“I know what’s best for people”

Statists will often use paternalistic arguments (“The State is here to protect you from yourself”) and elitist arguments (“Well I know better than those people about what they should be doing”) in order to rationalize the imposition of a monopoloid rulebook on the whole of society and the imposition of laws specifically designed to curtail vices. As Lysander Spooner wrote in Vices are not Crimes, this is a rather arrogant presumption:

We all come into the world in ignorance of ourselves, and of everything around us. By a fundamental law of our natures we are all constantly impelled by the desire of happiness, and the fear of pain. But we have everything to learn, as to what will give us happiness, and save us from, pain. No two of us are wholly alike, either physically, mentally, or emotionally; or, consequently, in our physical, mental or emotional requirements for the acquisition of happiness, and the avoidance of unhappiness. No one of us, therefore, can learn this indispensable lesson of happiness and unhappiness, of virtue and vice, for another. Each must learn it for himself. To learn it, he must be at liberty to try all experiments that commend themselves to his judgment. Some of his experiments succeed, and, because they succeed, are called virtues; others fail, and, because they fail, are called vices. He gathers wisdom as much from his failures as from his success; from his so-called vices, as from his so-called virtues. Both are necessary to his acquisition of that knowledge- of his own nature, and of the world around him, and of their adaptations or non-adaptations to each other- which shall show him how happiness is acquired, and pain avoided. And, unless he can be permitted to try these experiments to his own satisfaction, he is restrained from the acquisition of knowledge, and, consequently, from pursuing the great purpose and duty of his life.

One of the marks of a statist is that he believes his value-system is superior to all others. Not only does he believe he possesses some truth (which is something held by all of us, otherwise we wouldn’t hold the positions we hold), but he also believes that he is perfectly justified in enforcing this truth on others: in short, that violence is justified by its moving principle being correct (the same error committed by Cork in his reply to my post on hierarchies).

From the Anarchist standpoint, this sort of repressive violence is wrong in and of itself, whether the principle being enforced is valid or not. If people hold it as valid, then they will accept it, and if they do not, then there’s no justification to enforce it. No value-system held by any individual is prima facie superior to any value-system held by another individual. Of course I believe that my value-system is better for myself, otherwise I wouldn’t follow it, but I have no rational grounds to say that my value-system is a priori better for any other person.

For instance, I do not smoke marijuana. I do not believe that smoking marijuana would be good for me. I have no intention of smoking marijuana in the future. Does that mean I am justified in forcing others at gunpoint from not trading or smoking marijuana? Obviously not. Whether one does so or not is a personal choice. It is not a crime by innate moral standards or by the voluntary standards of most people. At worst, it would be a vice (although personally I do not consider it a vice).

The Anarchist view is that our institutions and rules must be grounded in the individual’s values: that social morality, like everything else in society, must be a bottom-up system. In contrast, the ruling class imposes the concept of “law” in order to justify its coercive control over society. The role of the law is twofold: first, to seem to fulfill the government’s duty to protect us (when in fact a piece of paper can do no such thing, and neither can our archaic justice system), and second, to legitimize the State’s crimes.

Someone may argue that my position that value-systems are equal means that I do not believe that crimes actually exist. It also seems like I have no grounds to say anything is undesirable, such as hierarchies or coercion. After all, don’t some people value hurting others for their own sake? And aren’t those values as valid as mine? But remember the Tucker quote that I trot out in moral discussions:

When I describe a man as an invader, I cast no reflection upon him; I simply state a fact, Nor do I assert for a moment the moral inferiority of the invader’s desire. I only declare the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone. That these desires are morally equal I cheerfully admit, but they cannot be equally realized. Since one must be subordinated to the other, I naturally prefer the subordination of the invader’s, and am ready to co-operate with non-invasive persons to achieve that result.

I know, I know, deja vu, but it really gets to the point. All that we really need to concede insofar as crime goes is “the impossibility of simultaneously gratifying the invader’s desire to invade and my desire to be let alone.” The existence of any society presumes the desire to subordinate some desires over others in order to achieve a common goal (generally speaking, to reap the rewards of cooperation and coordination without its attendant evils of violence and fraud). This is not arrogance but the recognition of a logical fact. Given this fact, the question of which desires should be subordinated has a clear answer. As Tucker discusses in the next paragraphs, we must follow the principle of equal liberty.

If the invader, instead of chaining me to a post, barricades the highway, do I any the less lose my liberty of locomotion? Yet he has ceased to be violent. We obtain liberty, not by the cessation of violence, but by the recognition, either voluntary or enforced, of equality of liberty.

We are to establish the contrary by persistent inculcation of the doctrine of equality of liberty, whereby finally the majority will be made to see in regard to existing forms of invasion what they have already been made to see in regard to its obsolete forms, – namely, that they are not seeking equality of liberty at all, but simply the subjection of all others to themselves.

This, therefore, is what Anarchists mean by equality. Not equality in wealth: although obviously an Anarchist society would be much more equal in wealth than any other society, and freedom cannot co-exist with systemic disparity of wealth, absolute equality in wealth is logically impossible and undesirable. We also do not mean the State socialist conceit of “equality of opportunities,” which, although once again desirable, is defined in very twisted ways. Rather, we mean the elimination of hierarchies and all other forms of control against the human will. By this means, we all become equal in liberty.

The political implications of the belief in superior values are obvious. Once again quoting Spooner:

Every man must necessarily judge and determine for himself as to what is conducive and necessary to, and what is destructive of, his own well-being; because, if he omits to perform this task for himself, no body else can perform it for him… Popes, and priests, and kings will assume to perform it for him, in certain cases, if permitted to do so. But they will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can minister to their own vices and crimes, by doing it. They will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can make him their fool and their slave. Parents, with better motives, no doubt, than the others, do often attempt the same work. But in so far as they practice coercion, or restrain a child from anything not really and seriously dangerous to himself, they do him a harm, rather than a good. It is a law of Nature that to get knowledge, and to incorporate that knowledge into his own being, each individual must get it for himself. Nobody, not even his parents, can tell him the nature of fire, so that he will really know it. He must himself experiment with it, and be burnt by it, before he can know it.

(italics his)

Because everyone has a different value-system, and is forced by the democratic system to fight to get his values enforced before everyone else does the same (in short, the Tragedy of the Commons situation applied to freedom), the belief in superior values must necessarily lead to a war of all against all. It must lead to political chaos, ideological balkanization and the breakdown of discourse. Most importantly, it must lead to the end of truth as guiding principle. We observe all these things in democracies, even small ones. The end result is growth of control and the shrinkage of voluntary cooperation.

Of course, as Spooner points out, it is impossible to enforce morality. You can indoctrinate people in being obedient subjects against their own values, but that takes a great deal of power and a great deal of time, and is comparatively easily undone.

9 thoughts on ““I know what’s best for people”

  1. Cork October 22, 2008 at 02:59

    As I explained in the comments to that post, I was under the impression was that you considered hierarchies to be a violation of rights (which is why I said you should be consistent and call for their coervice prohibition).

    You then clarified that you don’t consider them a violation of people’s rights.

  2. Anarcho-pragmatiste October 22, 2008 at 15:41

    Great post!

    Ça va probablement m’inspirer un billet un jour!

  3. anarcho-mercantilist October 22, 2008 at 15:57

    The Anarchist view is that our institutions and rules must be grounded in the individual’s values: that social morality, like everything else in society, must be a bottom-up system. In contrast, the ruling class imposes the concept of “law” in order to justify its coercive control over society.

    I do not find it immoral for the “ruling class” to voluntarily persuade their anarchist theories of law to others in a top-down manner. Do you find it immoral that Proudhon and Spooner had voluntarily imposed their anarchist philosophy of law to others in a top-down manner? Proudhon actually fits in the “ruling class” as he possesses wealth…

    If you find things that possess a “top-down” attribute as immoral, I find it contradictory since I view publishing ideas on the Internet as “top-down” spreading of information.

    Of course, as Spooner points out, it is impossible to enforce morality.

    One can partially enforce morality by persuading others that some actions (such as aggression) would cause unintended consequences that would harm others.

  4. anarcho-mercantilist October 22, 2008 at 16:14

    Of course, as Spooner points out, it is impossible to enforce morality.

    If find the statement ambiguous. The state currently enforces morality, so it is possible enforce it.

    Or did you mean in the normative sense that ‘morality’ should be impossible to enforce? If find it quite absurd that individuals who have Randian influence conflate the normative/descriptive distinctions. Just because morality should be impossible to enforce, it does not mean that morality is impossible to enforce.

  5. Anarcho-pragmatiste October 22, 2008 at 16:25

    “You can indoctrinate people in being obedient subjects against their own values, but that takes a great deal of power and a great deal of time, and is comparatively easily undone.”

    I think this is the explanation for the previous sentence.

  6. anarcho-mercantilist October 22, 2008 at 17:44

    Anarcho-pragmatiste, thank you.

  7. […] Francois continues to push boundaries in his second submission, “I know what’s best for people”: […]

  8. […] “you want to tell people what to do” fallacy is easily paired with the “I know what’s best for people” fallacy, as in this case. Here we are told that attacking stratification is wrong because […]

  9. […] Unfortunately, this contributes to the dehumanization of the opposition and the “us v them” mentality (we actually think about what we believe, therefore we’re in the right and their opinions don’t count). It can lead to self-delusion (i.e. if I am one of the blessed few who actually think about this topic, then I am probably right about everything else too). Indirectly, it can also lead to increased statism (i.e. we know what’s best for everyone). […]

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