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“If it saves one life” — at what cost?
View related content: Executive Branch
‘As the president said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking,” Vice President Joe Biden declared on Wednesday as he previewed what his commission on gun violence might actually do.
“There are executive orders, there’s executive action that can be taken. We haven’t decided what that is yet. But we’re compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and the rest of the cabinet members as well as legislative action that we believe is required.”
Biden insisted that it is a moral imperative for the White House to do something: “It’s critically important that we act.”
Most of the attention, understandably, is on Biden’s suggestion that the president will consider using executive orders to do things he couldn’t possibly accomplish legislatively. The imperial presidency is always troubling, but when it rubs up against the Bill of Rights it is especially so.
But what I find to be arguably the most disturbing — and definitely the most annoying — part of Biden’s remarks is this nonsense about if it saves only one life, the White House’s actions would be worth it.
Maybe it’s because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it’s worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.
The notion that any government action is justified if it saves even a single life is malarkey, to borrow one of Mr. Biden’s favorite terms. Worse than that, it’s dangerous malarkey.
Let’s start with the malarkey part. The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds, or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative that the government do any of that? It’s a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?
Now one obvious response to this sort of argument ad absurdum is to say, “We don’t have to ban buckets or cars to reduce the number of deaths. We can simply regulate them.” And that’s true.
Indeed, that’s the point. But when we regulate things, we take into account things other than the singular consideration about saving lives. Banning cars would cost the economy trillions — and also probably cost lives in various unintended ways. So we regulate them with speed limits, seat-belt requirements, etc. And even here we accept a certain number of preventable deaths every year. Regulators don’t set the speed limit at 5 miles per hour, nor do they make highway guardrails 50 feet high.
Every serious student of public policy — starting with Joe Biden and Barack Obama — knows this to be true. Some just choose to pretend it isn’t true in order to push through their preferred policies.
The idea that the government can regulate or ban its way into a world where there are no tragedies, no premature deaths, is quite simply ridiculous. But that is precisely the assumption behind phrases like “if only one life is saved, it’s worth it.”
Which brings us to the dangerous part. Pay attention to what Biden is saying. The important thing is for government to act, not for the government to act wisely.
And that’s the real problem with this kind of rhetoric. Not only does it establish a ridiculously low standard for what justifies government action — indeed, action itself becomes its own justification — but it also sets the expectation that the government is there to prevent bad things from happening.
Biden has a warrant to investigate the role not just of gun laws but also video games, movies, mental-health policies, and lord knows what else in order to make sure we don’t have another Newtown or Aurora massacre. I am wholly sympathetic to the desire to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
But for starters, I would first like to hear exactly what Biden would have us do with regard to the First, Second, and Fifth Amendments before I think action is self-justifying on the grounds that if it saves even one life, it’s worth it.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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The Tyranny of Clichés
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