Not jumping the Berlin Wall can save lives. Somebody won’t get shot. Over the longer term, however, it is likely that tyranny wastes more lives than liberty. Anyway, the real question is not how many lives are destroyed under the two regimes, but what can justify forbidding a specific individual to cross what he thinks is a wall against his own flourishing.

I was reminded of this sort of questions when I followed a link in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about a “debate” the newspaper hosted some months ago on the question “Do E-Cigarettes Do More Good Than Harm?” The subtitle explained that it was “a debate over which is bigger: the damage from the rise in teenage vaping or the benefits of using e-cigarettes to stop tobacco smoking.”

The elephant missing in the room was and remains the ignored alternative: Does it cause still bigger damage to use government coercion to forbid adults to do what they want with their lives, and to teach the young that they will never be adults? What about individual liberty? Even if tyranny saved lives, it is not the same lives as would have flourished in a free society. (I wrote on vaping and “children” in a recent blog post here: “A Move to the Left,” June 27.)

Is it an exaggeration to draw an analogy between the sort of state that built the Berlin Wall and our nice and benevolent state that protects individuals against themselves for their own good? Is there any common denominator between the two sorts of state? Is it impossible that one ever morphs into the other? One must be careful, but not naïve. In The Road to Serfdom (1944), Friedrich Hayek quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, a socialist American theologian, who, in 1932, described Germany as the place “where all the social and political forces of modern civilization have reached their most advanced form.” This was apparently a commonly held opinion. The American progressives of the turn of the 20th century admired Germany. And Germany remained a public-health state under the Nazis: see Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton University Press, 1999) or my essay on the book in The Independent Review.

One advantage of individual liberty was advanced by James Buchanan in a 1978 lecture reproduced in his book What Should Economists Do? (Liberty Press, 1979). He wrote (the emphasis is his):

Man wants liberty to become the man he wants to become.

But here is a troubling question: Does man, in the sense of all human individuals, really want liberty? In a 2005 Public Choice article, “Afraid to Be Free: Dependency as Desideratum,” Buchanan himself seemed to have second thoughts after observing how many people ask the government to treat them like children:

The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.

This troubling question echoes a terrible sentence in Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power (see my recent review, “How the State Has Grown to Be the Monster We Know: Bertrand de Jouvenel’s On Power”):

Where the idea comes from that men hold despotism in detestation, I do not know. My own view is that they delight in it.

I suggest that the skewed debate on e-cigarettes, after the one on tobacco, serves as an illustration.