A few days ago I had a chance to talk to a friend of mine who has different views than I do about a number of topics.
It started with a discussion on abortion. As I've discussed here many times (such as in one of my very early posts The successes of Liberals in stopping abortion), abortion has gone down by about a third since peaking in the early 1990's, due not to bans, but due to education, family planning and birth control (and if abortion opponents wanted to really work on preventing abortions, they'd consider at least some kind of assistance for uninsured women who can't pay the delivery room charge-- a Guttmacher Institute study found evidence that some women who don't even want an abortion get one because it's the only option they can afford (I blogged on that in this post in March). While I personally consider myself against abortion (so that for example, when my fifteen year old got pregnant several years ago she agreed with me on the first day that there would be no abortion-- though it would still have been her right if she'd had one, but I'm glad she didn't), I don't believe that banning it is the best way to fight it. That discussion then led to a broader discussion of drugs and alcohol. My friend actually told me that he believes that Prohibition should have remained the law of the land (well, I will give him one thing-- at least he's consistent).
This did get me to thinking though about why I am grateful to live in the free Republic of the United States of America. Recently we have been bombarded with images of the middle east. The Islamic fundamentalists who fight against us often are motivated to fight and die for a better vision, as they see it of the world. Now, consider a view expounded to me once by a proponent of that vision:
Back before 9/11, when CNN and other organizations still ran message boards where people could discuss political topics with others who might not agree with them, I remember being online and exchanging ideas with a young man on the web who was living in Pakistan and was quite sympathetic to the Taliban and others who wanted a strict Islamic society. He was not the stereotypical blindly ignorant fanatic that some might suppose; in fact he was quite literate and well educated and had spent several years in America, and he made probably as good a case as one could make:
He pointed out that in such societies, there is very little crime, and that people are much more moral than they are in America. He saw the west as decadent, and overrun with sin, immorality and corruption. He said that in Afghanistan (as well as Iran and other countries) there was almost no adultery, fornication, pornography, and alcohol and drug use, and the people all prayed and went to their mosque several times per day. Then he went on to argue the advantages of this society in terms of family values, children being taught in the home, etc. (of course he was a male, always an asset in such a society-- remember that if a woman in Pakistan cheats on her husband the authorities look the other way when he sets her on fire and burns her to death).
So, given that, with very few exceptions the people there are all very religious, all go to mosque, and none of them commit most sins that are common occurrences here, why is our society better? Don't we have all of the types of debauchery and immorality that he talked about in abundance?
Of course we do. But our society is still the stronger society. Here is why:
We have the freedom to choose in our society. Adultery, fornication, pornography and alcohol use are all legal in America (at least for adults). Drugs are still illegal, but people who are simply users (as opposed to sellers or producers) of such drugs are generally sent to a treatment center before they go to prison if they relapse. Of course when people are free to choose there will always be those who choose poorly. The other side of this though is that when people choose what might be considered the 'moral' choice (though different societies may not agree on exactly what is 'moral') they do it because it's the right thing to do, and not because they are afraid of what will happen if they don't go to the mosque every day or commit one of the other transgressions I listed (the penalties for which can range from public flogging through amputation and on up to death by stoning.)
The other day I was listening to a man who was talking about trusting his children and he said, "I trust them between this corner and that corner, because that's where I can see them." I feel very bad for him then. I'd like to be able to trust my kids when they have to make choices on their own, not just when they are afraid of the rod.
Here is a demonstration of which type of society is better on 'moral' issues: I don't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Why is that? It's not because it's illegal, because it isn't. It's because I choose not to do those things. Consider that if I were caught with a bottle of booze in some places, I'd be given a public flogging. Now, which is more likely? That I, being a nondrinker in a place where I can go to circle K and buy it, would start drinking if I ever moved to a place where it would garner a flogging, or that a nondrinker from over there would start when and if they moved to someplace where it was legal and readily available?
Further, there is the documented fact that Prohibition on alcohol gave us Capone, keeping marijuana illegal has enriched everyone from Mexican drug lords to American street gangs and seriously added to our border security issues, and back when abortion was illegal it enriched young hoods who had a coat hanger and didn't know the meaning of sanitation (and likely would again if it were banned again).
That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be such a thing as crime. A society with no laws is anarchy. But before we make any new laws restricting individual freedoms and choices, we must be very careful to weigh whatever the supposed benefits are of this restriction and keep in mind that freedom to make choices is the most fundamental freedom that we have. That is what distinguishes a society like ours from societies like Islamic fundamentalism, Fascism or Soviet Communism. All three of these types of societies liked to claim they have peace on their streets and that people live according to at least a code of ethics. That's true, albeit out of fear of what will happen if they don't, but it is true at what a terrible price in freedom!