the government appropriate the term as a criterion for when it may curtail our freedom.
If politicians seize the power to sit in judgment of what we need and to prohibit things they deem unneeded, we will be in big trouble indeed. We most definitely do not need that.