Two weeks from today, I’ll be able to vote for my preferred candidate for president of the United States, for my regional congressional representative, for my local state house and senate representatives, and for various judges and city officials. All of those votes are relevant to my life–but the most important vote will be the one on whether or not Wichita should add fluoride to its drinking water. Do I think this is the most important vote I’ll make on November 6th because fluoridation is a vital public health issue, and supporting it is a demonstration of good government and smart public responsibility? I do, in fact, think all those things about water fluoridation–but that’s not why I think it’s the most important part of my November ballot. No, I think it’s more important than all those other candidates and issues I will vote on because this question, unlike all other choices I’ll be faced, is self-government in action. And self-government is what living in a free society is supposedly all about.
Drinking water is a public resource, and obviously a precious one. Too many people decline to worry much about public resources, whether it be drinking water or sidewalks or sewer lines. In particular, those who are tempted by libertarian ideologies (and we have a lot of that here in Wichita, unfortunately) too often feel justified in forgetting that they live in communities, as opposed to privately contracted enclaves. But however much we may feel as though we are fully independent, sovereign selves, we aren’t. We live in a social order, and freedom doesn’t mean untrammeled individualism; rather, it means taking it upon ourselves to collectively govern that order. Now we usually do that indirectly, through electing representatives whom we trust–ideally, anyway–to act as our delegates in making decisions and writing laws. But sometimes it is both right and good for us, in our communities, to make decisions about public resources both directly and collectively. And that is what Wichita is going to have the opportunity to do.
It is really a rather precious thing, when you think about it, to be able to take on through one’s own voice, one’s own words and actions, and one’s own vote, the power of self-government. Too many of the people I meet, too many of my students, too often see it as a bother, an annoyance or a distraction. In truth however, it is anything but. It is the most positive kind of freedom a citizen can enjoy, far greater than hunkering down on one’s property, cursing the government, and insisting on one’s independent liberty. Direct democracy, through voting on public initiatives like this one, whether we love or hate the results, is a grand human accomplishment. For certain, it’s not always the best way to govern. But when it comes to deciding about the water I drink and how I pay for it, I’m delighted that the city council declined simply make a decision one way or another (as just happened in Portland, OR, another long-time fluoridation hold-out), and instead gave me, and all my fellow Wichitans, a chance to directly govern ourselves.
Do I hope water fluoridation passes? Absolutely. Why? Because I trust the dentists and health professionals who defend it, I concur with the observations of those who have seen its effects, because the science against fluoridation strikes me as paranoid and slightly nuts, and because I don’t see anything wrong with democratically deciding upon communitarian responses to public health issues, especially when their result will be to address social inequities. Some may call it “mass medication” or “paternalism”; I say that if it was paternalism–namely, required immunizations–that has all but completely wiped out certain once-devastating childhood diseases in the United States, then its track record is worth taking seriously. The scholar Sigal Ben-Porath commented that “paternalism offers an opportunity to share the responsibility for one’s actions with the state” (Tough Choices: Structured Paternalism and the Landscape of Choice [Princeton, 2010], 41); if the state in question is a democratically governed one–and in regard to this issue in Wichita at this time, it is–then sharing responsibility seems to me exactly what votes like this are all about. But the larger point is simply this–that by voting on this issue, you’re helping to govern. Whether we here in Wichita wish to share responsibility for public health through our public resources or not, this vote will allow us to directly, democratically, decide. That’s why it, and not my vote for president, is the most important thing I’m going to be doing, two weeks from today.