Whose Business?

by Don Boudreaux on February 26, 2015

in Nanny State, Other People's Money, Politics

In Montgomery County, MD, (where Russ lives), the personal possession and discharge of firecrackers and other fireworks is prohibited.  (It’s “unlawful.”)  In bordering Fairfax County, VA, (where I live), the personal possession and discharge of firecrackers and other small fireworks is not prohibited. (It’s “lawful.”)

Suppose that some officious Montgomery County residents were to drive, with their guns, into Fairfax County to demand that we Fairfaxians follow the same fireworks rules that the Montgomerians follow – or that some officious Fairfax County residents were to drive, with their guns, into Montgomery County to demand that Montgomerians follow the same fireworks rules that we Fairfaxians follow.

I suspect that most people – whether “Progressive,” conservative, libertarian, apolitical, even socialist – would regard such unilateral interference of some people into the business of other people to be morally offensive.  Were any such cross-county interference to be attempted, it would be condemned and resisted as an unwarranted intrusion of some people into the affairs of other people – other people who have the freedom, ability, and ethical authority to decide for themselves what sorts of policies they will follow when it comes to the personal possession and use of small fireworks.  Montgomerians have no legitimate basis, moral or otherwise, to dictate which rules Fairfaxians will follow, and Fairfaxians have no legitimate basis, moral or otherwise, to dictate which rules Montgomerians will follow.

So why is it that in national elections Montgomerians get to vote for candidates who promise to implement policies that will affect not only people in Montgomery County but also people in Fairfax County (and in every other county and parish in the United States)?  A similar question, of course, can be asked about Fairfaxians voting in national elections.  If in one political-institutional setting Montgomerians and Fairfaxians have no business butting into each other’s business, why do they get such a business in another political-institutional setting?

One (naive) answer to the above question is that national elections deal only with issues that unavoidably affect everyone in the nation (while at the county level there are in play politically only issues that are confined to people within each county).  But while some issues might be of this nation-wide nature, the vast majority of issues are certainly not.

The minimal amount that I save for my retirement is no more obviously a national issue than it is a state issue – or a county issue, or a local issue, or (as I in fact believe it to be) a strictly family or personal issue.  Yet because of Social Security it is treated as a national issue: Montgomerians and Fairfaxians each get to have a unilateral say into each others’ retirement-savings matters.  Ditto for countless other issues, such as pharmaceutical regulations, trade restrictions, immigration restrictions, consumer-credit regulations, telecommunications regulations, and on and on and on.

….

We should be less gullible and more thoughtful about accepting who comprises the relevant “we.”  Too many people fail to see that politics – including democratic politics – is a procedure that not only allows, but encourages, people to butt into each other’s business.  Too many people who naturally reject A butting into B’s business when A and B are contemplated in one way (“A lives in a different political jurisdiction than does B”) celebrate, or at least unthinkingly tolerate, A butting into B’s business when A and B are contemplated in a different way (“A lives in the same political jurisdiction as does B”).

Return to the hypothetical at the top of this post: if political elders in Fairfax and Montgomery County choose to merge their two counties into one larger county, what about such a merger would make matters that were before the political merger none of the other people’s business suddenly, after the political merger, the perfectly acceptable business of the other people?  My answer is: nothing; nothing at all.

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