One of the reoccuring issues I keep seeing in the intersection between politics and economics is that of private choice vs public good. Individuals make decisions all the time based on their own private welfare - and it is essential to freedom that they do this - but the consequences of these decisions are not so great when aggregated in a community.
I noted recently in a local paper (Sunday Star Times, 30 Sep 2007, p.A6) an article which illustrates this in a pretty stark fashion. Training in New Zealand medical schools is suffering problems because students, especially male students, are being banned from delivery suites by women giving birth. The requirement used to be attending fifteen normal births during training; this has been reduced to five, and even here students are finding it impossible to make the grade - especially as they have to compete with midwifery students. In the US, many universities are using birth simulators. Think about that - training doctors on birth simulators!
Now, from the point of view of the individual woman and family, banning students makes sense. I'm pretty sensitive about who gets to stare at my genitals, and I'm not pushing a baby through them at the time. Not to mention the blood, the pain, the shit and sweat - you really do not need a bunch of young strangers standing around and taking notes while you go through it.
But medical practice is just that - a practice. If your doctor is in charge of a birth for the first or second time (and face it, doctors will have to go through their first or second times), how many other women's births do you want them to have attended as a student?
That answer is simple - as many as possible. Fifty or sixty. You want them to know the subject backwards and forwards, to know precisely what to do, to have bloody marinated in the subject. You want those fifty or sixty unknown women to have let a medical student to take a good hard stare at their vaginas before he or she gets any responsibility for what happens to yours.
You just don't want to let medical students do it to you.
Which illustrates the continual social problem of balancing individual freedom against a functioning society. One answer would be to have women ban students without condiering the consequences - and then scream about liberals causing medical training to deteriorate based on political correctness. Another would be to run students through without asking the woman or family involved, or to browbeat them into allowing it. Or you could muddle through - perhaps. Or you could export your problem with freedom - let students stare at many overseas poor vaginas before they touch your rich one in solitude. Or perhaps offer serious discounts at teaching hospitals for maternity cases where the woman is willing to provide live theatre.
Do people have the freedom to drive whatever car they want? Should people be allowed to eat whatever they like? Can society forbid you from smoking crack, from smoking pot, from smoking tobacco? If you won't get off your fat ass, should we make you? If you like looking at pictures of naked people who got paid to take their kit off, should society stop you?
We can dismiss questions like gay marriage - nobody has yet to show any credible damage that would occur if Larry and Barry tied the knot, despite all the huffing and screaming.
But on what principles should liberals advocate drawing lines when there is a cost to society from exercising individual freedom?