Fooling Themselves

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December 22, 2006

The question of why most people support statism is a question that has long been of great interest to libertarians. This is an especially vexing question in light of the fact that, as many libertarians have pointed out, virtually everyone save for criminals believes in a basically libertarian ethic in their private lives--they would not dream of robbing, murdering, or violently dominating another, and would be outraged if another did this to them. Even hardcore redistributionist socialists rarely go around mugging people, and resent it if someone mugs them. But in politics, everything changes, and most things that are considered basic moral decency in private life go out the window. Why?

Several explanations have been offered for this. They have a good deal of merit, and are part of the truth, but I do not believe they explain things fully.

One commonly blamed cause, of course, is simple greed. The state is the ultimate tool of economic exploitation, and anyone with political pull and a willingness to use it can take advantage of this fact. The history of American regulation and protectionism is a testament to this. Some intellectuals support statism out of power lust or envy; this is essentially another sort of selfish motivation, though the profits are psychological rather than material.

There are also a great many misguided idealists who support the growth of statism for moral reasons. These are often no less unjust and oppressive. Someone dedicated to dominating you for your own good can be frightening indeed. Quite often, however, these idealists merely end up as the tools and dupes of the first group. Murray Rothbard, for instance, has described how much of 'Progressive' legislation was supported by both left-wing intellectuals seeking a more 'rational' society and business interests who wanted to use the state to bludgeon their competition.

Both of these are important. However, there is a third category that gets overlooked, which I believe is far more important than many people realize. Call it the 'hybrid' category, or the 'deluded egoist.' These statists are people are who use the state for motives that are clearly selfish, yet honestly think that they are being public spirited. A great number of people, in my experience, fall into this category at least some of the time. They have no problem calling on the state to advance their material interests, but they almost always put it in terms of public welfare. Are they merely being dishonest, cynically pretending to care about society while shamelessly exploiting others?

I'm sure some people are like that, especially among the higher ranks of many government-privileged businesses and unions. But I very much doubt it's true of the majority. If these people--who constitute a high percentage of the population--were as amoral and selfish in private life as they often are in public/political life, society would quickly collapse into Hobbesian chaos. Something else is going on.

It would be going too far to say that people are basically good. I think, however, that most adults are sufficiently decent that they will usually refrain from gross injustice if they recognize it as injustice. That is, alas, a big if. People are very good at rationalizing things when it's convenient. They can quite readily invent excuses for themselves, or simply refuse to apply their rational faculties to a subject. They are aided and abetted in this by many statist intellectuals, commentators, and politicians, who provide ready-made excuses for people to drop their usual moral and intellectual standards when looking at their own behavior in the political arena. Tell people that it's okay to use government force to enrich themselves, and it's hardly surprising that many people are eager to believe it.

You can often observe this phenomenon when listening to people talking about politics. In one breath, they will condemn the greed and selfishness of special interests, and the corruption of the politicians who serve them; in the next, they will demand special privileges for themselves in the form of government handouts, more tax funding for government services that benefit them, bailouts or protectionism for the industries they work in, and so on. People will condemn waste and pork in Washington , but demand that their congressman bring more spending to their district. When looking at the demands of others, they think and see clearly, and so they recognize and condemn greedy and unjust calls for special privilege; when looking at their own comparable demands, their rationalizations kick in and they see nothing wrong.

This cloud of self-delusion is one of statism's strongest protections. If the millions of average people who support statism because it serves (or because they think it serves, or because they want to reshape it to serve) their material interests were forced to look at themselves in the same harsh light in which they judge others, they would be faced with the ugly truth that they seek to do the same thing as the 'special interests' they despise, in violation of their own moral standards. They would be forced to choose between their favorite statist policies and continued self-respect. Some, faced with that decision, would make the wrong choice, but I think many would choose rightly. The problem with most of these statists is not so much that they have a defective moral sense, but that a lifetime of statist assumptions and sloppy thinking have prevented them from even bringing their moral sense to bear in the first place.

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John Markley's picture
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John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.