Breakthrough Newsletter
By George Pitagorsky

Volume VI, Issue 3                                                                        Top    March 2014
In This Issue
How Much Government is Best?
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How Much Government is Best?
by George Pitagorsky  


Does the majority have the right to dictate behavior to the minority? Does the minority have responsibilities to the majority? How much government is really necessary?

In a coop apartment building a substantial number of people have initiated a smoking ban. The ban, if passed, would prohibit smoking anywhere in the building, including in individual apartments.

Being a recovering smoker and borderline anarchist who dislikes the smell of second hand tobacco smoke, I come to the question with conflict. Does compassion for the nicotine addicted include allowing them to bring discomfort to others?


Having accepted the fact that there is a need for government and that government has the responsibility to moderate behavior in the best interest of the state or, in this case building, and its people, I believe that some laws that impinge upon individual rights are justified.


The Smoking Ban

Smoking has an adverse effect on people. Nonsmokers are faced with hallways that smell like ash trays and the smell of smoke coming into their apartments through the ventilation system. The smell is unpleasant even to some smokers. Second hand smoke has an adverse impact on the health of those who breathe it.


There is an economic component as well. Buyers seeking apartments may be turned off by the smells and the occasional mess left by those smokers who think nothing of leaving their butts lying around in public areas. On the other hand, smokers may opt out of buying apartments in a building with a smoking ban.


Assuming that a ban on smoking is justified, how can it be enforced? Does the coop rely on reports of infractions by residents? Would this pit neighbor against neighbor?


Where does it stop - no perfume to protect the aroma sensitive; no clashing colors and plaids for the overly fashion sensitive?


The Thin Line

There is a thin line between the abuse of democracy and the legitimate exercise of majority rule. Those who lived through the civil rights struggle can relate to the excesses of the rule of law. Slavery was legal and teaching slaves to read illegal. Majorities passed laws that enforced segregation and inhibited voting by minorities. In Germany in the 1930's the majority elected Hitler. To this day, homosexuality is illegal in many parts of the world, as is same sex marriage. Again, where does it stop?


Concern for Others

Some proponents of smoking and other bans may be motivated by a desire to protect people from their own behavior. Can we let people take responsibility for their own health and choices, as long as they don't infringe upon the rights and comfort of others? Do we need to protect people from self abuse because their behavior ultimately costs society in health related costs, like treating those with lung cancer or obesity related illnesses. Do we protect people from themselves just because it is good for them? In the inquisition heretics were burned at the stake to save their souls.


On the other hand, addicts (yes, many smokers are addicted to nicotine) are notoriously self-centered. In the extreme they'll rob and kill for a fix. In less extreme situations, they'll ignore the rights and comfort of others to indulge their need for a smoke.


Aversion to Control

There are those who are motivated by an adolescent-like aversion to being required to do something they don't want to do. These people don't seem to care about the effect their behavior has on their neighbors. The racist who claims to be against integration because it violates the rights of the perpetrators of segregation is in this class of the self centered and selfish control averse. 


In the coop there is another issue, dogs. As an accommodation to dog owners, dogs were not banned but dog owners were first asked to and then required by the by-laws to take their dogs in the service elevator in consideration of those who are afraid of or allergic to dogs. A few people violate this rule repeatedly, even after being fined for doing so. They just ignore the fines.


These folks seem also to fall into that adolescent-like class of the control averse. Perhaps no one has taught them to consider the needs of others. They believe they have the right to do whatever they feel like doing no matter who it hurts. The idea of inconveniencing themselves for the sake of others just doesn't compute for them.


Government Intervention: The Right Balance

Whether its segregation, voting rights or simple social issues like smoking or dogs in elevators, it is people who have qualities that border on sociopathy that require government intervention to protect either majorities or minorities from abusive behavior.


Anarchy, may be an answer to the problem of government, but it can only work if all people respect the rights of others without discrimination based on family relationship, race, religion, or other attributes. The more people think only of themselves and their comfort the more we need government intervention. The more there is compassion and the desire to be loving and kind to oneself as well as others, the less we need government intervention.


Where does it stop?

But as soon as we allow some intervention by government into the daily behavior of individuals, we have to address the issue of how much and when.


It is easy to say that the government that governs least governs best. People love easy answers and certainty. Unfortunately, easy answers are not always correct answers; certainty does not equate to wisdom.


The belief that little or no government is best ignores the reality that the degree of governance depends on the situation at hand. Chaos and a complete lack of security, as we have in places like Somalia, call for a high degree of government intervention. Governance in situations where individuals have high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy for others, require far less of a degree.


When issues are complex, there are no easy answers and no certainty. Managing the complexities requires open minds, compassionate hearts and a process perspective that allows for the evolution of a solution. A solution is applied, tested an assessed and refined to adjust for changing circumstances. The process recognizes that the solution will change the situation and the changed situation will require a different solution.


Values and Next Steps

Underlying it all are values. When those values are founded on a commitment to non-harming, practical reality, loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, solutions will promote those qualities. When values are founded on wishful thinking, selfish egocentricity, ignorance, greed and hatred, solutions will tend to harm some or all of those involved.


You can cultivate positive values, do your best to see things from multiple perspectives, including your own and those of the others effected individuals involved. Get behind the solutions that fit the needs of the situation, can be practically implemented, and protect the interests of both majorities and minorities. Be open to change.


Recognize that we probably do need to pass and enforce laws that restrict the rights of some to protect the legitimate rights of others. Recognize that we need to be constantly vigilant to protect ourselves from overly intrusive government.


� 2014 George Pitagorsky                                    Top