The Species of Unrighteous Dominion, Part 1.5
This is not the part 2 that I promised in the series I am currently writing. Rather, this is a follow-up to part 1, based on something I was reading this morning. Let’s call this part 1.5.
This morning I was a reading a book (called Inclined to Liberty: The Futile Attempt to Suppress the Human Spirit) in which the author described precisely one some the points I was trying to make in my previous post (albeit in different words). The author’s name is Louis E. Carabini, and he starts the book by describing a dinner party, in which a number of individuals were talking about what should be done about the perceived inequalities of life:
Some of the propositions offered during that lively evening were:
“No one should be allowed to own a yacht.”
“The salaries of company executives are too high.”
“No one should be allowed to inherit wealth.”
But the statement that I found most intriguing, and the one that initially drove me to write, was:
“It is not fair that companies can terminate their workers just to increase profits.”
However, as I thought of a suitable response, I realized that this proposition was no different in principle from the others. While some statements were more radical than others, each basically contains a notion that something is unfair and that we ought to do something to right that unfairness by instituting prohibitions.
Reading these “is” and “ought” notions into the propositions, the statements then become:
“It is unfair that someone can earn much more than another, so we ought to prohibit people from earning that much.”
“It is unfair that someone can own a yacht, so we ought to prohibit such ownership.”
“It is unfair that someone can bequeath wealth to an heir, so we ought to disallow such transfers of wealth.”
“It is unfair that an employer can terminate workers just to increase profits, so we ought to prohibit employers from doing so.”
The “we” in each of these cases is the royal “we”—that is, the State. The royal “we” connotes a moral justification for physically forcing others to live their lives as the personal “I” sees fit. Imag- ine how alarming these propositions would sound if the personal “I” were used instead of the abstract and justifiable royal “we.” For instance:
“The salaries of executives are too high, so I will personally threaten to incarcerate any executive who accepts a salary and any company owner who pays a salary higher than what I think is reasonable.”
“I will incarcerate anyone who buys, builds, or sells a yacht that I consider too large and luxurious.”
Any prohibition by the State also implies incarceration or death if refusal to comply is carried to its ultimate end. Although incarceration and death hide behind each proposition mentioned that evening, the clear realization of such physical punishments comes to the forefront when we substitute “I” for “we.” The royal “we” seems to moralize and justify acts that the “I” would render reprehensible. …
In a democratic society in which everyone has a say about everyone else’s lifestyle, it’s no wonder we spend so much time debating one man’s pet peeve and another’s grand solution. In a self-reliant society, pet peeves may keep us awake at night, but in a democratic society, we can spend a lifetime of energy creating one pet peeve after another and offering “our” solution, because we now have a voice. Of course, who doesn’t want to be heard, particularly when we know that someone with political power over others will listen? …
Should a neighbor need help, we would never consider going around the neighborhood threatening those who do not pitch in. We instinctively understand that charity is voluntary, and we are generally eager to help when we see someone in need. In a small setting, we view the use of force as a means to help others to be the antithesis of charity. However, in a political arena, we find ourselves condoning, even promoting, the use of physical force as the proper means to extract aid. And when such force is used, we paradoxically refer to it as an act of charity and compassion. … An act that one would consider reprehensible and nonsensical if conducted in a small group may become quite acceptable in a large setting. …
The very essence of democracy encourages everyone to express opinions about human activities that are none of their business. There are few days that someone doesn’t ask me what I think that “we” (the royal “we”) should “do” about this or that individual, organization, or group activity that is clearly neither my business nor theirs. It is not the answers to such questions that should give us concern; the mere asking has become so commonplace—and with such a sense of democratic pride and entitlement—that today nearly every aspect of human activity is considered public domain.
In a democracy, each of us has license to prescribe for others how to live their lives; run their businesses; whom they may hire; what wages they may pay; what prices they may charge; what, where, when, and how much they may buy or sell; what they may teach; what and where they may smoke, drink, and eat; what they may plant; what medicines they may take; what houses they may build and where they may build them; what they may say; how and where they may practice their religion (even what religion); where they may go; where they may live; how they may die; with whom and how they may engage in sex; whom they may marry and with whom they may associate. On and on this intrusion goes, with more “dos” and “don’ts” added every day. …
A democratic state will naturally gravitate to an ever-greater “tragedy of the commons,” in which citizens try to get a bigger share of the funds acquired by the State. Since those funds are now commonly owned, everyone has a right to claim a share. … Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850), the famous French political economist, described the state as the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else.
This is not meant to cast blame on those who exploit the democratic system to obtain favors and resources. It is only rational to acquire resources at the least perceived cost. The democratic State simply provides an attractive means for some to acquire the resources produced by others at little or no cost to themselves, while preventing any real recourse for those from whom those resources are taken. Individuals who take resources from others without the strong arm of the State behind them would find it a risky and expensive enterprise.
In other words, he is saying precisely what I was saying in my blog post last week: democracy has a way of psychologically legitimizing the exercise of coercion in ways that would otherwise seem reprehensible and immoral if any of us tried to yield that power alone. Somehow, the voice of the “group” legitimizes intrusions that, when performed privately by individuals, would be deemed criminal. Again, this is not saying that we shouldn’t have the power to vote. This is simply saying that the idea of a democracy—i.e., the idea that the majority has a sovereign power to invade, intrude, and mettle with people’s lives, has many dangers that I think many of us overlook.
I propose that we redefine what it is that we value in democratic systems.
What we should value: the ability to remove leaders to abuse their power to aggress against the populace.
What we should NOT value: the ability of the majority to legitimize coercion that would otherwise be criminal.
Most people would say that they already don’t value the ability legitimize coercion. However, one of the perceived advantages of a democracy is that it empowers the majority to do just that—it empowers the majority to settle conflicts, respond to perceived injustices, and to aright perceived unfairnesses in ways that individuals cannot do alone without being jailed as a criminal.
If I defend my life against a perceived aggressor (let’s say someone barges into my house with a weapon), or defend my neighbor against an aggressor (let’s say I am witnessing a rape or theft), I arm not usually held responsible in a court of law for my actions. My actions are morally and legally permissible, and I am innocent of wrongdoing. I might be liable for any mistakes I make in the process that a reasonable person might have avoided, but even then I am not considered a criminal. Thus, it makes sense that a royal “we” can also defend my life or the life of a neighbor against aggressors. It makes sense that we can, in the aggregate, morally act in ways that we can morally act as individuals. And we can certainly vote as to who represents us in the royal “we” that acts in this regard. Note—I know that Carabini’s use of “royal ‘we'” isn’t strictly in accordance with its dictionary definition. However, I will use the term as he used it, for the purposes of expression and communication.
However, if I forcibly take some of my neighbor’s money with the intent to pay for my medical bills, I will be jailed as a criminal, no matter what rationale I provide for my actions. However, if the royal “we” does so, the supposed nature of the act suddenly changes from theft to “welfare.” In this case, the democratic process—that is, the legitimizing power of group action—somehow legitimized in the eyes of the populace an act that would be criminal if performed by an individual. This is what I’m addressing when I’m talking about the power of group context to legitimize coercion and violence that is otherwise considered unrighteous dominion. And when we vote people into office who promise to engage in activities that we could never morally do ourselves, we are assuming that the royal “we” operates under a different morality than the personal “I”, and that the creature (government) can somehow morally exceed the creator (the people). We are assuming that the majority has a sovereign power to legitimize coercion and violence that is otherwise immoral.
As a society, we are becoming moral relativists. We are assuming that majority opinion determines what actions are morally permissible. People often accuse libertarians of being moral relativists, but in many ways it’s precisely the opposite. I believe that theft is wrong whether performed by the individual or by the royal “we.” Socialists believe that the royal “we” can morally operate under rules determined by majority opinion. Which position is really rooted in moral relativism?
As I described in my previous post, the power of the royal “we” to legitimize acts of coercion and violence that would otherwise be deemed immoral seems little different than the power of the social context of a classroom to legitimize unrighteous dominion by teachers, or the power of the social context of a prison to legitimize the dehumanization of prisoners. Of course, teachers have power and not all exercises of that power are unrighteous dominion. But it often leads to unrighteous dominion. Some might ask, can the state also exercise power that isn’t unrighteous dominion? Sure! However, I believe that when the state engages in actions that would be morally impermissible if done by the personal I instead of the royal we, we will almost inevitably skirt with unrighteous dominion.
On a final note, I think Carabini is absolutely right: using coercion to assist those in need is not charity. Turning over our personal responsibilities help those in need to the royal “we” is not discharging our moral responsibilities, it’s abdicating them. It’s saying, “I (the personal I) would rather empower men to take from the masses to help others than voluntarily give of my own income and persuade others to do the same.” I like William Godwin’s assertion in response to this: “If he who employs coercion against me could mold me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.” We need to be better at inviting and persuading others to give and to help. We can be better. But resorting to coercion is not the answer—it is simply admitting that the divine-authorized tools of persuasion, love, and patience are fruitless and that only the man-made coercive apparatus of the state can save us from our social ills.
Anyways, the book is available for free at http://mises.org/resources/3793. I just wanted to share some thoughts from it that paralleled my current series. I’m only a third of the way through the book, so more may come. =)