Social conservatives have a good point. They note that the laws and social conventions of a society have far-reaching effects across the society, and ultimately determine whether that society thrives, stagnates, or crumbles.
Unfortunately, they usually spend nearly all of their time talking about sexual rules and customs. While sex is endlessly fascinating, there are other rules of our culture that are at least as important and more urgently in need of repair.
One of the most unfortunate cultural rules we’re burdened with is this one: it is absolutely unconscionable in our compassionate society to allow someone to hurt himself. This rule has enormous costs – the continued existence of Social Security to the present day can be traced to it (you can’t let people neglect to save and then be unable to retire or pay their bills after they can’t work), as well as our problems with the cost and quality of medical care (since people mustn’t be allowed to hurt themselves with medical treatment or devices, a large and expensive infrastructure has been built for the express purpose of preventing people from being treated without permission and close supervision), as well as the continued use of the groundcar, the War on Drugs, grade inflation (if we can’t stop people from earning failing grades, we’ll just have to stop flunking them instead), the shakedown of the cigarette makers and the associated advertising ban, a large and growing body of product liability judgements, and much, much more.
If you rule out the possibility of letting people hurt themselves, your only alternatives are to use force to stop them (and use force against other people who help them or even fail to stop them) or to bail them out (with money provided at taxpayer expense, or unearned credentials at the expense of those who can actually earn them but can no longer prove it). The former causes restrictions to multiply out of control, while the latter guarantees the continuation of self-destructive behavior and causes costs to multiply out of control. While restrictions may prevent one form of avoidable suffering, they also restrict the ability of people to solve their own problems and avoid other forms of avoidable suffering; for instance, when doctors are given 25 year sentences for insufficiently restricting the use of pain medication, people with severe pain are deprived of the best available tool for solving it, and must either live with the pain or commit suicide or become criminals to get rid of it. But according to our rules, these people’s suffering is an acceptable price to pay to prevent other people from enduring entirely self-inflicted suffering.
As long as this rule is ingrained in our culture, effective solutions to our worst problems will be politically infeasible, and politically feasible solutions will be ineffective or destructive. The free market is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but it only works well when people are left to use their own judgement and their own resources to acquire the best available solutions to their own problems, and reap the benefits and bear the costs.