Friday, April 15, 2016

Libertarians and Lifeguards




My friend Mark Sandlin posted this very amusing cartoon in a Facebook discussion about (so-called) "Libertarians" being selfish and uncaring. The Tea Party/ GOP poseur "Libertarians," perhaps. I've previously discussed in my blog how the GOP has hijacked and corrupted libertarianism. But, I would like to comment on this cartoon, which although it gave me a good LOL, is inaccurate. Real libertarians, and anarchists, for that matter, understand that liberty and responsibility go hand in hand. We believe in voluntary cooperation among people for our mutual benefit. In order for that to work, a person's word must mean something and contracts that we enter into voluntarily must be kept. So if we accept a job as a lifeguard then we save people from drowning.
Now, this cartoon would be accurate of libertarianism if the lifeguard in the picture was replaced with a sign saying, "No lifeguard present. Swim at your own risk." You are free to take the risk of drowning if you so choose. Presumably one of the other swimmers would voluntarily save you, but if they don't, that is the risk you take. Libertarians do not believe in a "Nanny State." The government does not exist to babysit us or protect us from ourselves, to prevent us from swimming, surfing, skateboarding, smoking, snorting or other recreational activities.  Adults should be free to do as we please, so long as we harm nobody else.  Personal liberty takes precedence over safety.
From a libertarian standpoint, the role of government is to protect the citizens from force and fraud.   But, contrary to the Tea Party philosophy, this would include preventing such things as corporations exploiting employees' labor or stealing their retirement funds, banks gambling away their customers' savings accounts, and insurance companies collecting premiums and then refusing to pay claims.  It would also enforce contracts, e.g. when a person hired as a lifeguard ignores drowning swimmers, a county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses, or congressmen fail to appoint a Justice to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court - all of which were included in their respective job descriptions when they voluntarily accepted the position.
Interestingly, here in the Redneck Riviera (Panama City, Florida), we do not have any lifeguards - whether because we are an impoverished hick town despite being a resort destination, and/or because FL has no State income tax, or whatever.  We only have a flag system:  blue flag for calm conditions, yellow for medium hazard, red for high surf and double red for danger, water closed.  The system is somewhat arbitrary, as the actual surf conditions at any given time do not necessarily correspond to the flags.  We have a sign explaining the flags which says at the top, "No lifeguard on duty, swim at your own risk."  However, the "risk" includes going to jail, because when the double red flags are flying, the police will arrest anybody in the water.  They will not actually go into the water to try to save anyone; they stand on the beach and order you to come out, and if you drown in the process, oh well.
I've been threatened with arrest twice while surfing when the red flags were up and the waves were just 2-3 feet and nothing compared to what I grew up surfing in California and Hawaii. One time an adolescent boy got caught in a current and was being pulled out to sea. An obese policewoman stood on the beach barking into her bullhorn, "Get out of the water immediately! You are under arrest!" She did not make any attempt to save him. There was a surfboard on the police vehicle but the officer was in no shape to use it, although I am sure she could float very well. I tried to go after the boy and was threatened with arrest for doing so, but in any case he was too far away. His father told me, "Don't worry, I taught him, he knows what to do." He waved and pointed to the left, the boy then turned and paddled perpendicular to the current and returned safely back to shore.
The flags do not, of course, prevent anyone from drowning even when the water is calm if they just don't know how to swim. A non-swimmer can panic and drown in a few feet of calm water.  I have rescued a a couple of tourists on blue flag days.  
With regard to the cartoon, a government-certified lifeguard, paid by our taxes, is the Democratic solution.  A sign saying, "Swim at your own risk" or a caring and competent lifeguard, privately hired or volunteer, are Libertarian options.  A police officer in the lifeguard chair is our Redneck Riviera flag-and-arrest system, the classic GOP response to drowning citizens:  rather than hiring lifeguards, pay police to arrest the tax-paying swimmers who survive.  Our taxes are paying for a babysitter who is allowed to spank us and cannot provide first aid or CPR if needed.  It is a travesty that violates safety, liberty and justice all at the same time.

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