Unselfish, part 2

posted 29 November 2005

To understand this entry, read both yesterday's post and the comments, in particular Zaty's and Trixie's.

I defend your right to say anything, absolutely anything. I'm not so sure about your right to ingest anything; it seems like there are some things it's probably a bad idea to let anyone take on a whim. But what I'm definitely not for is your right to inflict harm and discomfort on others. Words may never hurt me, but others smoking is not just uncomfortable for me, but proven harmful to me. Even the most liberal societies have prohibitions against murder; once you have admitted that preventing citizens harming one another is a legitimate interest of the state, the question is simply one of degree, and increased risk of lung cancer is where I currently, and admittedly arbitrarily, draw the line.

I don't support, for instance, this government's ludicrous ideas about restricting salt and sugar intakes; that's a serious nanny-state situation. That's because your burger doesn't harm me, and nor does your heart attack, apart from marginally raising my taxes via the NHS. Your right to be a homosexual also falls under this category, because consensual sex never hurt anybody unless they wanted it to.

But as for "a society like America", which of America's societies do you mean? The consistent monolithic characterization of American culture by Europeans annoys me. Do you mean the American culture that produced Mark Twain, Burning Man, and the Internet*? Or the American culture that kept segregation alive into the 1960s, and is currently trying to ban the teaching of evolution in schools? One of those is all about banning things which harm nobody, which I'm against, the other is a proud liberal tradition which harms nobody, which I'm for. Neither of them has much if anything to do with a culture of selfishness.

If you want to talk about the capitalist side of America's society, then I'm not sure you can argue with the world's largest economy, considered independently of the society in which it sits, as being undesirable. And if you want to say that society and economy are intrinsically linked, then it's worth pointing out that New York and California, two of the biggest state economies, are also two of the most liberal states. And coincidentally, both of those states have also banned smoking in bars and clubs.

Trixie's argument, that the ban cuts profits and hence services, is a point much more open for debate. While at uni, I was an officer of a society and so had more than just an average student's insight into the services on offer. And as I said originally -- anathema to some of the union hacks in my circle of friends, I know -- the union seemed rife with useless services, in addition to the genuinely good and useful ones.

These defences in place, I maintain my stated position: that selfishness is an essential and desirable trait in both the student body and the public at large, and that it has resulted in a change to the union -- fewer services, but fewer carcinogens -- that is to the net benefit of its members.

* But the web was invented in Switzerland, by a Brit. You may deem this a victory for European culture if you like.

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