Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Defending the weak, the powerless and scoundrels.

I recently received a phone call from Dr. Nathaniel Branden regarding some projects he is working on. That actually compelled my curiosity about some tapes of his that I had, but which I had not previously listened to. The lecture was on “Objectivism: Past and Future” and it included an extended Q&A period.

He made a comment, well into that session, that I thought was extremely important. While he was specifically referring to Objectivism, what he said applies to libertarianism or classical liberalism as well. He said the first chore of the Objectivist is to become a decent human being.

It seems to me that is a rather radical statement. First, it is radical because so many Objectivists are just unpleasant, bitter, angry people. While that problem is not as prevalent among libertarians in general, it is still true enough. There are just too many people who seem to lack human decency.

By human decency I am not saying that one must sacrifice for the sake of others. I’m not talking about self-destruction. I simply mean being pleasant, showing common courtesy, generosity and kindness. I can’t fathom why some libertarians find that so hard.

I had some pretty awful knocks in my life, especially when I was young. Born premature it was questionable whether I would survive. One result was that I was small for my age. And lots of kids, for whatever reason, enjoy bullying kids smaller than themselves --- of course they don’t bully kids bigger than themselves. Between that, and other situations, I got knocked around a lot.

And one thing it taught me was the value of kindness and the importance of sticking up for people. A lot of people get knocked around, sometimes they deserve some of it but get far more than they should. Sometimes they deserve none of it.

Nothing infuriates me more than seeing someone who is in a “weak” position being set up by bullies or a gang. That gang might be organized interest groups, society at large or even the State -- actually often the State.

I think one reason that I find liberty important is that it is so necessary to those people who are weaker or easy targets.

The powerful always do well for themselves in a Statist society. Big government helps the powerful. At best the powerless are just the excuse for accumulating more power, but in truth that power rarely helps them -- and I don’t think it can help them. I don’t believe compulsion and coercion can help the powerless or less powerful. They are “outgunned” by definition.

I have always felt compelled to speak out and defend others who are being picked on. No doubt because I know what is like to be in their shoes. And I will be the first to admit this has sometimes caused problems. If you defend someone who is being bullied you are often asking the bullies to redirect their attention to you. I know that and still I find that I have to do what I believe to be right.

Liberty is the right thing to do. I am a libertarian because it is the only way to morally deal with other people. I don’t want to force them into meeting my expectations. At most I can try to persuade them to change. I am not opposed to using a just amount of force in self-defense, so I am not opposed to society using some force against those who violate the rights of others.

But I know that the bully syndrome is always present. When you allow the use of force against some people the bullies will be there lobbying for expanding the numbers, or kinds of people, against whom this force may be used. On the playground the bullies usually did not use this force with the moral sanction of the school. But, in modern society, government uses force with the moral sanction of society -- or at least most of society.

This makes things much worse because it means that the bullies find it much easier to justify overstepping the proper limits placed on them. HL Mencken once said that the defense of liberty often requires defending scoundrels because it is scoundrels who are first targets of government for illegitimate treatment. If governments get away with treating the scoundrels badly then they will slowly expand the numbers they treat in a similar manner.

If you haven’t defended scoundrels along the way then I suggest you haven’t defended liberty. In targeting these people the State begins the process of whittling away the liberties of all. It is often said that such victims of big government are on the “fringes”. And that is true.

Liberty is sort of like a rug with some pretty natty fringes that are hanging off the sides. If you cut off the fringes you notice that they don’t disappear. All you have done is move the fringes closer to the center. That part of the rug, which is left on the edge, is now the new fringe. If you keep cutting away at the fringes you eventually have destroyed the entire rug.

When alleged terrorists are tortured by the U.S. government it is important to speak out in opposition. But not because you love terrorists, but because you love liberty and human rights. A government that is free to torture can’t be a proper government. And if you think such torture will only be used on the guilty you are about as naive as is it possible to be.

All throughout history there have been unsavory individuals who have been treated unfairly. Defending their rights is not the same thing as defending their unsavory actions. But the bullies will do their best to confuse those issues.

Now and then, we see our society turn into something akin to a lynch mob. When you see a large mob of people, united in anger against some lone individual or small group of individuals, the chances are pretty good that the mob will be in the wrong. Members of mobs lose their moral judgement very easily and they do things in passion which are not justified when viewed in the calm light of reason.

The mob is always passionate. They thrive on their passion. But having “passion” is often just an excuse for behaving inhumanely. When passion inflicts pain on others ,it is not passion, it is sadism.

There are times when the target of hatred deserves judgement. But if we allow our passions to control our actions we often take a bad situation and make it worse. I can think of numerous cases where problems were real but the solutions were deadly. Speaking out against bad solutions is not defending the problem.

A clear example of that is the war on drugs. I think illegal drugs, that inhibit one’s ability to act rationally, are a problem. I think prohibition makes the problems worse. Drug addicts do some unpleasant things, but so do alcoholics. And in my life, it was the alcoholics who did the most harm. But banning alcohol wouldn’t make the general situation better. It would just create a new, larger set of problems. Sometimes doing less is doing more. Sometimes by pulling back you don’t inflict harm on top of harm.

Legalizing drugs doesn’t solve the problems of drug addiction. Those problems exist whether these substances are legal or illegal. But legalization does address the problems of drug prohibition. And the problems of prohibition are greater than the problems of drug use. Doing less, in this case, does more because it reduces harms and makes people better off.

I try to fulfil Dr. Branden’s suggestion and do my best to be a decent human being. I know I fail, and I fail far too often. There were times I was unthoughtful and for that I’m sorry. No doubt I’ve lost my patience too often. And I fear that there were times when I should have spoken out and I remained silent.

No doubt there were times when I spoke out and I shouldn’t have -- when I was in the wrong. But ,I would rather be faulted for defending too many of the weak, the powerless, and even the scoundrels, then to defend far too few of them.

I am one of those people who would rather see a guilty man go free than an innocent man be imprisoned. Far more injustice is done by defending too few people, than by defending too many.

For me, basic decency means respecting the rights of others, it means courtesy, kindness and fairness. But it also means defending those who most need defending, the victims of the mob mentality, the targets of the bullies of society. It means standing up for the weak and the powerless and sometimes it means defending scoundrels.

I have come to one important conclusion about this. If the weak, the powerless and the scoundrels have their rights respected then we all are safe. Each and every one of us is more secure because of it. Ours is a more humane society and a stronger one.