Opinion: Daily Journal

Collectivism and the Evil of Forced Sterilization

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Daren Bakst, John Locke Foundation Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies.

Compensating the victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program has appropriately been a primary concern when addressing this dark chapter in the state’s history. However, even more important is learning the lessons from the atrocities that took place from the 1920s to as late as the 1970s.

The most obvious lesson is forced sterilization never should happen again. This, though, doesn’t get to the underlying problem that led to the evil acts that took place in the state. And, yes, I do call the actions evil.

Motivating proponents of forced sterilization were “greater good” arguments that often changed to justify the continuation of the sterilization program. The arguments changed from preventing the growth of undesirables in the general population to reducing welfare costs. The sterilization statute specifically allowed forced sterilizations for the public interest, regardless of the impact on the sterilization victims.

The identification of some broad goal that seemed desirable to the proponents was an end that justified the means (i.e., forced sterilizations). This didn’t make their actions any less evil because they had identified some reason for their physical invasions of the bodies of innocent victims and taking away one of the most fundamental rights in nature and in law: the right to reproduce. From the perspective of the great moral philosopher John Locke, this would be part of a greater individual right to self-ownership. It’s the same right that makes slavery an intrinsic evil.

At its core, the “greatest good” mentality believes that the good of the collective or society trumps the rights of individuals. It doesn’t matter what evil is done in the name of the collective, or so it is thought, because the individual should sacrifice for the “greater good.” To those involved with forced sterilization, the means weren’t thought of as evil because those sterilized were somehow not worthy of reproduction. In a sense, the victims were viewed as subhuman, and therefore did not possess basic individual rights.

The most evil people in history didn’t think of themselves as evil. Even someone like Hitler murdered the innocent to further what he perceived as a collective good. He also saw his victims as subhuman.

This country is founded on the principle of valuing each and every individual. For some reason, collectivists view this commitment to the individual as a negative. Individuals don’t always act in a way that is consistent with the “greater good” as defined by the “experts.” Therefore, the selected experts must engineer society to reach the desired results at the expense of the individual, if necessary.

Individuals act in their self-interests, which collectivists view as selfish. People should be willing to be sterilized if they are “feeble-minded,” a term that had no meaning. The state isn’t acting evil, or so the argument would go, when it is simply forcing people to do the right thing for the good of the collective.

The principles of individual liberty and individual rights, though, counter this collectivist thought. The state exists to protect rights, not to infringe upon them. When individuals act in their self-interest and are free to pursue happiness, the greater good is being served.

The extreme nature of forced sterilization is evident. The greater good argument, though, is dangerous with less benign policies as well. Obamacare is an example. To make it perfectly clear, Obamacare is not the moral equivalent to forced sterilization. My point is to show that the same greater good and collectivist philosophy guides the thinking behind Obamacare.

For the collective good, individuals are being forced to buy health insurance. The fact that individuals should be free to make their own health care choices pales in comparison to the collective benefit of having more individuals participate in the health insurance market.

Obamacare may sound like a good policy to many people. These “greater good” policies often will sound good, just like forced sterilization sounded good to many people. They sound even better when the so-called experts, such as scientists, tout the policy benefits of the collectivist goal. The key is always to remember individual rights.

Trying to develop a philosophical framework that will apply in every situation when considering proposed policies is not an easy task, and maybe it’s impossible. This doesn’t mean that proposed policies shouldn’t first be viewed through the prism of protecting individual rights.

Like a judge properly applying the law, the conclusion that one draws may not be consistent with the desired outcome. Maybe smoking is annoying, and one’s life would be better if it weren’t allowed in restaurants. This, though, is precisely the type of disregard for individuals and rights that undermines the free society that most of us desire and recognize would be in all our best interests collectively.

We need to learn the bigger lessons from the forced sterilization program in North Carolina. Regardless of whether it’s forced sterilization or some other policy, we must be vigilant never to devalue the life or fundamental rights of even one innocent individual to achieve some collectivist goal.