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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Principled Limit of Freedom

When is it right to show "tough love" by demanding that someone change? What risks does this involve? (Serendipity Bible Fourth Edition, page 1613).

In a society there is one rule of thumb regarding when "tough love" must be shown–when someone's behavior is hurting others. The history of rail regulation illustrates this.  In the late nineteenth century statistics were indicating that callus railroad operations were hurting many thousands of railroad workers.

The following is from The Scientific American; June 6, 1896; page 359.
  • Compulsory Introduction of Coupling Devices.  Sixteen thousand railroad employees were killed in the discharge of their duties in the seven years from 1888 to 1894.  The awful record of the killed and injured seems incredible.  During those seven years the exact figures are 16,257 killed and 172,180 crippled, maimed and injured.  Few battles in history show so ghastly a fatality.
  • This slaughter of American workmen is about ended, says the Evening Telegram.  A national law, the expression of the Congress of the United States, has called a halt to the heartlessness or heedlessness of railroad companies, and it has been decreed that an army of men shall no longer be offered up as an annual sacrifice to corporate greed.
The railroad industry no doubt was deeply offended and saw this as an issue of freedom to run their businesses as they saw fit. Opposition to reform is typically couched in terms of economics and free enterprise. Isn't freedom what America is all about? Well, no it's not.  We are free so long as our actions do not amount to hurtful criminal behavior. Were there risks involved enacting reform? Powerful interests were in opposition to any change, and it seems that it is reflexively easy to paint needed reform as un-American. Yet, the American ethos of respect for individuals in the end was more important than excursions in selfish freedom that hurt the lives of others.

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