HL Mencken used to say that a puritan is someone possessed of the all-pervasive fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.
Mencken would have noticed lots of puritans about today, huh, some of them possessing legislative power.
There’s even a strain of “libertarian puritans” – or to be more precise, puritans who would like to be freedom-lovers but who just can’t fully rein in their fears about other people. They support freedom for this, and freedom for this . . . but there’s no way they can support freedom for that.
That is to say: they are consenting adults who can support the freedoms that they do agree with – like drinking wine, choosing their own lightbulbs, and being generally free from coercion and electoral abuse -- but not the freedoms they disagree with – like the freedom that other consenting adults would like to keep their own money, to use their own cell phones in their own cars, to drive fast, to carry a firearm in self-defence, or to put into their own body what (and who) they like.
That’s a lot harder for some to support, but freedom is only freedom if it’s freedom across the board. Real freedom, you see, is indivisible. Whereas for the puritan, freedom is “Freedom for me, but not for thee!”
However freedom, real freedom, means allowing other people to do things that you disagree with, without calling for laws to stop them.
It means allowing other people to do things that offend you, without insisting they be locked up for it.
It means supporting the freedom for people to do things you would never do, knowing however that as long as they aren’t initiating force or fraud against someone else then it’s their right to do what they will – just as long as they take responsibility for what they do.
Sure, there are people who will make mistakes; but allowing the freedom to fail means making possible the freedom to succeed. There are people who will stuff up; but allowing the freedom to get things wrong means making possible the freedom to get things right. Real freedom means taking ownership of our successes, and of the things we do that suck. Real freedom means making the world safe for reason; which means making it possible for some to be stupid. There it is.
My freedom ends where your nose begins, and vice versa. And the flip side of freedom is responsibility. Without both, you have neither. But if you’re arguing for both, then you’ll succeed. As PJ O’Rourke says there is only one basic human right, and that is the right to do as you damn well please. And with that there is only one human duty: the duty to take the consequences.
It strikes me however that there are many people who recognise and value freedom in their own area of interest, but they still blanch when it comes to recognising freedom across the board – for the freedom for other people to do things that they don’t like, either because they’re not yet fully comfortable in their support for fully-fledged freedom, or because the welfare state makes them take responsibility for those other people.
My advice to them is to lose their freedom inhibitions. To recognise that the effect of banning folly is simply to fill the world with fools. To understand that arguing for freedom on every issue pushes back the forces of greyness on a broad front – even when it’s freedom for something we wouldn’t do ourselves – whereas arguing that some freedoms should be limited only ends up making the grey ones hungry to take more.
Freedom for ye is also freedom for me, if we’re arguing for freedom across the board. So bring on the drugs and fast cars. For ye, if not necessarily for me.