Should the Government Keep People from Harming Themselves?

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” ~ John Stuart Mill

“Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.” ~ Ronald Reagan

Is keeping people from harming themselves a legitimate function of government? The government certainly thinks so, and many people would agree.

Here are three recent unrelated news stories with different degrees of potential or actual government intervention.

A twenty-year-old college student in Massachusetts died after participating in a hot dog eating contest to raise money for breast cancer research. Although I like hot dogs, I have never been a participant. I have, however, seen events like this on television. Whenever something bad happens at one of these events, and even sometimes when nothing bad happens except an upset stomach and diarrhea, there are always calls for government to ban competitive eating contests. Although earlier this year, China banned competitive eating contests, I have not seen governments in the United States do it—yet.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued voluntary guidance to help Americans reduce their sodium intake. “Excess sodium consumption is a contributory factor in the development of hypertension, which is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke, the first and

fifth leading causes of death in the United States, respectively.” The FDA wants to limit the amount of sodium that restaurants and grocery manufacturers can add to the foods you buy so that you don’t consume more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium per day.

I had never heard of comedian Kate Quigley until I read that she landed in the hospital and three of her friends died from an “accidental” overdose of cocaine and fentanyl at a party in California. Although cocaine and fentanyl are both illegal, the U.S. government and drug warriors are obsessed with the dangers of fentanyl right now. “Fentanyl is killing and wrecking average Americans,” says Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Based on data from The Commonwealth Fund, he claims that “more than 50,000 Americans died from it last year alone.”

Although unrelated, these three events have something in common: They all relate in some way to the notion of government keeping people from harming themselves. Should the government keep people from harming themselves? Absolutely not, and for two reasons.

First of all, keeping people from harming themselves is an illegitimate function of government. In the words of men wiser than me:

I would have government defend the life and property of all citizens equally; protect all willing exchange; suppress and penalize all fraud, all misrepresentation, all violence, all predatory practices; invoke a common justice under law; and keep the records incidental to these functions. Even this is a bigger assignment than governments, generally, have proven capable of. Let governments do these things and do them well. Leave all else to men in free and creative effort. ~ Leonard Read

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever is his own. ~ James Madison

And second, a man’s body belongs to himself—not you, not me, not society, not the state, not some governmental agency, not some puritanical busybody, not some government bureaucrat, and not some nanny statist. And if a man’s body belongs to himself, then he can do what he wants with it.

What these things mean is that no government at any level has any businesses keeping people from consuming any substance or engaging in any activity that may bring them harm. The government should not attempt to prevent people from ingesting or injecting any unsafe, risky, dangerous, harmful, or deadly substance—or punish people for doing so. The government should not attempt to prevent people from overeating, getting obese, starving themselves, eating an unhealthy diet, practicing unsafe sex, getting drunk or stoned, overdosing on liquor or drugs, mutilating themselves, or committing suicide—or punish people for doing so.

Should family, friends, groups, employers, organizations, and other interested parties seek to prevent people from doing these things? Of course they should, but only with reason and persuasion, not with threats, coercion, or violence. Those are the tools of government.

I began with John Stuart Mill and can end with him as well:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

The individual is sovereign, not the state or society.

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