There Is No One Answer to Rule Them All

By Art Carden

People have all kinds of different preferences and like all kinds of different things. We also do all sorts of dumb stuff. Sometimes, we want to share our passion with others, and sometimes we want to keep people from following in our unwise footsteps. By all means, we should work to persuade, but we don’t do anyone any favors when we resort to force.

Sometimes, this stems from a simple mistake, where we make a leap from our preferences to others’ obligations. “I wouldn’t do that job,” is fine. “I wouldn’t do that job; therefore, no one should be allowed to,” is not. “I really think this subject is important,” is fine. “I really think this subject is important; therefore, everyone should be required to study it,” is not. Or more generally, “I like doing this thing,” is totally OK. “I like doing this thing; therefore, everyone should be required to,” generally isn’t.

We aren’t respecting others’ liberty, dignity, and autonomy as independent and independently valuable moral agents when we coerce them. We’re also silencing the economic conversation about what should be produced, when, where, how, and for whom and the cultural conversation about what it means to live well by simply saying some things are out of bounds when there isn’t a compelling case that those things affect others enough that maybe — maybe — compulsion might be warranted. A lot of the things people want to ban or require don’t even get close to a decent case for compulsion.

Consider low-wage jobs in dangerous conditions. It’s not something I choose or am even tempted to choose because I have much better options. But who am I to tell someone else that he or she can’t take a job I would find unpleasant or accept a wage I wouldn’t like, especially if it’s the best of a lot of bad options? If we really respect people’s liberty, dignity, and autonomy and really care about their prosperity, we will work to expand their options rather than limit them.

Or consider studying economics. I’ve dedicated my life to it, and in my weaker moments I think no one should be allowed out of college without at least two courses in economics and two courses in statistics. I want to indulge that little voice inside me saying “There oughta be a law,” but I have to recognize that not everyone agrees with me and some people (for reasons I don’t understand) think there are some things more important or interesting than economics and statistics, and I’d be assuming against the evidence that compelling someone to study something is the same thing as their actually learning it (see here for my take on foreign-language study, inspired by work from Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan, and Phil Magness).

The waters muddy quite a bit when we are talking about college curricula as colleges and universities are free to set their own requirements, but each institution, in my opinion, should be free to decide what counts as a degree from that institution.

What about the children? Kids, too, are obviously a little bit different, but we try (not always successfully) to help our kids learn to make good choices by giving them the freedom to make a lot of low-stakes bad ones. My wife and I think we do a decent-enough job, and even when we do step in and establish/enforce rules about things like access to iPads and candy, there’s a pretty clear difference between the appropriate relationship between two parents and their seven-year-old and the appropriate relationship between adult strangers.

Here’s a practical example one of my friends shared on social media: pets on porches at Alabama restaurants. According to Alabama’s health code, “Live animals may not be allowed on the premises of a food establishment.” This also means porches, apparently, which means Alabama restaurants that want to welcome pets are out of luck.

The example illustrates why economic liberty is so important. Some restaurants want to cater to pet owners. Others are wary of possible complaints from other patrons who don’t want to eat in a restaurant with dogs, cats, and the health problems they might create. A lot of other people probably don’t care and just want to go where the food is good. What’s great for one customer might be an unbearable imposition upon another.

There is, therefore, no One Answer to Rule Them All.

We have a lot of different cuisines to choose from because people have different preferences. Similarly, there are many different kinds of retail outlets from Walmart to boutique cheese shops because people have different preferences about combinations of price, selection, knowledgeable staff, and in-store amenities. Who is “right”? Everyone and no one, and the right pattern of restaurants and retailers emerges from a dizzying array of bids, offers, and ventures. I don’t know what the equilibrium looks like, or should look like. Maybe dispensing with pet prohibitions will lead to a profusion of pooches on patios and porches. Or maybe not. And if you don’t like one restaurant’s policy, odds are there will be another one with a policy that’s much more your speed.

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Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.