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Minority blues

Zach Einterz | Wednesday, April 25, 2007

We live in a world where people hold diverse interests and values. Bill wants to save the rainforest, Jane wants to cure cancer, Tom wants to end world hunger and Mary wants to buy a large flat-screen television for her living room. What’s the best way to accommodate all of these diverse values? And how do we decide which goods, if any, are superior?

In the United States, we have to come to the conclusion that the majority has the right to rule. The “common good” is no different from the “majority good” – it is decided by what the majority of the population, and by extension the elected officials, believe is good. If most Americans want a man on the moon, they’ll elect officials who promise to put a man on the moon. On the other hand, if the majority of Americans want to cure cancer, they’ll elect politicians who promise more funding for cancer research. At first glance, this “majority rules” mindset of ours doesn’t seem too bad. But a problem arises when you find yourself outside the majority. Once you’re in the minority, you realize that you have no freedom. Our country wasn’t founded on the principle of majority rule. It was founded on the principle of individual rights. Everyone, even if they are in the minority, has a right not to be ruled by the majority.

Imagine that you are Mary, and you want to buy a flat-screen TV. Since it is tax season, you recently looked over your W-2 and you realized that the government has taken several thousand dollars of your money. What is the government doing with your money? Fighting a war, subsidizing industries, administering welfare programs, etc. And the reason your tax dollars are supporting these causes is because that’s what the majority values. But all you really want is a flat-screen television. Now imagine that you’re Bill and you want to save the rainforest. You also realize that the state has stolen several thousand dollars of your last year’s salary. And what is the government doing with your tax dollars? The government’s fighting cancer. But you don’t want to fight cancer; you want to save the rainforest. You’d rather donate those several thousand dollars to the Nature Conservancy. One may argue that Bill’s donation to the Nature Conservancy is a more worthy than Mary’s television, but can the freedom to make individual value-based decisions be denied to either of them?

We are all left in this conundrum. The majority makes value decisions for us, and we are forced to support the policies of our government. We pay the bills in Iraq, we pay to end world hunger, and we pay for scientific research. We are compelled to support all this regardless of our own personal values. No matter how pacifist you are, it’s hard to deny the fact that a large portion of your paycheck is going to support the war. Similarly, if you’re a die-hard pro-lifer, part of your tax money is still being used to support Planned Parenthood. Our system is inherently immoral, because it forces us to support causes we may not agree with.

Another problem with the “majority rules” mindset is that it leads to complacency and inaction. We begin to think that government funding of our own interests is a right. We whine and complain when government actions don’t align with our interests, yet we do little ourselves to further these interests. Instead of donating our own money to save the rainforests or fight cancer, we ask everyone else to foot the bill. Instead of working towards a solution, we spend our time and money lobbying legislators to pass laws and funding packages which benefit our interests.

How do we solve this dilemma? How do we take the power away from the majority and give it back to the individual? Every year we send trillions of dollars to Washington and ask politicians to spend our money, as though we are not wise enough to spend it ourselves. Were we all courageous individuals with a strong conscience, we might practice civil disobedience and simply refuse to pay our taxes. Unfortunately, the elimination of the current tax system is unlikely, and most of us don’t have the courage to defy it. Although we are stuck in an inherently unjust system, we don’t have to give in to conventional apathy. Inaction only gives more power to the majority. If you want to cure cancer, end poverty, or save the rainforest, then go out and do it yourself! Get a PhD in biology; join a Catholic Worker House; donate to the Nature Conservancy. Don’t wait on the government to do it for you.

Zach Einterz is a junior majoring in economics and environmental sciences. He has turned to politics after giving up on an unsuccessful sports career. Contact him at zeinterz@nd.edu. To learn more about the College Libertarians, visit their website at www.nd.edu/~liberty

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.