I'm OK, You're Despicable

This is an article about arrogance. In a great many cases that I have observed, a person's support for this or that government control seems to stem from the belief that the great majority of people are, in one way or another, utterly depraved. However, the advocate of the control will always, without exception, refrain from including himself among those who need the law to be forced into decency. Though the masses are invariably swine who need a boot kept on their collective neck, the advocate of government control is just as invariably an exception, one of the noble few. Now, obviously, this is not the only reason people support these ideas--flaws in reasoning, bad ideology and philosophy, radically different starting premises, and sheer ignorance certainly play their role. Nevertheless, the role of arrogance and the appeal of having a reason to believe yourself better than everyone else has, I think, been greatly neglected, and it can be highly useful to understand the often-hidden premises behind political arguments. Its most common appearances seem to be among the religious Right and the far Left, which may explain why both groups seem to have the same air of almost palpable smugness, although it sometimes appears elsewhere, too. Causality in this case probably runs both ways. On the one hand, those who already have an inflated sense of self-worth are probably more likely to believe that they ought to be deciding what other people do. On the other hand, if you are looking for a set of beliefs that will make you feel good yourself, an ideology that tells you that the masses are evil and must be dominated is a perfect fit, since if you recognize this you are presumably different than and above those evil masses. Drug laws are one example. One of the arguments made in support of keeping drugs illegal, made quite frequently, is that without drug laws, huge numbers of people will take up drug use, and huge swaths of the population will become junkies, bringing society grinding to a halt. This argument seems convincing to some people because it has a grain of truth to it. If the cost of using drugs--which, under prohibition, includes the risk of prison, getting killed by a dealer, death from a tainted product that wouldn't have existed if drug producers were subject to normal legal liability, etc.--is reduced, then some non-users currently on the borderline will decide to become users. But to go from this to the conclusion that ending prohibition would result in massive hard drug use, despite all the evidence that would suggest such a thing to be unlikely--the public's widespread knowledge of their dangers, their general social unacceptability, the fact that opium and cocaine were legal in America for decades without creating a society of hardcore junkies--requires either a severe breakdown in reasoning, or a deep conviction that the bulk of your countrymen are depraved hedonists with no sense of responsibility, or even basic common sense. The prohibitionist never includes himself--he would no doubt be indignant if accused of refraining from abandoning his family and job to become a junkie only because the laws stop him from doing so, but he makes that accusation against millions of others. This is not the only argument made in favor of drug prohibition, but it is a depressingly common one, often made by people who really ought to know better. Another example is gun control. When states started granting permits to carry concealed weapons, it was frequently claimed by various pundits that allowing people to carry guns would result in huge increases in violence, 'Dodge City'-style shootouts, and general Hobbesian chaos. No such situation resulted, of course, and studies indicate that it may have actually reduced the crime rate. The number of gun crimes committed by permit holders was minute. The law only armed the law-abiding--criminals willing to rob, rape, and kill are unlikely to respect laws concerning the carrying of weapons, and the permits were given only to people without criminal records. Why, then, were so many dire warnings made about an impending explosion of criminal violence? Leaving aside those who adopted this belief because they simply did not think about the issue, and simply responded, 'Guns, eww!', it seems to reflect a belief that a large percentage of the population consists of highly dangerous would-be killers, just waiting for a chance to take a weapon out in public so they can wreak havoc. The gun-controllers would, of course, swear up and down that they would never want to commit an act of violence against an innocent person--and they almost certainly wouldn't, because the vast majority of people wouldn't--but their argument is based on the premise that a large percentage of people would, if only they had the chance. Only the enlightened few can be trusted to behave decently. This phenomena also appears among those who argue that allowing child labor in the Third World (which has been a part of every economy since time immemorial, and disappears when the country is rich and industrialized enough for families to do without the income their children generate), which is vital for families to survive in a primitive agricultural economy or early industrial economy, would result in widespread exploitation of children and denial of education that would be worse than the consequences of depriving millions of children of their source of support, causing the majority (or at least large segments) of the population to make child labor a permanent part of the economy, and that allowing people in the Third World to utilize this resource will doom them to a grim 19th Century style existence, even after economic progress has made child labor unnecessary, as happened in the West.

This ignores the question: Who would be sending these children to work once families are rich enough to do without their labor? The only people who could do this in a free economy would be the parents. The anti-capitalist activist who makes the claim that child labor must be forbidden to avoid this dire fate, if asked whether he would make his own children work rather than send them to school if there was no economic need to do so, would indignantly reply that of course he would not, and he is almost certainly telling the truth, because he loves his family and wants what is best for them, like anybody else. Yet, based on his dire predictions, he clearly believes that most other people would make their children continue to work. He believes that it is only a small number of decent souls like himself who actually care about their children, and that most people only refrain from neglect and abuse of their own children because the laws restrain them. The historical record contradicts this, since child labor was actually already in great decline before child labor laws were passed. It was only because of the great wealth produced by the industrial capitalist economy that it became possible to dispense with child labor. Had child labor been stopped early in the Industrial Revolution--or, even worse, during the agricultural era--the result would have been mass poverty and starvation. However, once it was no longer economically necessary for children to work, parents stopped having them do so, because, contrary to their fantasy, leftist activists are not the only decent people on Earth. It's also worth noting that the most notorious examples of child labor--the jobs that really put child workers in danger of death or dismemberment on the job--almost always involved not children who were working with the permission of their parents, known as 'free labor,' but what was called 'parish labor'--orphans in prison-like government-run orphanages rented out by the government to politically connected businessmen. It was these children, whose decisions were made by government bureaucrats rather than their families, who got dangerous jobs, and it was, ironically (but not surprisingly, considering statist mendacity) the sufferings and tragedies inflicted on these young victims of the government that is now blamed on the operations of the free market. 1 Leftist claims about the supposed mass-scale Dickensian horrors that will supposedly ensue if Third World children are not stripped of their employment are simply nonsense, having nothing to do with reality and everything to do with overwhelming pride and egotism. If everyone else would ruthlessly exploit their own children, and you are of the select few who would not, that's a pretty good reason to feel good about yourself, isn't it? This is, in a sense, the most arrogant example of all--it takes a pretty inflated self-regard to believe you care about the children of the world more than their own parents do. It is this sort of arrogance that helps fuel the supposedly 'caring' souls who demand that we be dominated by them for our own good. The reality of these issues--that most people are not psychotic criminals waiting to strike, that most people want the best for their children, that most people refrain from spending their days passed out from heroin because they know it's dangerous and irresponsible, not out of fear of prison--cannot penetrate the warm, self-righteous glow that comes from the certainty that you're vastly better than everyone else.

1. McElroy, 'Legal Child Abuse,' The Free Market, Volume 19, Number 1

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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 Lewrockwell.com, Antiwar.com, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.