When I write about deregulating medicine, I alway feel a tiny bit uncomfortable, as the arguments I make -- that having central control can enshrine mistakes, that patients, not regulators, should evaluate what is worth the risk, and so on -- are also the same arguments made by those who promote quack cures. That does not mean they are wrong, I am still fully convinced there is no argument for medical regulation except the usual "we know better than you" which I find wrong in every other area of government, but it is not a good feeling to be repeating the same arguments as those claiming liver flukes are the cause of all cancers, or those pitching ozone cures or iridology. However, as I have thought about it a bit more, it struck me that this is really the litmus test of one's belief in freedom, belief in the rights of individuals, do we accept that an individual has the right to make mistakes? That one has the right not only to choose what we think is good and proper, but the absolute right to do what we, personally, consider to be absolutely wrong?
I ran into a similar problem when considering property rights. After all, one of the greatest infringements on individual property rights are the various laws against discrimination. As I have written in several places, I consider these laws an unjustified extension of government power. it is good and proper for the government to enact laws making the government blind to color, sex, religion and so on, but to try to force private individuals to adopt those beliefs, or even to force them to behave as if they do, is to violate their rights. Of course, this too is an uncomfortable argument, as basically I am arguing for the right of bigots to refuse to serve those they dislike. But, again, that is the point. If I believe an individual has the absolute right to use his property as he wishes, then I have to believe he has the right to use it in ways I find abhorrent. So long as he does no deprive another of his right to life, liberty or property, then he is free to behave as he wishes in using his property, regardless of what I think.
And the list goes on. Many times I have had people agree with every basic argument I made until I began to apply them to specific cases. Suddenly I would hear, "I agree with you in principle, but how can you allow prostitution?" or "we cannot make drugs legal" or some other variation. There are a number of such cases where small government conservatives, or even supposed libertarians, are unwilling to accept the implications of their beliefs, and start making special cases for those few things they simply find too detestable to allow. However, that is what I believe is the real test of one's convictions. If you can look at a behavior or belief you find objectionable, and still argue that others have the right to behave or believe in that way, then you have truly accepted all the implications of your beliefs.
It is not an easy thing to do, to argue for the right to be wrong. On a most superficial level, it is a public relations nightmare. Can you imagine running for office on a platform arguing for the right to be racist? The right to discriminate based on sex or religion? The right to be a prostitute? Drug legalization is finally becoming an acceptable position, so that one is not quite the political suicide it once was, but the history of that should be a lesson for us. Trying to promote an unpopular position, even when it is based on very sound premises, and is supported completely by one's political principles, can be political suicide. Even if you say you personally oppose the act, but believe it should not be a crime, you are still going to be seen as "the man who promoted racism". And thus, I have very little hope that any politician in my lifetime will argue for true property rights, or rights of association. Likewise, I doubt medical deregulation will ever take place. Of course, we already embrace quackery in the form of homeopathy, but most people ignore that, and think our system is perfect, and would view opposing it as embracing quack cures. Then again, there is a significant minority who are believers in quack remedies, so, in this one case, it may be possible at some time in the future, we may see some progress. (Though, despite my belief in the right to be wrong, it still just feels wrong to be cheering for the quack cures to win.)
In the end, though, we will eventually have to accept, despite the public relations nightmare, despite the fact that it means siding with some distasteful individuals, and though it means arguing for the right for individuals to behave in repellent, offensive and self-destructive ways, supporting freedom does mean fighting for the right for everyone to follow their own course, and that includes the right to be wrong. Liberalism, all modern authoritarianism, is, after all, based upon the exact opposite principle, that is the need to protect those poor benighted "other people"* from making the wrong choice. We need social security because some can't plan for retirement. We need minimum wage because some people take jobs that pay too little. We need regulations because people choose badly and hurt themselves. Modern authoritarianism is all about the smart and enlightened "we" protecting the ignorant "them" from making mistakes. And so, though it may not be popular, in the long run, we have face that our fight is, for better or worse, the fight for the right to be wrong, to go against the conventional wisdom, to ignore the demands of the enlightened, and so what we want.
Perhaps that is the best approach. Not to argue for the right to be wrong, but for the right to oppose the buys bodies and meddlers, to set our own course rather than be forced to follow that set by those who are convinced they know better. Perhaps if we can show the arrogance of liberalism, the underlying belief that a few wise souls know better than the ignorant masses, we can even get some benefit out of our struggle to support the right to be wrong. But, whether we can or not, at least to ourselves, in our own hearts, even if we do not mention it often in public, we still must recognize, we are supporting the right for others to be wrong, to do what they will, even if we dislike it. If we do not make note of this, then we risk falling into the same error we have seen time and again, fighting for freedom "to a point", making exceptions to regulate things we dislike, allowing freedom "except" this or that, exempting what we find reprehensible from protection. And, if we do so, then we undermine our message, destroy our own beliefs, and hand the argument to the opposition**.
And so, though it may be uncomfortable, we need to recognize, freedom means just that, total freedom. So long as one respects the rights of others, he is free to do what he wants, whether we like it or not.
* See "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Man's Nature and Government", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "The Essence of Liberalism","Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions", "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Road to Violence", "The War of All Against All", "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices".
** As I argued before, once you accept an argument that goes contrary to your philosophy, you have lost, as, in the long run, the more consistent case always wins. See "Inescapable Logic", "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention", "The Cycle of Compassion", "Justify Yourself, Defeat Yourself", "Denying Reality", "The Free Market Solution" and "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'".
UPDATE (2016/10/20): I recalled a good example of this from my old blog. I presented my case for making marriage effectively outside of government ("Solving the Gay Marriage Debate", "Updating an Old Post", "Freedom of Conscience, Under Certain Conditions..."), reducing it to contractual agreements, with the rest a private matter between individuals and their religion. In effect, making marriage, gay, straight or otherwise, a non-issue because government would not recognize it at all. I admitted, it would require changes to taxes, to how insurance and other business is conducted, and would make probate for those dying intestate a bit different, but basically it would end up solving a lot of issues, and, as marriage is essentially religious, it would eliminate yet one more government intervention into religious issues. However, several times, I got comments that agreed in theory, but had a single objection. The objection? "But you would be approving of gay marriage." You see, though they agreed with small government, and with freeing faith from government intrusion, they still simply could not accept any plan which prevented them from forbidding gay marriage. I pointed out that I would be approving nothing, and my plan allowed every religion to do what they thought right, but still, because some people could enter into these contracts and call it gay marriage, the plan was unacceptable.