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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Personal Is the Political

Who makes the tradeoffs?

In the last couple of decades, one of the most popular political slogans on the left, especially among feminists, has been: “The personal is the political.”  For feminists the phrase is invoked to point out that the personal choices women make — for example, whether to continue working full-time after having children — cannot be extracted from the larger political context in which they take place.  The political environment profoundly affects personal choices, and personal choices thereby become political acts.

The left sees “The personal is the political” as a kind of call to arms: Everything you do is political so you should think through the implications.  In and of itself, that’s a point that libertarians can accept, though perhaps on a narrower set of issues.

However, for those of us in the freedom movement, that same phrase takes on a very different meaning in the context of the continued expansion of government in both health care and the environment. As government’s role grows, more and more decisions that we think of as personal are becoming political – with all the problems that brings.  There are decisions that we want to be personal and not political, but when resources become socialized and goals become collective, the personal becomes the political in all kinds of unsavory ways.  Let’s look at two quick examples.

As government spends more and more on health care, the number of personal decisions second-guessed by the political authorities will expand as well.  When health care spending is private, personal decisions are not political.  If I eat poorly, I pay the price at the doctor’s office.  However, once we socialize that spending, my decision to eat fatty, salty foods could cause me to use scarce resources from the collective pot.  The guardians of that pot — the politicians and bureaucrats — will have to decide if my “needs” are important enough to justify the use of those resources. If they are not, it will be necessary to limit my choices so that they don’t draw those collective resources away from needs politically determined to be “more urgent.”  The result could be a special tax or the outright prohibition of two of my life’s great loves: Italian subs and Buffalo wings.

The evidence is all around us: Trans fats are banned; the federal government tells women in their 40s they don’t “need” mammograms; more localities attempt to use zoning and other laws to keep out fast-food restaurants.  Rather than allowing individuals to make their own judgments about the tradeoffs regarding risk, the State must substitute its judgment and enforce it with coercion.  The personal has become the political.

The second example is illustrated by the much-discussed Audi commercial shown during the Super Bowl, in which “the Green Police” arrest people for using the wrong light bulbs, preferring plastic bags to paper, throwing away rather than recycling batteries, and using Styrofoam cups.  The commercial is powerful because it portrays even the most innocuous personal choices as subject to the State’s coercion if they are not the “correct” ones – that is, the ones the State dictates.  When environmental goals become socialized and trump all others, those making the “wrong” choices will find themselves on the wrong end of a gun.

As Hayek wrote almost 70 years ago in The Road to Serfdom, once a society decides that some goals have collective priority over others, the only ways to ensure the pursuit of those goals are propaganda and/or force.

When the personal becomes the political in that sense, the loser is human freedom.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.