No Harm, No Foul

I'm going to take a break for a moment from talking about personal policy and talk about a public policy issue that's been on my mind lately. It's not something you'll hear about in the news or at dinner parties (unless you hang out with my kind of friends), probably because it's too big picture to be addressed by any one law.

The question is this: should an individual's actions which have no adverse effect on any other individuals be subject to state scrutiny? In other words, should we charge people with fouls when they didn't cause any harm?

Some reasons often given for doing so is that our society has an interest in protecting individuals from the harm they're capable of doing to themselves. It is understood that children cannot properly understand the risks of certain actions, so we forbid them outright from those behaviors until they're old enough to make the decisions for themselves. As a society, we've decided that sex and certain drugs (alcohol, tobacco, porn, and gambling) are too dangerous, and their inherent risks too slippery, for children to be allowed access to them. Of course, legally forbidding them from having sex or using those drugs does not prevent children from gaining access to any of them, especially porn and sex, which nobody has any real way of keeping out of their reach.

But what about adults? Are adults fully capable of assessing personal risks? If not, should we allow our legislative representatives and courts to assess those risks for us? Is there a legitimate societal interest in not allowing me to make decisions which can only harm me? I think, by definition, there is not. Though, whether there are in fact any actions I could take which would have absolutely no impact on others would be a hard thing indeed to prove.

For example, take Mayor Bloomberg's attempt to ban greater-than-16oz-sodas, which the New York Supreme Court ruled was "arbitrary and capricious." Mr. Bloomberg cited the obesity epidemic as a reason for the ban, which takes the question away from "No Harm, No Foul" since we as a society pay for the costs of obesity through Medicare/Medicaid/VA/insurance costs/a-million-other-ways even if we're not personally obese. However, we can ignore that for a moment and ask, "Is the fact that large sodas can make people ill sufficient reason to ban certain vendors from selling them?"

I say, no, not really. Would their lives be better if they stopped drinking giant cups of soda? Absolutely. Do I care about them and want what's best for them? Yes, yes I do. But do I think the state has any business making those decisions for other people in a free country? Not in the slightest.

Here are some steps I think it would be OK for the state to make to help people avoid the risks of drug use and related victim-less behaviors:
  • Education about the dangers, but also about the proper and safe use.
  • Regulation to keep minors not capable of deciding for themselves out of danger.
That's pretty much it. I think we should be able to poison ourselves as much as we want, up until the point we punish others for our sins (making them pay treatment costs, etc.). The state should only start criminalizing behaviors when those behaviors do damage to others.

One more thought: if we truly believe that children aren't capable of making the right decisions for themselves and that's why we prohibit them from certain dangerous behaviors, then we also should not punish them when they go around our back and do the behaviors anyway. That just makes it harder to regulate them. If you give a kid a Minor in Possession charge the first time you see him drinking, you'll never see him drink again. But he'll be drinking, that I promise. It will just be behind closed doors.