Wednesday, January 27, 2010

little differences of opinion

As I have many times before, I recently watched a political discussion where a statist had centered his argument on a popular (and generally worthless) idea. The idea was that proposed legislation was worthy of passage because of the good intentions of those who wrote it. The problem arises that everyone thinks they have good intentions. Aside from a few actual psychopaths, we can safely assume that even history's monstrous leaders never woke up and asked themselves, "How can I make life worse for my people? How can I advance the cause of evil?" Even as they sent countless people to their deaths in gas chambers, dissident executions, mass starvations, and other atrocities, it's a safe bet that they had convinced themselves that it was for the greater good, that they were using the government's power to solve the people's problems but that every great omelet requires breaking a few eggs. And, they seldom acted without some imprimatur of popular support: Many people agreed to trust the politicians and governments to solve perceived social problems, rather than to tackle the problems as free individuals with the uncoerced aid of others.

There are plenty of ways to encapsulate the dichotomy between that way of thinking and the thinking represented by the American ideal. Here's one of them. (Click to see it full-sized.)

the choice


Anonymous said...

how simple. black and white dichotomies? really?'s a range not either/or. that concept is impossible for some to grasp and i think it's because they feel like they will lose control of their lives somehow and thus they quite often become starkly aggressive to defend their own perspective regardless. this is the cause of much terror in the world. the irony being that the original 'intention' is to be free of coercion. it takes courage to recognize and then respond in kind to the fact that perfection and heaven are ideals to aim at while in motion...constantly adapting our sights given the situations we are presented with rather than to assert one as absolute and established and inflexible. we are not living statically. everything is moving and so are the targets we seek to achieve.

freedomfan said...

It's certainly a fair comment that the little poster I made avoids much of the nuance that would be present in a more exhaustive comparison of (essentially) unlimited acquiescence to political authority and the much more constrained role of government endorsed in the American charter. I did point out explicitly at least one subtlety: that most of the worst abuses of power in history have likely been committed by those who had some notion of advancing the common weal. Nonetheless, my goal was to encapsulate an aspect of the issue, not to duplicate the efforts found in book-length discussions of it.

However, it is just as much a simplification to conclude that people are incapable of understanding shades of grey merely because they see the departure from constitutional constraints as leading to abuses. My position isn't a black and white one. The notion that relying on government to solve problems will necessarily subject people to more government control may seem simple to you, but it isn't an argument rooted in any sort of only-the-perfect-system-is-acceptable thinking. It is a matter of pragmatism to recognize the trade-offs inherent in the different approaches. I would no more claim that a limited government of enumerated powers would result in heaven on Earth any more than (hopefully) a statist would claim that governments assuming powers beyond those granted in the Constitution can flawlessly address all problems in the human condition. The position articulated by the founders is hardly an all-or-nothing one. They designed a system with a limited but very significant role for the federal government. The distinction I attempt to draw in the graphic is between that government and the governments that can arise when they are limited only by the machinations of politics and policies judged by their good intentions.

While life is not static and government must address different situations as times change, it must still operate within its constraints. The Constitution cannot be read to mean whatever we like and still have any real purpose. If government is limited only by politics (and occasional bones tossed to the Bill of Rights, which was never intended to the Constitution's primary limit on government), then why have the Constitution? Most of the general principles constraining government are still just as applicable now as they were back when they were actually enforced. If the Constitution prevents politicians from, say, controlling the hours a baker can work in a day a century ago, then why should it allow that control today? The slippery slope is an overused analogy, but it applies quite well in this area.