by Brad Nelson
A friend and I have had several discussions through the years about how to change the minds of people who keep voting for the reckless spenders, over-regulators, and control freaks of collectivism, no matter how obvious it is that such political arrangements (and politicians) produce great harm. (How about 10 to 20% real unemployment for starters?) It doesn’t seem to matter to many people how egregiously the debt and dependency keep piling up.
And this isn’t rocket surgery (as I say). History is rife with concrete examples of the great harm of collectivism (and statism), as well as abundant examples of the efficacy, decency, and life-enhancing nature of freedom. But there is great intransigence against the idea of freedom by many. My friend, ever the optimist, thinks there should be a way to find the right words to move people from a collectivist orientation to a freedom-based one. (And he may be right.) But such “magic words” that are persuasive and conclusive have thus far proved very elusive.
A good contemplation of this issue is proved by Paul Rahe’s two-part essay, The Servile Temptation. (Here is Part 2.) It’s worth reading if only to get to the concluding quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville. The following is both a summarization of the article by Rahe as well as my additional commentary to wrap it all up into a bigger picture:
Mankind is inherently restless, a state known as “inquiétude.” Freedom itself leaves mankind feeling even less settled and vulnerable. In the old days, men could look for help and consolation from “local aristocrats, to great magnates, to the church, to the various corporate bodies constitutive of European monarchy.” Freedom inherently puts oneself at the center of the universe (one must make one’s own way in a free market system of individual responsibility and personal initiative) and that leaves people feeling quite “helpless in the face of political and economic forces beyond their control.”
I agree. And add to that a political party and a media who intentionally ramp up those feelings. But I do think one of most under-rated and under-reported aspects of modern civilization is the power of capitalist success — and freedom itself — to stress people out and make them feel vulnerable. It probably doesn’t help that every commercial on TV, every sitcom, and every MTV “reality” show, shows an idyllic life of beautiful people, having abundant fun, with lots of money, and beautiful friends all living a carefree life.
Personally, I’ll take the stress of freedom and material wealth, but it is surely true that once mankind’s basic needs are being met (food, clothing, shelter), we will find something to stress over. In fact, none (absolutely none) of the things we stress over now would even be on the radar in centuries past when humanity’s main task from daylight-to-dusk was just having enough to eat. Sometimes I think we Westerners are all like George Costanza from “Seinfeld.” He, too, couldn’t handle success.
So what do we do to try to escape such “stress”? Well, in a democracy, we don’t have kings or lords anymore to take care of us and make all of our big decisions for us. But we can get much the same thing and elect those who concentrate not on increasing and protecting our freedoms but who will instead “care” for us (including choosing something as basic as our health care and doctor).
And eventually with enough of that “caring,” people may fall prey to what is called “the administrative state” which is a government that has expanded and enlarged itself incrementally according to every want and need we felt we just had to have and couldn’t possibly live without. Government becomes the nanny as people trade their freedom for security. (This is, in fact, the exact experience of our times and we’ve got the tens of trillions of dollars of debt to prove it.) Often accompanying that desire for security (and driven by the same angst) is the desire for meaning. In this case, it’s meaning not from our church, friends, or family, but one supplied by the state.
Politicians are more than ready to prey on this feeling of vulnerability, angst, and the desire for meaning because “Unlimited government heightens their power, and it flatters their sense of self-importance,” according to Rahe. (Again, I would say this is our exact experience of today.) And all this and more has led me and my friend, who I mentioned at the beginning of this article, to ask ourselves “Why it is so hard to explain to people the importance of freedom? Shouldn’t there be some easy and obvious ‘magic words’ to cut through the statist and collectivist lies?” The best answer I have been able to come up with is something like this: “They don’t really want freedom. They would rather have security and meaning, both of which are promised by the administrative state and the politicians who — even if on a credit card — can make a living promising these things.”
Yes, it’s true many have come to take their freedom for granted, and some might indeed miss it when it’s gone. But many have been seduced by the idea that freedom itself is not a good thing. The word used is not “freedom,” of course, for few citizens will consciously be against such a concept. But they may be against it in practice if you change the word to “capitalism” or “corporations” and sometimes even to “individual choice” which are words that are regularly demonized (Obama derides it as “ever man for himself”), even though such things are the very expression of political and economic freedom.
Rather than business and industry, for instance, being seen as the vehicles for jobs, production, and opportunity (all of which are the outgrowth of freedom), there is a word change and such things become the symbol of nasty “greed” and “exploitation.” Thus many learn to hate the very symbol of freedom even if they do not consider themselves opposed to freedom and even if they do chant slogans of “choice.” Business and the free market become the conduit for displeasure, even to the point of rioting about it at a gathering of the WTO (as happened a few years back in Seattle — an early look at the Occupy Wall Street types). At the same time, they ascribe to government far more trust and benevolence than it deserves.
This is a worldview that takes a powerful grip on people…to the point of a religious outlook complete with various myths (one of which is known as “the myth of the noble savage,” the idea that before “greedy capitalism” all people lived at peace and in harmony with nature). And it makes them extremely vulnerable to the Barack Obamas and Nancy Pelosis of the world. As obviously as it is to you and me that they are atrociously socialistic — and the very harbingers of the same kind of statist tyranny that devastated the world last century — such demagogues sell the promise of refuge from the inherent “inquiétude” that is the product of life itself and something that, ironically, can be amplified by freedom. And they’re more than willing to do it by borrowing us into bankruptcy.
That we have become somewhat psychologically fragile and superficial people is without a doubt. The inability of many men and women to draw even the most obvious line in the sand between right and wrong is demonstrated time and again. But, as Tocqueville said:
After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, the sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations – complicated, minute, and uniform – through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own; it does not destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.