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Thursday, January 7, 2010

I recently began reading the first book in John C. Wright’s Golden Age science fiction trilogy. While it was a slow read at first (which I now see as necessary to fully understand the futuristic society), the philosophical themes have taken shape, and it has become a joy to read. This is not the first time I have written about a science fiction book on this blog. Oddly, I had never even read a science fiction book until I started this blog several months ago. Several books on the Libertarian Reading List fall in this genre, and they are among the best books for challenging the stubborn remnants of traditional, reactionary thinking in any self-proclaimed libertarian.

Returning to Wright’s The Golden Age, the paragraph at the bottom of page 114 shook me from my blogging lethargy. The story’s main character, Phaethon (a reference to the Greek myth), is suffering from voluntary memory loss but cannot understand why his full-memory self would voluntarily agree to it. He is questioning Rhadamanthus (an artificial, self-aware entity/servant with thought capacity far beyond that of a normal being) why he didn’t stop him from making such a foolish decision (as he now sees it). To this, Rhadamanthus replied:

If we were to overrule your ownership of your own life, your life, would, in effect, become our property, and you, in effect, would become merely the custodian or trustee of that life. Do you think you would value it more in such a case, or less? And if you valued it less, would you not take greater risks and behave more self-destructively? If, on the other hand, each man’s life is his own, he may experiment freely, risking only what is his, till he find [sic] his best happiness.
The themes in this one paragraph have countless “real world” applications. I will expand on the two main points: the nanny state mentality (or as I often refer to it, legislating morality) and encouraging risk.

Whenever the government attempts to legislate morality or dictate behavior, it is overruling your ownership of your life. If Rhadamanthus is correct in implying that lacking ownership of your life will cause you to value it less (and I believe he is correct), then this will increase feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide among the owned people. On top of that, governments often pass absurd legislation to prohibit people from ending a life they no longer value. (See David Hume’s essay Of Suicide for more on this topic). Most of all, when the government overrules your ownership of your life, it increases your dependence on the government.

The relationship between ownership and risk is a topic that deserves a post of its own, but I will briefly touch on it here. Risk homeostasis is when increased safety measures (for example) have the unintended effect of promoting riskier behavior. An example of this can be seen in the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis. The government wanted to encourage people to purchase homes (because they apparently have something against renting – but I digress), but banks were not willing to approve loans to people who did not appear capable of making payments over the life of the loan. To solve this, the government stepped in and offered to guarantee these loans that the banks would not have otherwise made. This encouraged the banks, related financial intuitions, realtors, and potential homeowners to engage in risky behavior.

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