2024 Leg Session, Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Navigating a ‘live and let live’ philosophy

Some people just straight-up say they want to dictate to others how they live their lives. Most people, though, at least in freer countries such as ours, usually say they want to respect the freedom of other people to live their lives as they want, consistent with the rights of others. That’s what freedom means, right? Live and let live. Why, then, do we get into so many political brawls in which some people try to force their will on others?

We also understand the inherent limits of freedom. “Your right to swing your fist ends where someone else’s nose begins.” “You don’t have a right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire” (as doing so would violate terms of the theater). How do we discern how to find the lines?

In almost every case, people who seek to limit others’ freedom claim they need to do so to protect others, or for the “greater good,” or to follow God’s will, which, they say, is necessary for the ultimate good of people. They claim, explicitly or in effect, that someone does not have a right to do something, because the act would violate the rights or well-being of others.

Light pollution

We can see this dynamic at work in cases mundane and extreme. Let’s start with a modest example. Tracy Ross writes for the Colorado Sun, “The city of Aspen implemented a new ordinance in December that asks residents and businesses to turn off indoor and outdoor lights if light from their buildings pours a certain point beyond their property line or face a fine for ‘light trespass.'” The ordinance says that light can “adversely affect people and wildlife habitats” and “create undesirable effects such as glare, light trespass, and light pollution.” In effect, Aspen declares that your right to shine your lights ends where another person’s eyes begin.

Krista Kafer defends Aspen’s ordinance, arguing that too much light “obscures the stars and harms the health of creatures great and small.” I think such ordinances are heavy-handed and probably a (modest) violation of liberty. People long have had a recognized right to light their property at night. Light serves useful purposes of preventing falls and curbing crime.

There are reasonable limits; for example, you don’t have a right to shine a spotlight through your neighbor’s window at night. But when it comes to now-customary levels of lighting, if cities want to make a change, I wish they would rely on things like educational campaigns and maybe even subsidies for different lighting, rather than on fines ultimately enforced by heavily armed police. Enforcement is of necessity heavily bureaucratic. Aspen encourages its citizens to “make a complaint on a violation of the updated lighting code,” a recipe for ill will among neighbors.

The politicians of Aspen, then, believe that the lighting code ensures “live and let live” practices regarding lighting. I think the code instead interferes with people’s reasonable freedoms. We can see such tensions in most of our political debates.

The case of abortion

Abortion is a paradigmatic case where both sides claim to defend freedom. People who want to outlaw abortion say they defend the freedom of the unborn fetus. People who want legal abortion say they defend the freedom of pregnant women and their doctors.

Abortion very much is a live issue in Colorado politics. After the Supreme Court reversed itself on abortion and various states restricted it, more women started coming to Colorado to get an abortion. There is yet again an effort, almost certainly doomed from the start, to ban abortion in the state. Democrats tried to ban a so-called abortion reversal pill; the courts blocked that effort.

My own take on abortion starts with the view that rights require at least a capacity for consciousness, so a fetus without a brain capable of consciousness (or without a brain at all) cannot have rights. Once a fetus develops the capacity for consciousness, we still should recognize that a woman has a right to refuse to provide direct, physical sustenance to a fetus, just as she has a right to refuse to, say, donate bone marrow. My view does allow some possible restrictions on late-term abortions, in cases in which a woman could about as easily give birth as get an abortion. But most abortions take please early in the term, when restrictions are, in my view, violations of a woman’s rightful freedom.

My purpose here is not to convince you of my position on abortion, but to offer another clear example of how both sides of an issue tend to present their case in terms of defending freedom. Ultimately, we should examine the strength of the logic and evidence in support of a position, not take the claim of defending freedom at face value.

Eviction restrictions

The democratic socialist Javier Mabrey is running a bill that prevents property owners from evicting renters, even outside of contract, unless they have a legally recognized cause. I suppose supporters would say something like renters have the rightful freedom to remain in their residence unless the property owner has a good reason (as defined by politicians) to kick them out.

I think Mabrey is totally wrong. The freedom at stake here is the freedom of property owners and renters to voluntarily come to rental terms. If they want to sign a long-term contract tightly limiting eviction, great. But they should not be legally obligated to enter into such an arrangement.

The unintended harmful effect of Mabrey’s bill will be to make renting property more expensive and a greater hassle, and thereby to discourage the provision of rental housing. If legislators actually cared about the housing crisis, they would focus on removing legal barriers to the provision of housing, not adding more barriers.

As usual, the socialists have a completely bogus conception of freedom, and in the name of defending people’s rights they instead violate them. I regard this as a clear-cut case. I think the case for eviction restrictions is even weaker than the case for limits on customary light emissions.

Limits on transgender care

I will offer one additional example illustrating the broader point, this one somewhat more subtle.

Douglas Bruce has, shall we say, a complicated relationship with freedom. On one hand, he promoted the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which I believe helps protect the freedom of taxpayers to keep and spend more of their own money as they see fit. On the other hand, as Westword reviews, once Bruce kicked a reporter, and another time he “grabbed a woman’s phone when she was recording him.” Can we agree those were low-level violations of others’ freedom? (Bruce also went to jail for tax evasion, but I don’t want to further discuss that here.)

Now Bruce is running for the Fifth Congressional District seat, partly on a platform of ending “genital mutilation,” by which presumably he means the medically supervised provision of hormonal and surgical transgender care for minors. (I assume he does not mean routine circumcision of infant male penises, where the infant cannot possibly consent, which I do regard as genital mutilation.) That position is pretty standard among today’s Republicans.

Some religious conservatives would say that government should ban transgender medical treatment even for adults. Clearly that crosses the line and violates people’s rightful freedom to control their own bodies. If adults can get tattoos, body piercings, circumcisions, breast implants, and so on, as they rightly can, they also have a right to decide whether to get transgender medical treatments. If you don’t like that, then try minding your own damn business.

The difficulty comes with children. We’re talking about children around the age of puberty and older, not infants, so they are relatively able to give consent. Still, Democrats don’t think minors should be able to buy guns or tobacco, so it’s not entirely clear that minors have a greater capacity to rationally consent to medical transgender care.

This too is a live issue in Colorado. As Jennifer Brown writes for the Sun, after Children’s Hospital of Colorado stopped offering “gender-affirming surgeries” because of “unprecedented referrals” and “threats to hospitals,” the ACLU sued the hospital on grounds that “the hospital violated state anti-discrimination laws.”

Here is my view on the matter. The writers Erin Reed and Laura Jedeed have convinced me that transgender medical treatments usually have good results for the people who request and get them. I think that, as conservatives are always telling us, we should trust parents to raise their own children. I think children of that age largely should be in charge of their own lives. If such medical interventions cause undue problems, leave the resolution to legal suits, not legislators. I do think hospitals generally have a right to decide whether to offer such care, and government has a responsibility to protect hospitals from people threatening domestic terrorism.

A freedom orientation

As you can probably tell, I have a largely libertarian orientation toward freedom (with “libertarian” broadly conceived; I hate much of what passes as the modern libertarian movement).

Generally, I trust people to make their own decisions and control their own property and business. And I tend to be skeptical of political interventions, fearing legal abuses and unintended consequences. At least when legislators are in doubt, and usually when they pretend to certainty, they should butt out.

It is not always obvious how to “live and let live.” Still, recognizing the rights of other people to live their own lives by their own lights is the goal toward which we should always aspire.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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