Much of the debate in this country can be boiled down to a single question: Does the right to pursue happiness also imply a right to pursue unhappiness?
For brevity's sake, we might refer to the latter as "the pursuit of misery" or "the right to stupidity." Do we have such a right? Or is it incumbent upon government to protect us from ourselves?
That's a legitimate question, given the mixed signals government sometimes sends. On the one hand, motorcycle riders are required by law to wear helmets, because not wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is stupid. We're protecting the idiots from themselves.
On the other hand, there's no law against watching "Paris Hilton's New BFF."
In recent years, though, our government has definitely trended toward denying us our right to stupidity — with, I believe, unfortunate results.
Because, if people have no right to behave stupidly, and they do so anyway (as they will), then a "compassionate" government must intervene — not to prevent an action that has already occurred but to mitigate the consequences. That way, it appears the behavior wasn't so stupid, after all.
This is basically what caused the housing crash. Enabled by government, through federal loan programs and bank subsidies, people bought homes that cost two or three times what they could comfortably afford. When you think about it, that's pretty stupid.
Then, when it turned out they couldn't actually make the payments on those homes, the government had to step in with new programs in order to either bail them out or allow them to walk away with minimal consequences. "See?" the fed told us. "Buying a house you couldn't afford wasn't really so stupid, after all."
Which leads me to our government's latest attempt to save people from their own stupidity, the Obama health care plan.
Is it stupid, if you're an adult, not to have health insurance? Probably. But up until recently, people were allowed to engage in that kind of stupidity. If they wanted to pursue pain and misery, that was held to be their God-given right.
No more. Now we all have to buy health insurance whether we want it or not, with government subsidizing the expense as necessary. Over time, that's going to cost us a lot of money.
"But Rob," you say, "if people don't buy health insurance, and then something happens to them, then we all have to pay for their care, anyway."
No we don't. We don't have to do anything. If we choose to, that's another matter. But, as any parent knows, the surest way to rectify stupid behavior is simply to allow people to suffer the consequences.
Look, I know many of you don't agree with me about this. You might even think I'm stupid. Just keep one thing in mind: even if you're correct, that's my God-given right.
Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English and director of The Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.