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Choice in Association


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Are You Free to Choose Your Relationships?

Human beings experience a variety of different needs and desires. Perhaps one of more enduring of these is the urge to be free—to own one’s self, to enjoy the product of our labors, and to determine the course of our own future.

In addition to our needs as individuals, we are also very much social beings. We derive meaning and contentment by belonging to relationships, groups, and associations where we can work and interact with other people.

Those people also have their own wants and needs—both as individuals, and in the way they hope to relate to others. So many of our challenges come from learning to get along with other people in these various relationships.

Ideally, we would like to enjoy our own freedom, while still allowing other people to do the same. For example, we would like to be able to choose whom we will, and will not, associate with.

But are you really free to do that? Or are there times when the rules of society, rightly or wrongly, infringe on your ability to freely make these choices?

Clearly some of our associations just happen as a condition of our birth and so are not so much an issue of choice. For example, we are all born to a particular set of parents. We share certain genetic traits with them and there isn’t much we can do to change that. We are also born with the genetic trait of being male or female.

So we each have a particular racial identity, a sexual type, and an ethnic heritage. And these can be thought of as associations. In fact, some people feel a strong identity within these types of groups, having special empathy for others in our group, and looking to them for strength and support.

Otherwise, most of our associations are not so automatic. In these matters, we get to choose—or at least we should get to choose. This is a critical part of pursuing happiness—deciding how and when we will interact with other people in a civil society. And it is one of our most precious and unalienable human rights.

Here are some common examples:

  • Nationality
  • Community
  • Neighborhood
  • Political Party
  • Ethical Beliefs
  • Religious Organization
  • Social Club
  • Commerce and Trade
  • Friendship
  • Employment
  • Cohabitation
  • Joint Ownership
  • Reproduction

These are arranged roughly according to a quality we will call “intimacy.’ Generally, at the top of the list are those with the largest and most diverse set of other members. As members of such a large group, we may still be passionate about our identity within the group, but our relationships with the other members are typically more casual and distant.

In contrast, we find at the bottom of the list, groups where we experience closer and much more personal relationships. These relationships can be filled with great joy and satisfaction. But at such levels of intimacy, they can also be an even greater source of pain and sorrow if we become betrayed or injured by our social partners.

As individuals, we like to be free, and we enjoy being in control of our own lives as much as possible. But as a participant in a relationship, we also have a responsibility to consider the needs and desires of the other members. So our individual freedoms may have natural limits in order to also accommodate the freedoms of others.

Typically, civil society includes rules, whether formal or not, to help define the terms of our membership and how we will relate to a particular group. Membership typically involves privileges and benefits, provided by the group. It also involves obligations for services each member must contribute in order to support the group’s operation and maintenance.

So there develops a natural tension between freedom for individuals, and the need for service to the group. Without the service of its members, a group may not have much to offer its members. But if service to the group is obtained by force, the individual member will suffer a loss of freedom, becoming a servant to the beneficiaries of his labors.

In order to morally balance the needs of individuals with those of the rest of the group, it is critical that membership in any non-automatic association be completely voluntary. It is equally important that membership in any automatic association not also require mandatory service to that group.

For example, you may belong to a club that requires you to pay an annual membership fee. But you should always be free to leave that club at any time, and no one should have the power to make you pay any further dues.

Likewise, it would be abhorrent to require service or money from someone, simply because she is born Black, Jewish, or Female. In other words, our obligations should arise as a result of what we do—not what we are.

Perhaps we should note one exception to this principle involves the raising of young children. When children are born, they lack the ability to care for themselves and responsibly make their own choices. For a time, most societies expect parents to both support children, and to make many choices on their behalf. But eventually, they will become adults and should then enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.

Ideally, a civil society would exist in order to protect and maximize the freedoms and individual rights of its members. But sadly, this has not always been the case. For example, throughout history, slavery has not been the exception, but more commonly, the unfortunate rule.

Thankfully today, slavery is shunned by every country and nearly every culture of the world—at least in its explicit form. But still, we are not as free as we could and should be. Many of our choices to associate are still unnecessarily limited by social norms, government regulations, or both.

And in some cases, these limitations can become a kind of involuntary servitude, or “slavery lite.” While perhaps not as objectionable as traditional slavery, it is a difference of degree, rather than of type. When one person is compelled against his will to serve the needs of another, this is not in harmony with the principle of choice.

There is much we could do to improve our ability to freely pursue happiness according to the dictates of individual conscience. Let us explore this in more detail as it pertains to some of our more common associations.

Nationality

Some of our older generations still remember the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. It was sometimes noted: “Free nations build walls to keep people out, but tyrants build them to keep people in.” The Soviet Union’s failed experiment with Communism was a great example of what happens when a national association is not voluntary. Soviet citizens were not allowed to own private property nor the product of their labors. And they were not allowed to leave their own country.

This forced membership was perhaps most notable in Berlin where previously free Germans were split into East and West. People on the East side of the wall were forced into communism, an affiliation most of them had not chosen. Those on the West were able to enjoy the broader freedoms offered by democracy.

After decades of oppression, eventually the human will to be free won out and the wall finally came down. Germany was reunited and her citizens were once again free to associate with each other as a single civil society. A valuable lesson had been demonstrated to the world—at least for those who would remember it.

In the United States, we have usually enjoyed a much broader range of freedoms. For example, Americans are not prevented by their own country from traveling abroad. They can even leave permanently or even renounce their citizenship if they so choose.

But in more recent times, even the US has begun to tip in the direction of the Iron Curtain by enacting onerous expatriation taxes. Technically, you are still free to leave, but you may have to pay a very steep price—in some cases, most of what you have earned.

This constitutes a “financial wall,” that is just as real as any physical wall we might choose to erect. And its purpose is to keep people in—not out.

Community

Historically, community has been a place where you can live with others who share a set of cultural and societal values. In the beginning of the United States, there were 13 individual colonies. They each had their individual defining cultures, which included such things as religion, heritage, and values.

When they joined together in a common union, they instituted a few basic principles intended to be shared in common. This included a recognition that mankind was endowed by his creator with certain unalienable rights: life, liberty and the freedom to choose how to pursue happiness.

As mentioned, this right to pursue happiness should include the freedom to decide with whom we will affiliate. This is what we mean by the right to “free association.”

Our rights also should include choosing what kind of work we will do to maintain ourselves and our families, and how we choose to enjoy the fruits of those labors. This is often referred to as the right to own and control private property.

Other than protecting these very basic rights, the Federal Government was forbidden to intrude on the normal life of American Citizens in any way except in the exercise of a brief and enumerated set of delegated powers. Rather, it was the various states which would make and enforce most laws according to the values prevailing in their individual communities. People would be free to migrate from one state to another so they could find a culture most consistent with their own personal beliefs.

The glaring inconsistency of the founding was that of the slave trade. The rights recognized by the Declaration of Independence were honored for Caucasians. But if you belonged to the group of those born in Africa, you may not enjoy that freedom—particularly if you lived in a southern state. Rather, you could be forced against your will to work for the maintenance of someone else—indeed, you would be considered, his property.

The country eventually corrected the deplorable practice of race slavery. But it had to endure a bloody civil war and decades of resulting civil rights conflicts. Unfortunately, as the Federal Government had to step in to prevent states from engaging in slavery, an important quality of the original founding was lost in the process.

The original union had enjoyed a great diversity of culture. States were freer to experiment with social policy and the system of justice according to the will of their citizens, expressed through the democratic process. As long as people were free to move from state to state, this provided a fertile, competitive environment in which to reveal the most productive methods for forming civil society.

But as more policy began to be dictated from Washington, that diversity was gradually lost. States became much more homogenous, until belonging to one state was not so much different than belonging to another. In essence, America became more like one large community instead of a collection of smaller ones. Clearly diversity was lost in the process. Even more unfortunately, so was freedom.

As an example, let us consider the use of alcohol and drugs. For a period of time well after the Civil War, the national government declared alcoholic beverages to be illegal. Back then, they at least had the courtesy to recognize that the Constitution granted no such power to the Federal Government. So they had to amend it first in order to accomplish the desired purpose.

This was one of several corruptions the Constitution has endured. Originally, it was crafted primarily as a limitation on government powers. It was designed to restrict the federal government from committing certain injustices against its own people.

But the eighteenth amendment was a limitation on choices the people themselves could make. And it would be enforced at the federal level.

The new law did not respect the founders’ notion that people should choose how to pursue their own happiness. If someone thought they might find joy in a bottle of liquor, that didn’t matter. It still would not be allowed.

Under original Constitutional values, states would have had the power to outlaw alcohol, but the Federal Government would not. In this way, the country originally enjoyed a diversity of differing values. Some states might choose to be dry and others may not.

As long as people were free to move from one state to another, they could voluntarily choose their associations by belonging to a community best matched to their own values. Although individual states traded freely with each other, they were not forced to subsidize each other. So if prohibition was an important part of a thriving civil society, then such communities would be expected to prosper and flourish. If free access to alcohol were a superior policy, that idea too would have a chance to prevail.

Certainly if we value freedom of choice, people should be able to choose to drink alcohol—even if it is bad for them or dangerous. But by the same token, some people might wish to live in a community free of alcohol and its related influences. When policies are made at the community level rather than the federal level, both points of view can be better accommodated. Freedom is maximized and choice is honored.

In present-day America, we live with the strange dichotomy that alcohol is legal, but the use of recreational drugs is still a federal crime. We apparently did not learn our lesson very well from the futile exercise of prohibition. Rather, we are still trying to force everyone, nation wide, to live according to the wishes of a voting majority.

We continue to battle over whether to legalize recreational drugs, but we are still missing the point. Such problems can and should be decided at the state, or even the local level. And then communities should be free, and accountable, to live with the benefits and consequences of their own choices.

Then everyone can have it their way—not just the majority.

Neighborhood

This is an area where public policy has done a relatively good job of fostering a wider degree of choice and diversity. It has been accomplished through the mechanisms of zoning and more recently, recorded restrictive covenants.

Say for example, you would like to live in a neighborhood where all the houses are built of brick, and are no smaller than 4000 square feet in size. All you have to do is buy a parcel of undeveloped land and you can make your own subdivision. By publicly recording a declaration defining how future lot owners must use their property, you can cause all subsequent buyers to conform to your own set of rules.

You will have created your own micro-community, complete with its own system of law and order—at least within the scope of how the land will be used. If anyone wants to buy a house in your community, they will have to obey your rules. What is more, the system of civil laws in your state will help you enforce those rules.

In one way, this may seem a little contrary to the principle of choice. After all, why should a developer get to decide how people can build their houses? But in reality, it enhances choice—at least as long as such micro-communities are not all forced to be the same.

Because the communities are diverse, people get to choose which one they like the best. Because they are different, there are a variety of options to select from.

Can we imagine expanding the notion of micro-communities beyond land use? Shouldn’t it be possible to record a restrictive covenant prohibiting the use of alcoholic beverages or recreational drugs? If you voluntarily agreed to live under such restrictions, there would be no violation of your liberty.

If you then violated your pledge, perhaps you might end up owing a fine to the community, secured by a lien against your house. Perhaps if you continued the violation, you might eventually have to move somewhere else.

This brings up interesting possibilities. Perhaps we don’t always have to rely on federal force, backed by the threat of imprisonment in order to regulate our social behaviors. Maybe we can accomplish much good by just associating ourselves with others who want to also live by a particular code of conduct. And we can do it at a very local level.

Political Party

A political party is not so different from any other group or association. It seems natural to band together with others who share your same ideological beliefs so you can have additional influence in a system where policies are decided by vote.

Unfortunately, our two-party system has evolved in a way that is not very friendly to the principle of choice. Since it usually produces two separate candidates, it seems like we do have a voice in the outcome. But in reality, our Democrat and Republican options are not always very different from each other. Many of us would really prefer to choose someone very different but we are not often given the opportunity.

Our “two-party system” is not established by the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. Rather, political parties evolved after the nation’s founding. We know George Washington was suspicious of them and the corrupting influence they might assert upon the nation. So why do we even have a party system at all? And why are there only two that ever manage to win major elections?

Some countries thrive with many different political factions competing for power. But in the United States, we have seldom had more than two viable parties at any given time. Theoretically, these have been divided philosophically over such issues as the scope and role of the Federal Government. But in practice, both parties benefit from an increase in federal power and neither has been very genuine nor effective in preserving our freedom of choice.

With the two parties in power today, it is nearly impossible to establish a new party with purer motives. If your new party leans to the left, it is only likely to dilute the liberal vote and turn power over to Republicans. Likewise, a new right-leaning party is likely to result in Democrat victory and so even more liberal policies.

So there is very little motivation to ever create a new party. And this is exactly how the existing parties like it!

Most ideological activists are instead left with only the option of attempting to reform one of the two existing parties. This is nearly impossible given the existing forces of big money and power that control them both.

Technically, everyone has the freedom to affiliate with any party or candidate that shares their own ideological viewpoint. But for practical purposes, we really do not. The only functional choice is between two the two major parties, neither of which may be a very good fit for your beliefs.

Our constitutional system does allow for more than two parties to field candidates for any given office. In fact people can even run without declaring a party affiliation at all. But any time more than two candidates are in a race, it becomes very possible to win without getting a majority of the votes.

We call this winning a “plurality” of votes, as opposed to a majority. This just means a candidate got more votes than anyone else, but not more than 50%. You can imagine, if ten or so people were running for a single office, the winner might only be supported by a small portion of the electorate.

This problem can be solved by conducting multiple ballots, each time eliminating the candidate with the least number of votes. Eventually the race will be a runoff between only two people so the victor will eventually enjoy majority support. This allows many different candidates to freely run without fear of diluting the potential votes for other candidates who might have similar views and beliefs.

In fact, this kind of runoff balloting is fairly common in convention settings where votes can be quickly counted and reported. But it is not very practical in primary and general elections. It would be very difficult to require the public to come again and again to vote until a victor was finally determined.

But there is a method called Instant Runoff Voting that allows a similar result to be obtained using only a single ballot. Rather than voting only for your favorite candidate, you instead rank all the candidates in order of your preference. A computer then simulates multiple ballots as though you had voted in each round for the candidate you liked best, out of those who have not yet been eliminated. This guarantees a winner, by majority, every time.

We could greatly enhance the choices available to voters with such a non-partisan voting system. We don’t even need to abolish the two major parties. Let them continue as they may wish. But let us remove the rules that give them an unfair advantage over candidates of other parties, or those who may be unaffiliated. This will encourage a broad diversity of candidates to run for every office. Then the people can decide who will best represent their interests.

Ethical Beliefs

Our ethics determine our beliefs about certain “big questions.” For example, how do you think we came to exist? Were we created by a higher power or did we come to be simply by chance? Is there a purpose to our lives, beyond just survival? And do we continue to live somehow even after we die?

What you believe about these questions generally determines your approach to some other big questions related to individual choice. For example, is there a right and wrong about how you should treat other people? Is it acceptable to subordinate others or to force them to labor for your own benefit? Or should all people enjoy similar rights and freedoms?

We all seem to have our own unique ways of answering such big questions. And this affects the way we organize ourselves into civil societies. This is why we see so many different ways of governing throughout the world, such as monarchies, democracies, socialist states and free republics. Some countries organize themselves in order to manage and exploit a working class on behalf of an elite ruling class. Others are established on more moral principles that better protect equal rights for all people.

The United States of America was founded on the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. We recognize that all people are created equal and have certain unalienable rights that should not be infringed by others. Governing according to these principles has provided unprecedented freedom and opportunity for all who can pursue happiness within our borders. This is why millions of people migrate to America where they hope to find a greater degree of freedom than exists in their home countries.

But sometimes we forget that the country has been successful because of its ethical founding principles. Instead, we might just think it is a a democracy—a place where everyone should be free to come regardless of their own beliefs. Then, we will decide all our policies by voting. And whatever the majority decides, we can change at will to do things accordingly.

But this is not what the country’s founders had in mind. Rather, the republic was founded on a very particular set of moral and ethical values based on the rights of individuals. These were not intended to be subject to the whims of the popular mood—at least not at the federal level.

A civil society based on these principles created a refuge for many who shared these ethical beliefs. And the country has been strengthened by all who come here, willing to adopt, honor, and abide by these principles. But it was never meant for those who have no respect for the life and liberty of others.

Historically, citizens who violated the agency of their fellows ended up in prison or destined to remain in other lands. Those who tried to come here to undermine or destroy our freedoms were repelled as enemies or invaders. If citizens cooperated with such hostile foreign powers they could be tried for spying or treason.

But today, millions from other countries pour across our borders absent meaningful or effective limits and regardless of whether they have respect for our founding American principles. Meanwhile, our internal law enforcement resources remain busy imprisoning our own citizens because they use certain drugs declared unacceptable by the majority. And our defensive forces are occupied trying to establish order in other countries around the world, rather than in regulating and defending our own border.

We have largely squandered our originally founded form of government, a representative republic. Now we are largely government by a system of popular democracy, or majority rule. So as we continue to allow massive inflows of people who do not understand or support our founding principles, those principles become increasingly imperiled. When the majority of voters no longer understand or properly value our unalienable rights, we are certain to lose them. We are in danger of losing our unique American ethic.

The United States should remain a land where we protect the rights identified in the Declaration of Independence. In order to do so, our system of internal justice should focus only on those who refuse to respect those rights. Our national defense should focus only on foreign powers who threaten our sovereignty and security. And the forces in charge of our national border should admit only those who will come with respect and honor for our national ethic—not in order to exploit it.

Religious Organization

In addition to countries organizing around common ethical principles, we also have the concept of organized religions. In some countries there is little or no distinction between government and organized religion. But in the United States, we have tried to maintain some kind of separation in these notions.

Specifically, the Constitution forbids the federal government from establishing a single, organized, church. Interestingly, it does not prevent the individual states from having an official religion. In fact, at the founding, many did.

Also it does not mean the federal government was not founded on ethical, or religious principles. In fact, it clearly was.

As mentioned, the Declaration of Independence is clearly a statement of our ethics. And what are ethics, if not our faith, or our beliefs?

According to the Declaration, our unalienable rights come by Providence to all people as a condition of our creation. In other words, our rights are not granted by other people. They are not determined by a democratic vote, nor by the decree of a King or a President. Rather, they belong to us as a natural consequence of our existence, or our creation.

The Declaration enumerates, perhaps the most important of these rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And in this simplicity, it is compatible with a wide variety of organized religions—but not necessarily all.

There is nothing in our founding to require tolerance toward such religious thought that is hostile toward this national ethic. For example, exploitation and oppression, even when done in the name of religion, are not American values and should not be allowed to become a part of our culture.

If you kill another person in America, you should still be brought to justice—even if your religion condones the act. If you steal from someone else, you must still be prosecuted, even if you believe what you did was right. If your religion says you can enslave women or kill homosexuals, you should have no place in the United States of America.

In a culture that respects individual choice, you should be able to associate yourself with whatever religious organization you are most comfortable with. And thankfully, American ideals afford plenty of room for a wide diversity of specific religious thought and expression. But if your beliefs include the notion of preventing others from enjoying their rights, including the right to choose their own religion, you should practice your beliefs somewhere else in the world.

Social Club

Organized religion may not be for everyone. And even those who belong to a church may also want to associate with others who share something common centered around some other objective.

You might like to spend time at a club with other people who also like to golf. You may belong to a service organization in order to help you render charity in a more productive way. You might like to get together to sew, to play bridge, or to race cars. There is no limit to the different kinds of associations people may form with one another.

Like religion, these associations are very personal. And several principles should be honored in a society that values freedom of choice:

  • You should be free to choose your own associations, to the greatest degree possible;
  • And we should avoid forcing people into relationships they do not want, even if we think their reasoning is flawed.
  • This means, you may request membership in any group you may choose;
  • But you should not be able to force yourself into a group that does not want you.

This last point is the one we sometimes have a problem with. It just seems unfair if we can’t belong to any group or club we want. But freedom of association cuts in both direction. All parties to an association get to have a choice in the matter, or that association is not truly free.

In modern American culture, we have sometimes attacked clubs that prohibit membership in ways we think are racist, sexist, or otherwise exclusionary. True, it is distasteful to see people organize groups that are bigoted. But this may be a price we have to pay for living in a truly free and tolerant society. We should not sacrifice the principles of choice simply because others exercise their choices unwisely.

In a society of individual choice, people must be free to make unwise choices. Otherwise, it is not really choice at all.

Reproduction

Now let us jump ahead to the most intimate of all relationships. As living, biological organisms, we enjoy the ability to reproduce. But to do this, we must associate ourselves in couples, as male and female.

By the miracle of nature, these gender differences allow us to combine the genetic material necessary to create a new, living being. They also help us provide our offspring with the necessary nourishment, experience, and protection to mature and develop so they can go on to enjoy their own adult lives.

Clearly, some people are willing to reproduce without forethought or conscience. Other people recognize this as a solemn responsibility—one which should not be taken lightly. They make the necessary sacrifices and commitments to raise their children with a strong moral foundation, adequate financial resources, and quality educational opportunities.

To most of us, it would be unacceptable for government to interfere in our own free choice of a sexual partner. Granted, some societies have enacted laws to discourage such practices between close relatives, with members of the same sex, or with younger people who are not yet be prepared to express their will in a fully informed way. But virtually no one wants government telling them whom they may, or may not share their physical affections with.

Consider this from another, even more distasteful perspective: What if, as a consequence of law, you were forced to participate in a sexual relationship you had not chosen? Most people, at least in Western civilization, would recognize this as a clear violation of one’s natural right to choose.

So why bring it up here? Because the real question is: why should society get to manage any of our relationships at all? Do you want other people deciding, by democratic vote or otherwise, whom you will or will not associate yourself with? Or would you prefer to choose that on your own?

It is instructive to consider the morality of forcing a person into, or preventing her from, a sexual relationship simply because a governing body has determined it must be so. If we don’t like the morality of compelling people in their personal relationships, why should we think it is acceptable to use such force in any other association? If we are truly free to pursue happiness, this should include all our relationships from the very most intimate down to the very casual.

No one should be forced into an association they do not want. And no group of competent, informed, and consenting adults should be prevented from associating themselves, unless by doing so, they would bring undue harm to, or restrict the freedom of other non-consenting parties.

Cohabitation

Much has been made of late over the controversy of same-sex marriage. The reader may notice that “marriage” is conspicuously missing from our list of human associations. This is primarily because the word has lately become so politically charged. It now means such different things to different people, it can be difficult to effectively convey one’s desired meaning.

So we will instead just allude to marriage while dealing separately with three of its distinct relational aspects. The first is reproduction and parenting, which has already been covered above. The second part involves the common ownership of property, which will be dealt with later. The third component is whom we choose to live with.

Historically, nearly all societies have lumped these three functions together in one way or another and called them “marriage.’ But our reality is a bit more complex than that—particularly in modern times. Sexuality is not only about reproduction. Whether thanks be to God, or to evolution, individuals find it very enjoyable and fulfilling to be involved in a physical relationship with another person, even when reproduction does not occur.

As a further twist, a relative few people prefer to have physical intimacy with others of their own sex—rather than those of the opposite sex. This kind of sexuality can be difficult for the rest to understand whether from a religious or an evolutionary perspective. Since it can not result in biological reproduction, it is clearly limited to fulfilling the physical and emotional desires of the parties. In other words, it does not serve the additional utility to society of propagating the species.

Perhaps the biggest complication is, much about this sensitive subject is often tied into our moral and ethical beliefs. Many believe it is wrong or sinful to engage in sexual intercourse except in the context of a loving, committed, heterosexual relationship with a strong commitment to responsibly raise the children resulting from the union. But when homosexuality and other unconventional sexual practices are shunned by the majority, some people end up feeling like they have been left on the outside of society. They feel like their right to choose is not being honored.

These issues have certainly come to the forefront in our present day. Se we would benefit from considering how the principle of choice can be used to maximize freedom for everyone.

First, competent, consenting, and informed adults should be free to engage in whatever practices they may choose as long as they can do so without bringing undue harm upon those who may have a different point of view. But all individuals must also be accountable for their own actions. We should not be forced to endorse nor subsidize the lifestyles of others with whom we may disagree. And simply because we have a right to choose, this does not mean we get immunity from the natural consequences of our actions.

For example, those who engage in promiscuous sex are typically at greater risk for disease or even death. When this occurs among male homosexuals, the risk is even higher. And the most obvious consequence of heterosexual intercourse is the creation of new life—children.

These new human beings bring with them a whole new set of ethical questions. For example, does a parent have the right to terminate the life of an unwanted child? Or should society protect a child from such a decision, made by its own parents? And should this question be answered one way if the child is still in the womb and a different way once the child has been born?

As another example, consider what responsibilities parents should taken on for the children they create. Should people have an obligation to provide financial support their own children until they become adults? Or is it acceptable to have as many children as you like and then expect the rest of society to bear the cost of their upbringing?

The point is, different people believe differently about these kind of questions. And no one seems entitled to assert his own opinion and then force it upon the rest of us. So maybe we should spend less time fighting over these issues and instead, work out a system where people of a wide variety of different beliefs can all get their way.

This can be accomplished by respecting two simple principles of choice:

  • We should all be able to enjoy the benefits of our own choices, to the greatest degree possible.
  • We should also be responsible for our own choices and not burden others with the issues we might create.

Some people might not want a long term relationship of intimacy or cohabitation. They may just want to occasionally associate with other willing adults, but without a lasting commitment.

Some people might prefer to be coupled with another person of the same sex. This coupling might involve living together as well as a sexual relationship. Although biological reproduction is not going to result, they may still wish to raise children together where such opportunities are available.

But a large number of people believe in a more traditional set of values. To them, marriage represents the whole package:

  • Enjoying an intimate relationship with a life-long spouse,
  • Engaging in sexual reproduction,
  • Living together as a family, sharing resources and providing for each other, and
  • Responsibly raising children to be productive members of society.

Such people often have hold accompanying religious beliefs. They may prefer to raise their children in a more socially conservative environment where such practices as homosexuality or promiscuous sex are discouraged. In a truly tolerant society, this choice should also be respected.

So how can we maximize everyone’s opportunities to choose? Can the devout Christian family coexist with those who want more socially permissive lifestyles?

The answer begins by recognizing, there is no reason we have to impose our various beliefs upon each other—legally or otherwise. Laws preventing alternative sexual practices among consenting adults are an injustice to those who would choose to live such lifestyles.

But similarly, a federal law effectively redefining the term “marriage” to include homosexual relationships is an injustice to those who believe the word means something else. To many, it is an institution ordained by God whereby ideally, children are taught and raised by a male father and a female mother. Shall we use legal force to attempt to change their point of view?

Do you have the right to choose your own relationships? Yes.

Do you have the right to force everyone else to approve of your relationships? No.

Do you have the right to redefine the associations of others to your own liking? No.

Do you have the right to engage in any kind of public conduct, even if it may be offensive to others? No.

Perhaps concepts such as ”marriage’ should be maintained more in the realm of religion and less in that of government. Most particularly, it should not be the function of the Federal Government to decide what is, ultimately a matter of personal opinion and religious belief. Where public conduct is to be regulated, we should do it at the state or local level.

This will give people a broader range of options to choose from. Individuals have more opportunity to associate themselves with others who share similar beliefs. Freedom is maximized, diversity is created, and choice is honored.

Joint Ownership

Marriage is one way people join together to own property in common. But it is not the only way. The other most common method is called a corporation.

As mentioned, one result of traditional marriage is, a husband and wife own things jointly. But any two people could achieve a similar result simply by creating a corporation of which they each are a member. They could write articles of incorporation and bylaws which define their relationship. With a little effort, this could be done in such a way to produce virtually the same economic result we achieve with a conventional marriage.

This demonstrates the one component of marriage which actually can best be administered by the legal system. Associations are great as long as the members are all in agreement. But when disputes arise, they sometimes need to be arbitration from an objective third party. A system for contract enforcement can be just what is needed.

A modern society, mutually tolerant, and truly sensitive to choice might do well to consider the different components of marriage separately and then provide for each to be obtained from its optimal source. Consenting adults can make a choice about how they want to express their own intimacy. Just do it privately and don’t worry so much about what the rest of us might think about it.

A traditional Christian could obtain a “marriage certificate” from his church, which would have full discretion to decide what that term actually means to its members. And a legal contract of union can be entered into defining how partners in a relationship will own their property in common.

Nature and biology will take care of determining if and when reproduction will take place. But perhaps those who choose to have children should enter into a contract with the rest of society, by obtaining a license, whereby they promise to feed, clothe, educate and otherwise care for their children until they reach the age of their own full accountability.

Everyone should be able choose what components are most consistent with their own ethical and religious beliefs. But no one should be forced to subsidize or otherwise support a practice they do not believe in.

And we don’t all have to do things exactly the same way everywhere in the country. In fact, it is probably best if we don’t. State and community jurisdictions can develop their own standards according to the prevailing values and beliefs of their voters. The only thing we need to do at the Federal level is guarantee unalienable rights, such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Employment and Commerce

After reproduction, employment may be the most intimate of our chosen relationships. We live in a world that does not provide for our needs automatically. So we have to work in order to eat, to maintain shelter, and to survive.

Theoretically, it is possible for each person to provide entirely for his own needs. But that would not be very practical. Imagine having to grow all your own food, build your own house, and maintain all your own possessions.

In nearly all societies, people have discovered how it is so much more effective to specialize in one or two areas of production and then trade our services with others who may have expertise in areas different from our own.

In barter and trade economies, this is fairly straightforward. You produce as much as you can of what you are good at. Then you trade your excess for the other things you may need. Under this system, everyone is equal. All are peers. Everyone is a producer of something. And everyone is a consumer of other things.

We enter into voluntary associations with our trading partners in order to find the best providers of what we need, and the most motivated consumers for what we have to offer. As with any other relationship, we should be free to exchange value with others as we may choose, without force or coercion from the rest of society.

But our modern economies have evolved to use money as an intermediate measure of value for nearly every trade we do. In the process, we have begun to lose sight of certain fundamental principles. For example, we sometimes assume everyone has to have a job somewhere, working for a company and earning money. We focus on the money as holding the value—rather than the goods and services it facilitates.

Sometimes we forget, we are still just trading value for value. And that makes it more tempting to enact laws and regulations on our trades that may seem fair, but which really just restrict our freedom of choice. The more society regulates the way we can trade with each other, the more freedoms we lose. In the extreme case, this can become a kind of involuntary servitude, or a form of slavery.

Properly implemented, money can be a very powerful invention for facilitating trade. It allows us to divide our trades up into two parts: earning and spending. Under direct barter and trade, if you have an excess of apples but need some new shoes, it may be difficult to find the exact trading partner you need. Not only do you have to find someone with excess shoes, but they also must be someone who needs your apples.

But when using money, you can accept a certificate of credit in exchange for your excess apples. Then you can trade some of those credits for the shoes you need. Some trades involve you giving services and getting money. Other trades involve you giving money and getting goods or services. If the credits, or money you trade is widely recognized in your economy, you should be able to convert your excess work into all the other commodities you want and need.

Just as people have specialized in the work they do, so have various aspects of the economy itself. Over time, people have found it easier to perform certain functions when they are associated together in groups, or corporations.

For example, if someone wants to manage a complex manufacturing process involving many different workers, this usually works out better when done as a corporation than as a sole proprietorship. So many people today end up working for corporations. We go to our jobs, we do our service, and we get money in return. It doesn’t have to be that way. We just do it because, in a lot of cases, it is more efficient.

Similarly, it is a fairly complex task to run a grocery distribution system or to produce automobiles for those who want them. So when it comes time to purchase those kinds of things, you will often find yourself trading with a corporation rather than an individual.

But over time, we have begun to enact more laws forcing people and corporations to engage in trades they might not otherwise choose. This is an example of how democracy, or majority rule, can be abused in order to subordinate a minority and force them to serve a voting majority.

There was a time when far fewer such laws existed. Unfortunately, the advantages of incorporating over acting individually resulted in an imbalance or unfairness in the economy. In many cases, corporations were able to exercise undue power over the individuals they dealt with.

For example, if a company was the primary or only employer in an area, it might be able to pay people lower wages or make them work in undesirable conditions. Likewise, if a company enjoyed a monopoly in wheat or milk production, it would be able to charge more for its product than if there were other competing businesses helping to keep prices low and quality high.

Unfortunately, the response to these inequities has not always been very helpful or productive. The correct solution to slavery is choice, not more slavery. But government is a blunt instrument—a tool of force. So when we use government to solve problems, the solutions are bound to result in more force and fewer choices for the people.

For example, when employees suffer from poor wages and working conditions, they really just need more options to choose from. We should respond by encouraging more competition and commerce in order to increase the number of available jobs. With more choices, employees are free to accept the best jobs and reject the less desirable ones. Those employers offering higher pay and better working conditions will prosper while the less desirable employers will have to improve or go out of business. Conditions will improve for everyone, and without the need for force.

Instead, we have too often responded by trying to force existing corporations to pay their employees more, or to hire employees they might not otherwise have chosen. We have made it more difficult for employers to terminate the employment relationship. And we have heaped layers of other regulatory overhead on companies, leaving fewer resources available to fund payroll and growth.

Not only is this unfair to the employers, but more importantly, it is not very effective at improving conditions for employees either. Instead, it tends to reduce the number of available jobs. So fewer people are able to find the working relationships they need to support themselves.

The fact is, employment is just a relationship like any other. It involves two peer parties trading value for value in a world where we must work to survive.

As such, it should follow the same ethical rules as any other association. No person, nor group of people, should be forced into a relationship they don’t want. Each person and group should be able to freely choose what relationships they will engage in. And they should be able to choose any set of terms mutually acceptable to the other participants.

If we force an employee or an employer into a relationship, or to abide by terms he would not otherwise have chosen, this is using government power to make one person serve the needs of another, against his will. In the end, it is just an institutionalized form of slavery by degrees.

Next, let us consider our associations of commerce. We may earn money in a relationship with an employer. But in order for that money to be of any use, we need a place we can spend it to get the things we use to live comfortable lives.

This trading of credit for goods and services is also just a relationship—like any other. Both parties should be able enter the transaction voluntarily or not at all. But in this area too, government has begun taking a much more active role in deciding what associations we may, and must, participate in. The result has been an increase in government coercion and hence a loss of individual freedom of choice.

Consider the example of grocery shopping. Most likely, you wouldn’t appreciate it if someone from the government came around to tell you which grocery store you have to use. Rather, you would prefer to choose the stores you like best. You might like to watch for sales and frequent the shops where you find the best values.

In fact, as a consumer, you probably don’t appreciate the government telling you where you must buy anything. Do you want to be told where to get your hair cut, what movies you must see for entertainment, or what brand of computer you have to buy? Yet increasingly, government is controlling what cars we can buy, what kind of education we can obtain, and how we must purchase our healthcare services.

Consider it from the opposite perspective. Imagine you start a company that makes high strength nylon cording. But you prefer not to do business with the commercial fishing industry because they use this product to make their nets. You know how they regularly injure and kill dolphins in the course of their fishing. And you are morally opposed to the killing of dolphins, so you choose not to subsidize that activity.

But what if government regulations forced you to sell to commercial fishing companies even though you think it is wrong to do so?

What if you are a devoted conservationist, but the government makes you sell construction equipment to people who are destroying wetlands or the rain forests? What if you are an animal rights activist, but the government forces you to sell supplies to sport hunters or mink farmers?

It is not difficult to think of examples on either side of the current political divide. We all want to be free to support those causes we think are right and just. None of us want to be forced into relationships that go against our will or our ethics. But are we as supportive of free choice for those we disagree with politically?

What if you are pro-life, but the government forces you to sell medical equipment to an abortion clinic? What if you believe homosexuality is a sin, but you are forced by the government to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple?

There are two sides to true tolerance: One is allowing other people to engage in associations we might not choose for ourselves. The other side means allowing others to refrain from associations they might not want—however misguided their reasoning might be.

It is bigotry, and it can be a form of involuntary servitude, to deny others their right to make either choice.

Conclusions

We all want freedom for ourselves and not any kind of slavery, whether light or otherwise. None of us want to be bossed around any more than we have to. Why is it then that government continues to impose itself more and more upon our choices?

Are we in charge of government? Or is government in charge of us?

And if government is in charge of us, then who is in charge of government?

We think. We believe. And we prefer to choose according to our own thoughts and beliefs.

When we are not allowed to choose according to our conscience, we are nothing more than servants to the thoughts and beliefs of someone else.

The point is, the right to association is at the heart of what it means to be a free, sentient human being. In order to be truly free, we should be allowed to join with others in pursuing our happiness together. Likewise, we should not be forced to join with those who pursue a course we do not wish to follow.

Are you free to choose your own relationships? Are you willing to allow others this same freedom?