What is a Personal Choice?

By Robert Bernstein   |   August 12, 2021

The 1960s TV show Get Smart often offered deep insights cloaked in humor. In the episode, “Do I Hear a Vaults?” the Chief gets locked in a bank vault with agent Larrabee. There is only enough air to last 24 hours and it is on a time lock that won’t open until the end of a holiday weekend.

Larrabee starts doing exercises, using up the air even faster. The Chief asks him to stop. Larrabee replies, “You use your half the way you want, and I’ll use mine the way I want.”

To me, this summarizes a certain Libertarian view that creates so many of the world’s problems. What does it even mean for something to be a personal choice?

Right now, COVID is on the rise again. In many places, no vaccine is available. But in the U.S., the vaccine is available to everyone for free. The youngest children and a small minority of adults are not eligible to receive the vaccine. But millions of adults are refusing to take the vaccine as a matter of “personal choice.” Except that choice affects millions of other people. Their bodies become a breeding ground for variants that can be more contagious and/or more harmful.

But there is a bigger crisis that will be around long after COVID is managed: the climate crisis. Millions of Americans are driving gas-guzzling private motor vehicles that were originally designed as farm equipment. I call them Selfish Useless Vehicles because it fits the acronym SUV. Or Pigmobiles for short. Massive SUVs also pose a threat to other vehicles by blocking views, having mis-matched bumpers and creating an arms race of who “wins” in a collision.

Even before the climate crisis was widely known, it was known that fossil fuels are a finite resource. One that wars are fought over. And it was known that burning them creates air pollution and acid rain.

When I see someone driving alone in a piggy vehicle (as is usually the case) I see someone with a sign advertising their selfish attitude.

We live on a finite planet with other limited resources as well. Water is one we are especially aware of living in a desert in Southern California. Watering a lawn with drinking water is a “personal choice” that affects others. You may think it is OK if you are pumping from a well on your own property.

But you are pumping from an aquifer shared by other people and other living things. Many aquifers in the U.S. are already nearing total collapse, quite literally. When the water is pumped beyond a certain point, the soil collapses. Even if it rains later, that soil can no longer absorb the water falling on it. Ever.

In contrast, the U.S. is obsessed with prosecuting people for crimes that are not even crimes in many other industrialized countries. The two most obvious cases are drug use and prostitution. These are sometimes called “victimless crimes” because they only involve those who are doing the practice.

But is that true? I would argue that almost everything a person does influences others. But one then needs to ask what the most effective policy is for dealing with a realistic situation.

Prostitution is called “the oldest profession” for a reason. One can argue about exploitation and about whether a sex worker got to that work as a result of abuse earlier in life. But sex work is not likely ever to go away. Some countries have made it completely legal, taxing it and regulating it. Others allow states or localities to decide. Some allow personal selling of sex but prohibit brothels or other organized selling.

Major countries that have legalized sex work entirely or in large part include India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Colombia, Spain, Argentina, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom. In general, the result is safer working conditions for sex workers and better public health.

Fewer countries have legalized drug use, but some have done so quite successfully. Portugal is perhaps the most famous success story. They have decriminalized the consumption of all drugs for personal use. The result is less crime and more people seeking treatment.

I will revisit these issues in different ways in future articles. One solution I will offer is that people need to pay the true cost of the effect of their behavior on others. Another point that is apparent in the case of sex and drugs: Public policy needs to be directed toward best outcomes. It should not be about “moralizing.”


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