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Free Markets, Free People
Following up yesterday’s post, this is really the sort of country I long for as articulated by Troy Senik. In fact, I long for it:
I want a “leave me alone” society — one where Christian schools can turn people away for rejecting their doctrine, just as gay rights groups can reject those who don’t share their beliefs. I don’t want us all to get along — not because I’m misanthropic (well, not just because I’m misanthropic), but because I know that “consensus” is usually a fancy word for muting minority viewpoints. I want us all to be free to be annoyed with each other from our separate corners. Is that too much to ask?
Apparently. Ask Sarah Conely (I still can’t get over the title of her book and the implication it carries which, if she even realizes it, should chill her to the bone). Ask Mayor Bloomberg. Ask most of the left and a good portion of the right.
How did we ever wander away from that direction and end up on the one where a major news organ, the NYT, even gives a forum to crypto-fascists like Conely? What a horrifying person she is. Imagine someone as cavalier about your rights actually in a position of power. Imagine the possibilities. Oh, that’s right, we don’t have too, do we. We have history to provide the examples. Tons of them.
And yet here is this supposed “learned” academic parroting the same authoritarian themes in a soothing voice designed to lull you into feeling good about giving everything away to the authoritarians (or at least enough so that at some point they can just take the rest).
I want what Senik wants. I don’t have a problem with most discrimination. Yeah, I know – that’s heresy isn’t it? Look, if someone wants to discriminate let them – and let them pay the “stupid tax” for doing so. But here’s the point – you should be free to do that. You should have the right to be stupid and to do stupid things (with the usual caveat that it’s only okay as long as your stupid acts don’t harm others or violate their rights). You should have the right to fail, get fat, smoke, drink, and be an ignorant slob without the do gooders deciding they have to save you from yourself and the only way to do that is to take your freedom away. Or to tell you how to act, talk, or interact with penalties for not being politically correct.
Why is it that the Sarah Conely’s of the world are published in the NYT and the ideas of the Troy Senik’s of the world have to settle for blogs? When did Senik’s idea, which was once very main stream in this country, become extremist while what was once not only extremist, an anathema to America, but thoroughly discredited throughout history somehow gain respectability again?
When you boil it all down, it is that dilemma which amply describes why we’re in the awful shape we’re in and why we see our freedoms under constant assault and slowly being taken away.
I’m just wondering when the tipping point occurred.
That’s essentially what Sarah Conely does in a NY Times op-ed. Oh, she cloaks it benignly enough -”it’s just soda” – as he supports the Bloomberg ban on large volume soda sales. But in essence what she claims is “government knows best” and “giving up a little liberty isn’t so bad if it benefits the majority”.
You see, liberty, in her world, is much less important that security or safety. And we, as knuckle dragging neanderthals, don’t always know what is best for us or how to accomplish our goals without the hand of government to guide us (how we ever managed to make it to the 21st century without that guiding hand is still a mystery in Conely’s circle). Sure some can do it, but most can’t and so laws should be designed to protect and guide (coercively of course) those who can’t (or are believed to be unable).
A lot of times we have a good idea of where we want to go, but a really terrible idea of how to get there. It’s well established by now that we often don’t think very clearly when it comes to choosing the best means to attain our ends. We make errors. This has been the object of an enormous amount of study over the past few decades, and what has been discovered is that we are all prone to identifiable and predictable miscalculations.
Research by psychologists and behavioral economists, including the Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky, identified a number of areas in which we fairly dependably fail. They call such a tendency a “cognitive bias,” and there are many of them — a lot of ways in which our own minds trip us up.
For example, we suffer from an optimism bias, that is we tend to think that however likely a bad thing is to happen to most people in our situation, it’s less likely to happen to us — not for any particular reason, but because we’re irrationally optimistic. Because of our “present bias,” when we need to take a small, easy step to bring about some future good, we fail to do it, not because we’ve decided it’s a bad idea, but because we procrastinate.
We also suffer from a status quo bias, which makes us value what we’ve already got over the alternatives, just because we’ve already got it — which might, of course, make us react badly to new laws, even when they are really an improvement over what we’ve got. And there are more.
The crucial point is that in some situations it’s just difficult for us to take in the relevant information and choose accordingly. It’s not quite the simple ignorance [John Stuart] Mill was talking about, but it turns out that our minds are more complicated than Mill imagined. Like the guy about to step through the hole in the bridge, we need help.
So, now that we have these Nobel Prize winning psychologists and behavioral economists on the record saying we’re basically inept shouldn’t it be clear to you, as Conely concludes, that “we need help”?
That sort of “help” used to come from family, friends and community. We somehow managed, for around 200 years, to grow and succeed splendidly without government intruding and trying to control our lives.
The basic premise of her piece is much the same as Bloomberg’s more direct assault:
The freedom to buy a really large soda, all in one cup, is something we stand to lose here. For most people, given their desire for health, that results in a net gain. For some people, yes, it’s an absolute loss. It’s just not much of a loss.
Or to quote a more succinct Bloomy: “I do think there are certain times we should infringe on your freedom.”
Notice the arbitrariness of the “I do think”. His choice, not yours. Bloomberg picked sodas. What else could he or those like him arbitrarily pick next time? Think government health care for example and your mind explodes with where they could go.
And notice Conely’s dismissal of the loss of freedom as “not much” of a loss. Incrementalism at its finest. Pure rationalization of the use the coercive power of the state to do what they think is best for you, because, as her academic colleagues have stressed, “we need help.” And our betters are always there to “help” us, aren’t they?
Funny too how the solution is always the same, isn’t it?
And their desire to intrude? Well its wrapped up in their concept of government’s role in our lives:
In the old days we used to blame people for acting imprudently, and say that since their bad choices were their own fault, they deserved to suffer the consequences. Now we see that these errors aren’t a function of bad character, but of our shared cognitive inheritance. The proper reaction is not blame, but an impulse to help one another.
That’s what the government is supposed to do, help us get where we want to go.
No. It’s not. That isn’t at all the function of government as laid out in the Constitution. Not even close. It has always been our job to “get where we want to go”. Government’s job was to provide certain functions to ensure an equality of opportunity (like a fair legal system, stable monetary system, etc), but on the whole we were free to pursue our lives without its interference as long as we stayed within the legal framework and did no harm to others or attempted to defraud them.
Conely’s last sentence is the mask that fronts and justifies/rationalizes every authoritarian regime that has ever existed. If you don’t believe that, I invite you to look at the title of her last book. “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.”
Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
At least in terms of your freedoms?
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Sunday: Sometimes government does know best. And in those cases, Americans should just cede their rights.
“I do think there are certain times we should infringe on your freedom,” Mr. Bloomberg said, during an appearance on NBC.
Well, he may not be THE most dangerous, but he’s right up there with them. He’s just more blunt and obvious about it than most of the others.
I’m sorry folks, but this is an attitude that has pervaded our politics for quite some time and it is unacceptable. Totally unacceptable and should be stomped on like you would stomp a cockroach.
Government rarely “knows best” and has a dismal track record in that area. More importantly, this was a country founded on the principle of individual freedom (liberty) and heavy restraints on government power. As someone said, the Constitution doesn’t grant rights – they’re natural. What the Constitution is is a restraining order on government. Or was. It is government via people like Michael Bloomberg who’ve turned that upside down and feel comfortable enough to blurt what can only be considered authoritarian drivel (pick your brand) because he thinks he has the “right” to infringe on yours. His statement is anathema to all this country once believed in.
Yet, there are a good number of people today who will back his play and agree that he his job entails being big daddy and using the force of government to save you from yourself.
Yeah, not really.
This, from Austin Bay, does an excellent job of making the point about Egypt that I have been trying to get across in a meta sense. He does it with a look back at the Iranian revolution. It, in many ways, mirrors what is happening in Egypt today. Bay makes the point that in all such revolutions, the key is organization. And unfortunately authoritarians usually do a better job of organizing than do democrats.
A democratic movement will never march in lockstep, but common principles — such as dedication to individual rights — must translate into a common spine to resist, with armed force when necessary, inevitable manipulation, threat and attack by tyrants, terrorists and their vicious partisans.
Recent history bears tragic witness. In the aftermath of their popular rebellion of 1979, the hodgepodge collection of Iranian liberals and nationalists fragmented. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s radical Islamic totalitarians divided the democratic coalition and attacked them individually. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first president after the 1979 revolt, identifies the failure to form a unified democratic front as the Iranians greatest strategic error.
In an essay published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Bani-Sadr said most Iranian political organizations "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party … ."
I remember the Iranian revolution vividly. I remember Bani-Sadr and the hopes he had for a free and democratic Iran. And I also remember the relentless Ayatollahs and their eventual success at the "divide and conquer" strategy they used. Iran has never gotten off the mat since.
Bay is much more optimistic about the outcome in Egypt than I obviously am. I think it is much to early to determine that they are headed in the right direction. Bay says there are hopeful signs. Good. But … and there’s always one of those when talking about an authoritarian regime willingly handing over power … we’re so early in the process it’s impossible to tell if the military is really serious about the handover or whether nationalists, secularists, “moderate” Islamists and activists can indeed form a united front or will instead fracture at various points.
History says “fracture”.
Bay puts the “key” to success in his conclusion:
How the military receives the counter-proposal is crucial. Rejection or ambivalent delay sends the ominous message that there is at least one strong faction of military Bonapartists who prefer pharaoh to freedom. The give and take of sincere negotiations among revolutionary factions and the military, ending in authentic compromise, however, will not only forward the process of building a democratic front but signal the emergence of genuine democratic politics.
You can be guaranteed there are what Bay calls “Bonapartists” within the military. And in Egyptian history it isn’t unheard of for more junior level officers to resort to violence to take over (Gamal Nasser anyone?). In the sort of revolutionary atmosphere now prevalent in Egypt it should be remembered that not all revolutionaries want democracy or freedom. You can rest assured there are power struggles going on within a great number of these factions both within and outside the military.
Given Bay’s quoting of recent history, I’m not sure how he is so optimistic at this early date in the process, but he does seem to think that a united Egyptian democratic front may emerge from all this turmoil. I remain skeptical and doubtful (even if I’d love to be proven wrong). And … I have history on my side.