Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rush Limbaugh Proves Why the Government Should Leave Us Alone

Rush Limbaugh has provided us with yet another reason why government should stay out of making decisions for individuals. In a recent flap over contraception, Limbaugh referred to Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" because of her desire to speak to a congressional committee on the merits of contraception (she was not allowed to). Limbaugh crossed a line—thankfully, after demurring, he apologized.

But the problem is not so much what he said—although shameful is the only way to describe it—but the firestorm and divisiveness that resulted. Limbaugh gave Fluke a national platform. Obama, in his usual arrogant way, thought that somehow his presence in the fiasco was warranted and jumped into the middle of a public fight between two private citizens. (The story of the "beer summit" between Henry Louis Gates and the Boston police officer, James Crowley, comes to mind, but Obama's swagger is another topic.) GOP presidential candidates had to distance themselves from his remarks. Organizations and legislatures changed their policies. The right marshaled or had to play defense. Suddenly, society is divided, screaming at each other over personal decisions.

And what is the cause of all this? Well the government of course. Its desire to meddle in the private decisions of individuals creates huge incentives for individuals to battle each other over how these top-down regulations are determined. It is divisive. While there are many problems with government meddling in the private sector, the one most evident in this fiasco is that government control prompts individuals and interest groups to struggle over the content of government decisions. By creating and controlling a monopoly power over a decision that will affect everyone—in this case, every American will have to pay or not pay for contraception—the government establishes an immediate battleground for unlike-minded individuals to struggle in favor of their perspective.

Suddenly, private decisions become very public ones, where advocates are either talking about their propensity to need birth control or how heinous and cruel contraception is. But the truth is, that in the public sector, this debate should not matter. One need not care or be bothered by his neighbor's decision to use or abstain from contraception.

One need not agree with the Catholic Church's stance on birth control to be in accord with the argument that the government should not interfere in individual's decisions on whether to pay for it or not. Americans should be as opposed to the government forcing individuals or private institutions into paying for contraception, as they should be opposed to the government prohibiting the sale of such devices. The point is: individuals should  have the right to make these decisions on their own, without having to justify their reasons, logic, or beliefs.

By interfering in these private decisions, the government only creates new sources of tension in society. It tries to force a disparate and diverse nation to hold one set of values or one set of beliefs. That is not only not achievable but pulls at the very fabric of social cohesion. We need not agree with our neighbors, but we also need not try to force them to conform to our beliefs. The less the government tries to push Americans into a one-size-fits-all mold, the fewer issues we will have to fight each other for control over. Congressmen should not be hearing testimony about a law student's beliefs on contraception. Pundits should not be calling people uncouth names. Presidents should not be meddling in private scuffles. And the government should not be deciding what is "right" or "wrong" for the individual.


  1. The basic underlying problem is the insistence of the two underlying viewpoints on politicizing the issue. I agree they should be able to have viewpoints. Government gets involved at the insistence of its citizens. How do we separate legitimate issues from the ones that cannot be settled in any meaningful way because of their divisive nature?

  2. I think you raise an important question; one that I agree is certainly not always solvable. Certain issues are divisive but need to legitimately be considered by the government (for instance level of taxes or whether we go to war or not). But others, like this one, seem much more clear-cut to me. I think one criteria is that if the act impacts people in an individual manner and reasonable people can disagree about what they would want (I want birth control; she does not), than the government should leave it to the individual to choose. The government need not be in a position to regulate the behavior of individuals, except when that behavior is (negatively) interactive with others (eg. which is why one cannot steal). The government's proper role is in the social arena (public health NOT healthcare - lumping them together or calling healthcare, public health does not count) where citizens' interactions need some sort of framework or regulation to facilitate proper functioning. But even so, in relations between individuals the government should only be setting boundaries and rules for how to interact (For example, contract law or definitions of property) and not establishing the content of the interaction (what each party must agree to or who owns what). The laws, in general, need to avoid addressing specific instances; these can be left to the individuals (or courts if necessary) to decide. That won't necessarily end divisiveness but it will keep the government out of certain issues that become particularly and unnecessarily divisive.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Calling Rush Limbaugh's nationally syndicated radio program a "private" affair is technically accurate...but we all know it's inappropriate to do so. He reaches millions of people and his words are echoed by right-wingers in Washington all the time. His comments are fair game.

  4. Anon~

    I absolutely agree that he has enormous reach and you are correct that his "comments are fair game." I have no problem with people responding to him in general. In fact, I support a civil society that would engage him (and others). AS you can see I criticized his comments. My comment regarding it being a private affair was solely in regard to the president's involvement, which I think crossed a line - mainly because it further politicizes the issue. But that was a relatively minor point in the context of my argument.

    Thanks for reading.


  5. I didn't do great on my reading comp exams, but it seems to me that it was indeed a crux of your article. Your 2nd paragraph starts "But the problem is not so much what he said...the firestorm and divisiveness that resulted...Obama...thought that somehow his presence in the fiasco was warranted and jumped into the middle of a public fight between two private citizens."

    And your conclusive paragraph begins with "By interfering in these private decisions, the government only creates new sources of tension in society."

    It sounds very much to me that you are deflecting the blame off of Rush and onto the President/Government in general for their involvement in a "private" matter. Sorry if you disagree, I guess.

  6. You are correct in a sense. I don't view it though as deflecting the blame off of Rush. I think he is certainly responsible for what he said, as much as anybody should be for such insulting comments. What I do think is that with these sort of actions the government creates a space and incentive for conflict. It is not that either Rush or the government is more or less blameworthy, but that there are two separate problems. My focus, in this post, was on the problem of the government. I chose not to discuss Rush's blame because I think it is both self-evident and not that interesting of a topic (people say awful things all of the time).

    I think the real problem here (of the government) is that its overbearing policies put people's backs up against the wall, and they lash out at each other (out of emotion or ratings, who knows). People feel threatened and thus compelled to fight each other. If the government left people alone, free to choose whether they wanted to live their lives this way or that way, they wouldn't feel the need to fight each other. They fight because something is being imposed on them by someone else (the government). While pointing out this problem does not excuse Rush's (or anyone's) subsequent behavior (it most certainly doesn't), it does offer a partial explanation as to why that behavior can even occur. It's not, to be fair, even an Obama problem per se, but a broader government issue.

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. This issue is just one example of why I am running for Congressional office!

    There are very few matters that the constitution allows for federal legislation. The tenth amendment clearly states that everything not delegated to the federal level remains to the states and to the people thereof.

    The Constitution recognizes the sovereignty of the states and individuals. It is time that our government, that has sworn to uphold the Constitution, recognizes it too!

  8. Thanks Sonya. Best of luck in your campaign.


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