Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A finer clay?

Lately, I've been pondering on three closely interrelated quotations from three different thinkers.

First, Frederic Bastiat:
“If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”
 Ludwig von Mises:
“If one rejects laissez-faire on account of man's fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reason also reject every kind of government action.”
and finally, Robert LeFevre:
"If men are good, you don't need government; if men are evil or ambivalent, you don't dare have one."
 Implicit in most arguments in favor of government, and explicit in some, is the idea that we need government because human beings are corrupt (or corruptible) and fallible.  Most of us accept this premise without argument or even any serious thought; indeed, thinking seriously about it must inevitably uncover a potentially fatal flaw: This government, by necessity, must be populated not with perfectly benevolent and omniscient divine overseers, but from the very same stock which is deemed in need of guidance: ordinary, flawed human beings.

The idea of creating positions of much greater power than any private individual or organization, no matter how big, should give us pause.

However cynical and grasping any given private business may be, its power is sharply limited by the self-interest of its customers.  If it wants your money, it has to provide a good you want at a price you're willing to pay, and convince you to deal with it instead of a competitor.  Wal-mart can't seize your bank account if you don't feed your dog Ol' Roy.  Monsanto can't throw you in a cell to rot if you prefer to buy non-Roundup-ready vegetables.  McDonald's doesn't have armed agents ready to storm your house in the middle of the night if you say Big Macs suck.  Even if they did, the exercise of those powers would rightly be seen as illegitimate, and people would feel no duty to comply, nor a duty to condemn and betray neighbors who resisted their edicts.  There is no illusion of legitimacy; those acts would be acknowledged as criminal and immoral, and without the consent or the complacency of the masses, their tyranny crumbles.

Only government is considered to have the right to seize your property, lock you in a cage, or kill you if you disobey its orders.  The vast majority of people at least tolerate the exercise of this power, and most see it as perfectly right and proper.  Clearly, governmental power - coercive, monopolistic, and with a facade of popular legitimacy - has at least the potential for far greater abuse than mere economic power.

Perhaps, though, there is something inherent in the nature of government or political processes which tends to filter the best, brightest, most humane, and most trustworthy elements of the human race from the common clay, people who can be trusted with such awesome power and responsibility.

Unfortunately, both logic and experience strongly suggest that the truth is directly opposite: Positions of governmental power tend to attract some of the worst elements of humanity, and to encourage bad traits in even the best.

What sort of people are attracted to positions of power over their fellow man?  The arrogant, the zealous, the sociopathic, the venal and corrupt are all going to see in government opportunities for personal gain or advancing their personal agendas at the expense of others.  Maybe it also attracts people of genuine good intentions, and even some of reasonable competence, but the slate of candidates is bound to skew farther toward the viler end of the spectrum than the human average.  Strike one.

Well, maybe the democratic process will weed out the rotten ones?  Again, not likely.  Remember, we're operating on the premise that the average human is too faulty, either morally or intellectually or both, to govern himself.  Who is he going to vote for?  Probably the candidate who most effectively panders to his own narrow self-interest or his shallow intellect.  This second supposed safeguard against bad rulers also tends to select for undesirable traits.  Strike two.

Experience and observation bear this out.  The candidate who wins is more often than not the one most skilled at begging for campaign donations, speaking in shiny but vacuous platitudes, appealing to the most irrational desires and prejudices of the voting public, promising the impossible with a straight face, and looking good on camera.

Even those of generally good intentions and reasonable competence who slip past the reverse safety net of a public vote tend to fall prey to the seduction of power.  It is all too easy to be seduced by the promise of shady means to accomplish some vaunted goal, especially when those shady means come equipped with a veneer of respectability.  It's also human nature to project, to delude ourselves that our own personal interest is for the good of humanity at large, and thus it is all too easy to oppress our fellow man with the very best of intentions if the power to do so falls into our hands.  We can't even trust that ordinarily good people will remain so when tempted by power.  Strike three.

As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and as Frank Herbert noted, power is magnetic to the corruptible.  What's left over after this process of societal fermentation and distillation?

Ask any person you know who pays even a little attention to such things, and he or she can probably name at least a handful of politicians who, in his or her estimation, are vicious, stupid, arrogant, or out-of-touch with reality.  Sure, they can probably name a few they like, too (and, when necessary, perform all sorts of impressive mental gymnastics to excuse their faults,) but the profession of politician, generically, is held in a similar level of disrepute as prostitutes and used car salesmen*.  Comedy frequently tells truths through jokes and humor that we otherwise would find too unpleasant to face, and the comedic stereotype of a politician is a vain, vapid, self-serving buffoon.  That's no accident.  And no matter how hard we vote, things never seem to get much better.  Go back ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand years, and you invariably find that public office is rife with corruption, abuse, and outright idiocy, liberally seasoned with totalitarian and genocidal tendencies.

And yet...we persist in the mass delusion that government can somehow tame or restrain the human capacity for evil.  In fact, however evil society in general is or is not, the odds of a governing body drawn from that society being equally or less evil than that seem so small that only a fleeting quirk of chance could arrange it so.  All the problems alleged to make full freedom and a laissez-faire economy impossible or undesirable are magnified rather than diminished by the existence of the state.

*Pretty unfair to streetwalkers and car dealers, actually.  Whatever their ethical or intellectual shortcomings, at least they won't pretend you've committed some heinous crime if you decline to do business with them.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A different way

Freedom doesn't seem as though it should be a controversial topic.  Almost everybody claims to support it.  Politicians blather on and on about it.  Troops claim to be defending it at risk of life, limb, and mental health.  There's even a famous statue dedicated to Liberty.  It seems on the surface of things that it's a pretty popular ideal.

So long as you do no more than pay lip service to the words "freedom" and "liberty," nobody bats an eye.  When you dare to dig into the actual ideas behind the words, though...people get indignant.  Defensive.  Angry.  Sometimes even threatening.

 A lot of people will tell you, with great sincerity, that government is a necessary evil.  It has its problems, they say, its inefficiencies and even corruption, but we can't do without it.  Now, you might think that someone who believes something is evil might be intrigued, even excited, at the possibility that evil might not be necessary after all.  You wouldn't expect that many would be keen to rush to the defense of evil.  Shouldn't we desire that there be as little evil as possible in the world?  And yet, invariably, when you suggest that maybe government shouldn't be doing some of the things it has taken upon itself to do, or even that we might do without it entirely, you get not even the most cautious interest, but sneering, harrumphing, outright anger, and a reflexive flurry of defenses of government.

Many people fail to see government as evil at all.  They believe that it feeds and houses the poor, protects the environment, provides so-called "public goods" like roads and electrical grids and law enforcement and so on.  But government always accomplishes its ends through force against unwilling subjects: it confiscates their property to fund its operations and issues edicts regarding what they may, may not, or must do with their bodies and their property.  If they disobey, they are subjected to further confiscation, to forcible imprisonment, and if those measures be resisted, to death at the hands of agents of the state.

If those methods were used by private individuals or organizations, we would have no trouble in declaring them to be evil: theft, extortion, kidnapping, assault, and murder.  Whether or not the property confiscated by "taxation" or the commands of the state are intended to accomplish good, the means are decidedly vicious.  These supporters of government literally believe that good ends can, and more importantly should be accomplished by evil means.  In fact, I would venture to say that they do not believe that these good ends they favor can be effectively accomplished by non-evil, non-violent means. 

There is, I think, a tendency among human beings faced by unpleasant realities to resort to their most primitive instincts, and there are few instincts more primitive than that to meet challenges with force and violence.  In modern times, we dress up those instincts as something we call "politics" and pretend it is the very foundation of civilization.

We flatter ourselves that we are not mere unthinking brutes, but we apply our intellects not to the accomplishment of our ends by peaceful and voluntary cooperation, but instead to the construction of elaborate rationalizations for using force against those who don't share our particular set of values and priorities.  That is not true rationality, but primitive barbarism wrapped up in the trappings of rationality.  Instead of sticking a spear in our neighbor to make him do as we wish, we vote and then send an armed agent of the state to force compliance.  We become more and more willing to use force to impose our will upon our fellow man, because most of us never directly wield it - we keep our hands clean and convince ourselves that we're peaceful.  By and large, we do not squabble like animals, tooth and claw, over scraps of food; no, we are intelligent, and we have used our intelligence to systematize our primitive struggle to dominate and expropriate one another.  We then convince ourselves that the resulting efficiency is the same thing as peace and civility.  Behold, the power of the human mind for self-deception!

Virtually the entirety of political discourse, from the most cordial to the most rancorous, is focused exclusively on the question of who ought to be forced to do what on whose behalf.  Liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats - none question the justness or rightness of some forcing their will on others.  None question that some ought to dominate others.  All sides in the debate accept those propositions implicitly and without examination.  The issues to be decided are only those of who, how much, and for what purposes.

It doesn't have to be that way.  The challenge we face is to reject force and violence, and our primitive instincts, and bring our unique capacity for reason fully to bear on important matters.  Despite what we've been conditioned from birth to believe about government and politics, human society can function without masters.  All necessary things may be accomplished by individuals cooperating voluntarily.  In fact, voluntary cooperation is superior in virtually every way in attaining the goal of human flourishing.  Dissenters may be left free to pursue their own ends, and society won't crumble or grind to a halt.  In fact, they must be left free to do so.  All human progress has come not from consensus and conformity, but from those who dared to break away from the masses and do things a different way.

This blog is dedicated to extolling the virtues of a voluntary society, pondering on how free people can and would accomplish the things now believed possible only through government coercion, and exposing the destructive fallacies of authoritarian statism. 

"We can walk our road together
If our goals are all the same
We can run alone and free
If we pursue a different aim." -- Rush, Hemispheres