Biden's faulty logic
“As the president said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they're worth taking,” Vice President Joe Biden declared last week as he previewed what his commission on gun violence might actually do.
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.
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.
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, plastic buckets, window blinds or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative 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). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?
One obvious response 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 10 mph, 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 as if 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.
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 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 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 the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Penguins not mortgaging future
- Penguins GM Rutherford not counting on Dupuis’ return
- No tag for Worilds; Steelers cut Moore
- Penguins acquire defensemen Lovejoy, Cole in deadline deals
- Surgeon to examine Pirates’ Cumpton after experiencing elbow discomfort
- On remote Japanese island, cats outnumber humans
- Frazer police receive state funding for more undercover patrols at Mills
- Pittsburgh’s Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities
- Rangers up ante in Metropolitan Division with trade acquisitions
- Pirates special instructor Tekulve taking second chance to heart
- Inmate care in Allegheny County Jail generates worries