Another Mental Lever showed how using the needs of the many as an excuse for harming the few is a license for murder. But statists counter-argue that they can limit initiated force to levels lower than murder. For instance, they argue that it’s okay for politicians to…
- Take people’s money if they’ll use it for better purposes than the people who earned it
- Control people’s peaceful behavior in various ways, such as requiring them to wear seatbelts or helmets
Please notice the arrogance. The statist is saying that…
“I and my preferred politicians know better than you, so you should submit to our desires, or suffer harm if you resist.”
In other words, you’re too stupid to make all your own choices.
But why should we view voters and politicians as being any better at making such decisions? They’re simply people too. They have no special magic that makes them superior to other humans. They’re subject to all the same flaws of greed, stupidity, and ignorance as every other person. In other words…
Voters and politicians may sometimes make good choices, but they will also make bad ones. And the bad decisions they make will be inflicted on everyone through the coercive power of The State.
Key Concept: You can’t compensate for human imperfections by taking one-subset of flawed humanity and giving them vast power over the rest. This will only magnify the problem, because power tends to corrupt.
In short, you can’t justify initiated force by claiming that some humans are superior to the rest of us.
Every member of the Nazi Party in 1936, would disagree with this argument. Which is how the Nazi Party came to be defeated in combat, 8 years later.
They convinced themselves that they were a “master race”, who embodied the lack of flaws and imperfections that plague the rest of humanity, and therefore, that all other humans should yield to Nazi rule. Then they demonstrated their superior thinking, by fighting a three-front war and getting soundly thrashed. In retrospect, they were indeed masterful…they failed spectacularly.
The hard, incontrovertible fact, is that we humans do most of our learning, by learning from our errors. Pretending that some subset of humanity “deserves” to boss the rest of us, presumes that the members of that subset don’t make errors. Yet, the only way actually, never to make errors, is to do nothing and stay dumb. Or, conversely, we can acknowledge that mistakes lead to learning, and open our ears to criticism, in case there’s something to be learned from it.
Great argument Bob.
I feel that part of the reason that people think they are “superior” to others in their thinking is the result of a psychological phenomenon known as the “fundamental attribution error.” This concept attests that when person “A” makes a decision that many people think is ill-advised or even a stupid thing to do, people tend to attribute person A’s behavior to his or her fundamental character traits instead of environmental, situational, or contextual factors.
The people that are judging person A cannot possibly know all the reasons why person A acted the way he or she did. They don’t know person A’s past experiences, their values, their goals on this particular occasion, other thoughts that may be preoccupying person A’s mind, etc. They do this because of another psychological concept, a heuristic (shortcut), which posits that people tend to exert the least possible effort in attending to many situations. In this case, people don’t want to think about all the reasons why person A might have behaved the way they did. It takes more time than they want to spend on it. The thought process that takes the least amount of effort is to simply attribute character flaws to person A. While the use of heuristics can be beneficial, in this case it is not.
People often apply the fundamental attribution error to others, but seldom to themselves. That is, they don’t think they are flawed. Maybe this is because we know why we do something and why we did it makes sense to us. Also, people want to maintain a healthy self-esteem. They do this by placing more importance on the good things they have done and less importance on the good things others have done. They also place more importance on the bad or “dumb” things others do and less importance on the bad or “dumb” things they do.
Another tool that people use to judge others behavior is hindsight. We all know the axiom, “hindsight is 20-20.” The use of hindsight is extremely common and hard to control. Why did you do that? Didn’t you know that *blank* was going to happen? If we would have known beforehand, we wouldn’t have done it. It’s very easy to know what the best thing to do is after the entire situation has played out.
So, because of the fundamental attribution error, heuristics, self-esteem issues and hindsight (there are probably others, as well), we tend to think that other people are the stupid ones. After seeing person A do or say something that they shouldn’t have, did you ever think, “How could this guy have lived as long as he has being as stupid as he is?” From this point, it’s only a small step to thinking that if person A behaved the way they did in this example, he or she will tend to behave similarly most of the time. We think that person A isn’t smart enough to “get it”. Therefore, someone needs to look out for person A because he or she doesn’t know any better. In addition, when we think this way about person A, we may also think this way about other people whose behavior we don’t fully understand. This leads to people thinking that most people out there in society (except themselves) are basically stupid and they need someone to make decisions for them.
One way to get people to stop thinking that other people are basically stupid and need to have decisions made for them is to educate them about the fundamental attribution error, heuristics, the desire to enhance one’s self-esteem, and hindsight. Educators could have people ask themselves if they have ever done anything that someone else thought was stupid. Since we are all human, we have all had these experiences (i.e. pulled out in front of someone with your car, forgot where you parked, responded strangely to a question because you didn’t hear it correctly, put a ladder on an unstable surface, etc.). When everyone realizes that they are just like the people they think are basically stupid, they will be more apt to cut everyone some slack and understand that anyone, even themselves, can do stupid things. And if nearly everyone is the same in this regard, nearly everyone is capable of making decisions concerning their own life without the help of those “who know best.”
Although I still don’t agree with it, I think the argument for paternalism is a bit more subtle than that. I’m not sure you could address it well in such a short format. Sarah Conly has written a book called “Against Autonomy” that defends violent paternalism. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t tell you how persuasive she is.
A more well-known opponent is Cass Sunstein, with his books “Nudge” and especially “Why Nudge?” He attacks Mill’s harm principle, the idea that the only just use of power against another’s will is to protect some third person or yourself from harm by that person. He didn’t convince me, but he makes a case. One thing in Sunstein’s favor, he at least gives lip service to the idea of “libertarian paternalism”, which differs from other kinds of paternalism in allowing the subject to opt out.
I’d like to see a well argued response to these thinkers, but this is not the proper venue. Maybe if you are aware of such “further reading” sources, you could post links?
Dave, Over a course of years, we intend to get to as much of everything as humanly possible. We are aware of Nudge, for example. Believe it or not, you’re the first to bring it and the notion of “libertarian paternalism” up to us, since we started this project last June. And even you said, Sunstein wasn’t convincing. Thanks for writing.
BTW, Ms. Conly’s influence is going to be limited, so long as her paperback is $45 and the her Kindle edition is $28.