The Right Opinion

Biden's Faulty Lifeguard Logic

By Jonah Goldberg · Jan. 11, 2013

“As the president said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they're worth taking,” Vice President Joe Biden declared on Wednesday as he previewed what his commission on gun violence might actually do.

“There are executive orders, there's executive action that can be taken. We haven't decided what that is yet. But we're compiling it all with the help of the attorney general and the rest of the Cabinet members as well as legislative action that we believe is required.”

Biden insisted that it is a moral imperative for the White House to do something: “It's critically important that we act.”

Most of the attention, understandably, is on Biden's suggestion that the president will consider using executive orders to do things he couldn't possibly accomplish legislatively. The imperial presidency is always troubling, but when it rubs up against the Bill of Rights it is especially so.

But what I find to be arguably the most disturbing – and definitely the most annoying – part of Biden's remarks is this nonsense about if it saves only one life, the White House's actions would be worth it.

Maybe it's because I wrote a whole book on the way phrases like “if it saves only one life, it's worth it” distort our politics, but whenever I hear such things the hairs on the back of my neck go up.

The notion that any government action is justified if saves even a single life is malarkey, to borrow one of Mr. Biden's favorite terms. Worse than that, it's dangerous malarkey.

Let's start with the malarkey part. The federal government could ban cars, fatty foods, ladders, plastic buckets, window blinds or Lego pieces small enough to choke on and save far more than just one life. Is it imperative the government do any of that? It's a tragedy when people die in car accidents (roughly 35,000 fatalities per year), or when kids drown in plastic buckets (it happens an estimated 10 to 40 times a year), or when people die falling off ladders (about 300 per year). Would a law that prevents those deaths be worth it, no matter the cost?

Now one obvious response to this sort of argument ad absurdum is to say, “We don't have to ban buckets or cars to reduce the number of deaths. We can simply regulate them.” And that's true.

Indeed, that's the point. But when we regulate things, we take into account things other than the singular consideration about saving lives. Banning cars would cost the economy trillions – and also probably cost lives in various unintended ways. So we regulate them with speed limits, seat belt requirements, etc. And even here we accept a certain number of preventable deaths every year. Regulators don't set the speed limit at five miles per hour, nor do they make highway guardrails 50 feet high.

Every serious student of public policy – starting with Joe Biden and Barack Obama – knows this to be true. Some just choose to pretend as if it isn't true in order to push through their preferred policies.

The idea that the government can regulate or ban its way into a world where there are no tragedies, no premature deaths, is quite simply ridiculous. But that is precisely the assumption behind phrases like “if only one life is saved, it's worth it.”

Which brings us to the dangerous part. Pay attention to what Biden is saying. The important thing is for government to act, not for the government to act wisely.

And that's the real problem with this kind of rhetoric. Not only does it establish a ridiculously low standard for what justifies government action – indeed, action itself becomes its own justification – but it also sets the expectation that the government is there to prevent bad things from happening.

Biden has a warrant to investigate the role not just of gun laws but also video games, movies, mental health policies and lord knows what else in order to make sure we don't have another Newtown or Aurora massacre. I am wholly sympathetic to the desire to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

But for starters, I would first like to hear exactly what Biden would have us do, with regard to the First, Second and Fifth Amendments, before I think action is self-justifying on the grounds that if it saves even one life, it's worth it.

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


wjm in Colorado said:

Biden is a complete idiot, just going along with Chairman Obamao attacking the Constitution and the Second Amendment. Anything they come up with and dictate will be illegal, and nobody has any obligation to accept, enforce, or comply with their edicts. They ignore the recent run on guns at their peril. Do they really think that we will just roll over, play dead, and give up our rights because they illegally and treasonously ignore thier oaths of office?

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Richard J. Abbate of CT in Cheshire, CT said:

BHO will not be satisfied until he and his Gang have disarmed us completely, driven us into poverty on his plantation, and reduce the USA to a third world nation beholden to his overlords across the seas.

Regardless of what he and they may say, that is the agenda that has been in place since his first movements toward the Presidency in 2004.

Nothing he has done since taking office has in anyway contravened those objectives, and he has been bold enough at times to admit what he is up to. His infamous 'transform' America speech, and his whispers to the Russian leadership clearly outline his path, and leave open the question of what he meant by saying it was his "last election". Those of us who have watched him now for four years, with clear eyes, open minds, and common sense as a guide, have every reason to fear his assention to Dictatorship before 2016!

He is on track to achieve his dastardly, traitorous goal! RJA

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA said:

And how many lives will be lost if an individual is deprived of his Right "... to keep and bear Arms" thus losing his ability to defend himself and family against a stronger, well armed criminal?

If one life can be saved it is worth keeping that Right. - Right back at you, Biden.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:43 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

The one time I would agree with the notion of saving even one life is when interrogating terroists. If the information gained by waterboarding some raghead saved even one American soldier's life then so be it. I don't agree with Bimbo Biden's reasoning for this at all. That is called mass punishment in my book, punishing the whole for the acts of one.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:50 AM

sfj in Alabama said:

"if it saves only one life, it's worth it" - What a bunch of BS. Liberals are OK with millions of abortions (some are real gruesome late term) but get their panties in a wad if someone gets shot by a nut-case (who should have - but for the ACLU been in the psychiatric ward ) but millions of innocents can be slaughtered yearly and they're OK with it. Liberals are immoral/traitorous fools who should move out of this country and start their own.

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 1:13 PM

Torp44 in Ione, Wa. said:

Amen, Joe! Well said!

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 2:47 PM

Torp44 in Ione, Wa. said:

Amen, Jonah! Well said!

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 2:48 PM

Jim in Western NC said:

An axiom that should be followed- "Hard cases make bad laws."

Friday, January 11, 2013 at 11:25 PM