Duke Students Struggle to Understand Freedom of Choice

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More students objected to the sale of McDonald’s drinks than to marijuana.

But one student objected to the entire existence of private property. Ironically, this same student had no issue with purchasing an ocean. 

Duke University’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) organized an liberty-themed event planned to coincide with April 20th, a date of significance for “cannabis culture.” The representatives from YAL encouraged students passing-by to participate in a series of thought experiments. Participating students were given a list of items and then asked which ones the government should restrict sale of or outright ban. The items on the list were: assault rifles, chimpanzees, hummers, prostitutes, slaves, oceans, large McDonald’s drinks, cocaine, marijuana, nuclear weapons, land, and organs. Any student who picked fewer than 9 of the 12 items to ban was recognized as a supporter of individual liberty and offered a small prize.  

The choices of many students were unexpected. More students objected to the sale of McDonald’s drinks than to marijuana. Almost every student objected to the purchase of cocaine, yet few had reservations regarding the legality of marijuana. No one thought that slaves or nuclear weapons ought be sold. But one student objected to the entire existence of private property. Ironically, this same student had no issue with purchasing an ocean. 

The game stimulated many conversations. Many students thought certain items should be banned because they were “bad.” This was an intentional choice on the part of the YAL students, who organized the event. Every item on the list with the exception of land had clear negative effects. The purpose of the event was to suggest that the heart of the matter is not whether something is bad but whether using it interferes with the freedom of others.

 As a society, we cannot suggest that our individual moral beliefs ought to become universal imperatives. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, there is a politician who wants to impose a moral upon you that you do not believe in. There are few things more unsettling than being forced to conform to a moral belief you do not hold. The take-away from the event is that when we allow others to enjoy as much personal freedom as we desire for ourselves rather than arbitrarily assigning things as “bad” and “worse,” everyone benefits from choosing how best to live for himself. 

Hans Riess writes for Merion West. 

This article is adapted from a previous piece written by Mr. Riess for Young Americans for Liberty’s news. 

Hans Riess graduated from Duke University with a degree in mathematics and is working towards a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He is interested in applying concepts from mathematics to theories of optimal political decision-making.

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