As a conservative in favor of limited government, people often ask me what kind of government intervention I do support. The answer is simple: I’m in support of people doing anything they want in a free and democratic society—until their actions infringe on my freedom or anyone else’s. At that point, the state ought to step in, if only to maintain personal liberty. If the state doesn’t intervene in those instances, when minimal intervention would be required to rectify the situation, then the situation risks spiraling out of control to the point where extreme measures become warranted.
If your kid is pulling items off of store shelves in a tantrum, you’re going to give him an acute little whack on the behind to instill a sense of principle, so he doesn’t grow up to rob a bank or something and end up in prison, right? The same holds true for correcting societal behavior that infringes on others’ freedom. Significant but relatively moderate measures prevent more drastic ones later.
Take smoking, for example. As a nonsmoker with a severe aversion to tobacco, I don’t mind if someone smokes, as long as it isn’t imposed on me. But when someone walks down the sidewalk puffing away and, as an unsuspecting pedestrian, I get blasted in the face with the resulting cloud of ash, that’s a violation my personal choice not to partake in that activity. Smoke anywhere you want—but do it with a plastic bag tied over your head, please. Then everyone’s happy. Smokers lament the law becoming increasingly restrictive as to where they can light up in public, but it’s only because enough of them have chosen to behave in a manner that restricted others’ freedom not to smoke.
This week alone, Europe has witnessed several examples of socialist leniency going too far under the guise of democratic freedom and personal liberty. In each case, the reasonable and moderate measures were ignored to the point where more serious and limiting ones are now necessary.
Effective a few days ago, France’s Interior Minister Claude Gueant has banned Muslims from praying en masse in the streets in Paris, where more than a thousand worshippers gather in the streets of the 18th arrondissement every Friday. Banning prayer might sound harsh in principle, but when a highly personal activity becomes an obstacle to traffic and unavoidable by others, then banning becomes a necessity. The common-sense approach to maintaining one’s religious freedom would have been to hold prayer groups inside people’s homes or inside one of the 2,000 existing Parisian mosques or prayer facilities.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that migrant job-seekers whose English is poor and don’t take state-funded language classes risk losing their unemployment benefits. This is extreme in two ways: It rightfully leaves non-integrators little choice but to blend in at least linguistically, and it places the burden of integration on the taxpayer. Rather than getting to the point where blackmail is required for immigrants to learn the language of their new country, perhaps friends or relatives could have sent them some Rosetta Stone tapes overseas so they’d be functional members of society when they arrived. The government could have also, long ago, chosen to limit non-English speaking immigration to the odd qualified refugee.
A good example of a moderate measure to an intrusive societal problem was announced this week by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in pre-election campaign mode: Having juvenile delinquents participate in military camps run by former military personnel as an alternative to incarceration. Little Jean or Jacques doesn’t have to actually go dodge bullets in a conflict zone for, say, snatching iPhones from the hands of unsuspecting public transit passengers. The urchins should be thankful for the opportunity to be straightened out via fake boot camp—if urban youth crime is allowed to progress any further because minor wrist-slapping continues to prove ineffective, then the taxpayer will gladly pay to have the little punks dropped into a war zone.