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Biden's faulty logic

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By Jonah Goldberg
Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 9:09 p.m.
 

“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.”

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