Sunday, February 14, 2010

The tyranny of dreams

It is often said that the free society, as envisioned by passionate libertarians, is insufficient to take care of the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Often this point is driven home by someone comparing an ideal socialist society, where all personal agendas and politics have vanished, to the harsher reality of modern society. In other words, they compare an ideal, unrestricted by reality, to how things actually are. In such a comparison between fantasy and reality, reality will always loose.

There is a place for such comparisons in human understanding. Literature is such a place to fantasize about utopias unbridled by the inconvenient facts of human nature, politics, scarce resources and other such road blocks. The danger from such dreaming is that many political activists confuse their dream with the real world and then try to force the real world to fit their dream.

Frederic Bastiat warned of this problem almost two centuries ago. He said that the Utopian "reserves all his love for the society that he has dreamed up; but the natural society in which it is our lot to live cannot be destroyed soon enough to suit them, so that from its ruins may rise the New Jerusalem." Aldous Huxley made the point more strongly: "[F]aith in the bigger and better future is one of the most potent enemies of to present liberty: for rulers feel themselves justified in imposing the most monstrous tyranny on their subjects for the sake of the wholly imaginary fruits which these tyrannies are expected to bear some time in the distant future."

Socialist Utopian Robert Owen advocated, what he called" the scientific arrangement of the people." In such Utopian visions people are tools to be used, clay that formed at the hands of the visionary to fit his ideals. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The road to tyranny is similarly paved.

One of the reasons that the poor and vulnerable are better off in a free society, even if it were to be less "charitable" than a socialist society, is that they don't get "scientifically" arranged according to the whims of a bureaucrat or politician.

It is not my contention that the social dreamers start out intending to arrange people according to their own values. Most, I suspect, actually do want to help people. The problem is that people act in ways which frustrate the dream. Consider a problem the South African government had when it built houses for the poor. Now these houses were not much to talk about but better than the huts in which the poor were already living. Much to the chagrin of the government the recipients of these homes sold the houses in order to spend the money on things they wanted more. One government official complained that home owners traded their homes for cases of beer.

Now put yourself in the place of the designers of this program. How do you solve this problem? The only way to solve the problem is to think of ways to restrict the freedom of the very people you wish to help. You have little option but to substitute your values for theirs.

Imagine if, by some miracle, that all the wealth of the nation were evenly distributed at the stroke of Midnight. How long would it remain so? Certainly by 12:01 you would be well on the road to inequality of wealth once again. Some of those who awoke to find their new found wealth would immediately set about finding ways to spend it. Some might even do so wisely. They would invest it, or save it. Others would head to Vegas for a holiday and the slots, returning home exhilarated but much poorer.

Wealth inequality exists because people are free to make decisions for themselves. Some choose wisely, some not so wisely. If equality of substance is to be maintained the ability to choose must be curtailed.

Similarly consider the desire of politicians to give everyone "health". Some people are healthier than others and governments want us to be as healthy as possible. So the state begins providing health care, in some form or another. But once the government is paying for your health then the choices you make, which impact your health, are suddenly their concern as well. You make made choices, so your liberty must be restricted. You have to be controlled and regulated.

A plethora of rules and regulations appear to control your personal habits. Government forbids you to smoke in more and more locations. It imposes heavy taxes on tobacco in order to force you to stop smoking. It regulates what sort of restaurants are allowed in your neighborhood, in the name of health. It bans certain food products because food activists say they are bad for you. Whether or not you want that produce is immaterial. The goal of society is no longer freedom but health and freedom is secondary. Your wishes or desires no longer matter because a higher good is at stake.

FA Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, said that once a society adopts "one common over-ridding end, there is no room for general morals or rules." When a "few specific ends dominate the whole of society, it is inevitable that occasionally cruelty may become a duty; that acts which revolt all our feelings... should be treated as mere matters of expediency.... because the common end of society can know no limits in any rights or values of any individual."

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