Let me diet, but never make me starve

Expenditures — or lack thereof — should be the choice of the consumer. Government forcing intrudes on the individual's freedom to budget or splurge.

Photo illustration / John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Switching from a high-flow, high-pressure showerhead to a low-flow, low-pressure showerhead: should the choice be left to the individual or mandated by efficiency experts? Where is the line between promoting the general welfare and intruding into personal liberties?

It is time for me to diet. But it is not my belt that is straining as my waistline expands (this time, anyway). It is my stretched rear pocket that is flapping as my wallet shrivels.

Yes, I stretched my pocket a bit. You see, a little over a decade ago I fell for the exponential growth fallacy. Back then I believed that all rates compounded year over year as the market journeyed the New Economy’s Whig trajectory that is always upward and to the right. Of course, belief is not reality. And my math was way off. So it is time to adjust my consumption – to diet, so to speak.

Now when I say diet, I differentiate dieting or fasting from starvation. From a distance, a lack of eating is a lack of eating. But there is a huge difference between a diet or fast and starvation. The formers are actions by choice, the latter the result of conditions beyond one’s control. This is an obvious distinction that has significant meaning.

I used to love a hot, pounding shower; one where the bathroom mirror fogs and then sweats in broad streams. Actually, I still love them. But they are not longer part of my diet.

A month ago, I switched our showerheads from fire-hose blast to drought-stream trickle. Showers are no longer fun, they are functional at best. Of course, no diet is ever pleasant. However, the choice to switch was mine. And I can switch back whenever I choose (at least for now, anyway).

I may not be happy with this turn of events, but I am not angry either. No one is starving me. There is no gun barring me from my preferred action. I am doing this to myself – and my family, of course. In this instance, I am free, acting in order to satisfy my own personal ends.

You see, I am simply looking to reduce my expenditures. And just like anyone on a diet, I am choosing where and how to reduce. If I want the slice of cake then I will skip the dinner roll. If I want to gorge for a day, I can do so by going the extra mile or two (literally) during the following morning’s jog. All options are mine, as long as I understand that I live within the bounds of scarcity, as those bounds apply to me.

In addition to a long-term diet, I may desire to fast for a bit, reducing expenditures for the short term in order to substitute one want for another. Diet or fast, in either case, the choice is mine.

But not every change I have made, or will make, is based on my preferences. Many changes do not satisfy my desire to use certain means to reach specific ends. They were forced on me in a manner similar to how a diet (er, starvation) is forced on a political prisoner.

I like bright lights; the hot-bulb incandescent light that bathes faces and books in a bright, yet soft, yellow hue. When I looked at areas to reduce, I never considered fluorescent bulbs. Some will quickly rise to argue, “Fluorescent bulbs will save you money in the long run. Isn’t that what you are ultimately trying to do?” It is true that I am looking to reduce costs, so I cannot dispute that claim. But that is not the point. I am looking to balance my personal reductions with my subjective preferences – I am looking for the freedom to act in my own best interest.

In the very near future, the societal apparatus of coercion and compulsion will force me to substitute fluorescent for incandescent – I will be starved of light, so to speak. Certainly, I will have more money in my pocket, but that extra money sits well below my ranking for bright light. So the extra money will not offset my reduced wealth – I will be poorer.

Many times, folks see the end and forget the means. They believe that reducing the cost of energy required for lighting is a good thing. And just like dieters who pay for a weight-loss service, they do not mind outside intervention – they actually seek it out. So these folks do not object to government action to replace light bulbs. It makes sense – a personal end satisfied by a push and a prod, but a push and a prod in the right direction, from their individual points of view.

And I could argue that government should force everyone to switch to reduced-flow showerheads. What do I care? Such a switch would have no effect on me – a least until I desire to switch back. So government intervention would not appear to be the product of force. Government would be simply following my lead.

But a push and a prod directed at someone else, or an intervention that follows a lead, are not examples of freedom. They are instances of an expanding leviathan and a reduction of liberty. And every time the leviathan expands, it steals liberty from someone. And someday, that someone will be you.

Diet if you want, gorge if you so choose. But never advocate for government to force your ends on others. In spite of the view from a distance, starvation is not a substitute for dieting and fasting.

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