The Freedom to Choose

by | Apr 27, 2012 | Welfare

You have a moral right to choose what will bring you satisfaction, joy, and happiness, as long as you respect the mutual rights of others.

Imagine the outcry that would occur if the government announced that manufacturers could only make one type of soda. Every soda manufacturer would be required to use the government’s formula, and Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, 7-Up, along with every other soda, would become a relic of history. The government might “justify” such a measure by claiming that manufacturers would save money on production and marketing costs, and those savings could be passed along to consumers. Everyone would benefit.

Most Americans would be outraged that the government would involve itself in such an issue. They would argue that they have a right to drink the soda of their choice. Yet, when it comes to issues far more important than soda, Americans routinely accept government limitations on their freedom to choose.

Consider the following: prohibitions on smoking, zoning, campaign finance laws, and the FDA. Each involves restrictions on what you may do. Each prohibit you from acting as you would choose.

Prohibitions on smoking prevent property owners from using their property as they choose, such as offering smoking and non-smoking sections. Zoning prohibits property owners from using their land as they judge best. Campaign finance laws prohibit individuals from donating an amount of their choosing to the candidates of their choice. The FDA prohibits drug manufacturers from producing life-saving drugs without government permission, and it prohibits you from taking drugs that have not been approved. Each of these, and indeed every government intervention into the economy, prohibits individuals from acting as they judge best.

A wide variety of “justifications” are offered for these prohibitions and mandates, but they all boil down to the same thing: each of us must put aside our self-interest for the “public interest.” Each of us must sacrifice our own personal needs, desires, and values for the “common good.” We should not be free to act on our own judgment. We should not be free to choose.

Every government regulation, mandate, and prohibition ultimately limits someone’s freedom of choice. Restrictions on oil drilling limits the freedom of oil companies to make choices and act accordingly. Compulsory education forces parents to meet the demands and dictates of politicians and bureaucrats, rather than educating their children as they choose. Bans on the use of trans fats prohibit restaurants and consumers from choosing what to cook and eat. And the list goes on.

Granted, many people make poor choices. Some people buy stocks when they are high and sell when they are low. Some people eat too many Big Macs and don’t exercise enough. Some people take out mortgages that they can’t afford. So? The fact that people might make poor choices does not mean that they shouldn’t be free to make those choices. After all, it is their life.

Many attempt to “justify” government intervention by claiming that the poor decisions of some people affect many others. This is true, but it is only part of the picture. Those who are affected are those who choose to involve themselves in one way or another. If my neighbor buys stocks when they are high and sells when they are low, it has no impact on me, unless I choose to front him the money or take his stock tips. If someone chooses to eat too many Big Macs, it doesn’t impact my life, unless I choose to marry her.

The relationship between personal choices and personal responsibility is a two-way street. If a person wants the freedom to choose what soda to drink, or what mortgage to get, or how many Big Macs to eat, then he must take responsibility for the consequences of those choices. If the consequences are less than he desired, then he must pay the price, learn his lessons, and strive to make better choices in the future.

However, if he refuses to accept responsibility, then he must try to make others pay for the consequences of his choices. If he eats too many Big Macs and turns into a whale, he will sue McDonald’s. If he loses money in the stock market, he will sue his stock broker. If he loses his home to foreclosure, he will sue the bank. And often, he will then launch a crusade to pass some law that will “prevent” other people from making the same mistakes that he made.

If irrationality and stupidity could be eliminated by legislation, such crusades might be understandable. But the fact is, irrationality and stupidity cannot be eliminated by any legislative body. (I am tempted to make an easy joke and say that if that were the case, then Congress would outlaw itself. But I will resist that temptation.) Attempts to outlaw the irrational only restrict the rational. Attempts to force individuals to make better decisions are a contradiction–the mind cannot be forced.

If you are a Yankees fan, you would probably suffer the most unimaginable torture before you would root for the Red Sox (and vice versa). If you despise rap music, no amount of threats will make you a fan of Snoop Dogg. If you are a devoted Coke drinker, you couldn’t be paid enough to drink Pepsi.

The fact is, you have a moral right to choose what will bring you satisfaction, joy, and happiness, as long as you respect the mutual rights of others. You have a right to choose what baseball team to root for, what music to listen to, and what soda to drink. You have a right to choose every value in your life, free from the interference of others, including government. If you want that freedom, you must take responsibility for the consequences.

When the freedom to choose is limited, the freedom to make innovative choices is also limited. When the choices available are limited, someone is imposing those limits, and that “someone” is a politician or bureaucrat. When the freedom to choose is restricted, Steve Jobs becomes a slave to Barney Frank.

Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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