Freedom in Mind

Chapter 14
People Are No Damn Good

It can be said with erudition: "The human brain has not yet evolved to the point where Mass Man can be counted on to organize his life without help from some authority."

It can be said diplomatically: "The job of government is to put a citizenry on the right track, and, as far as possible, keep it there."

It can be said with humor: "Trust in others is like virginity. You tend to lose it early, but pretend you've still got it."

Or, it can be said bluntly: "People are no damn good!"

Once you've said it, you don't have to repeat it a lot. When an instance of human fallibility appears, you just throw up your hands and sigh. When you make a mistake, you throw up your hands and sigh. If it's a bad mistake, you make the gesture, and add: "I'm only human."

You complain to a bureaucrat that his new regulation will tighten the ties on your straightjacket to the point that your business will expire. He throws up his hands and sighs, and explains that they have to close those loopholes because greedy businessmen take advantage of them.

You complain to the inspector that his safety requirements will make your new toy so clunky it will never sell. He throws up his hands and sighs. "Parents just will not supervise their kids, so what can we do?"

You explain to the politician that banning bicycles on that congested bridge will put the cyclists into their cars, and increase the congestion. He throws up his hands and sighs. "If we could just get people to carpool, things would be fine."

That's the ritual: make the gesture, and chant. "If we could just get people to stop littering." "If we could just get people to stop jaywalking." "If we could just get people onto public transportation." "If we could just get people to do things right!"

The argument reduced to a gesture faces down all demands for freedom. "Of course it's terrible to take so much out of your paycheck, but"—make the gesture—"what else can we do?" "Of course this regimentation is annoying, but"—make the gesture—"what else can we do?"

It seems like a strong argument, until you spell it out. Then it sours: "Of course making citizens into slaves is bad, but people are no damn good, so what else can you do?" One thing to do is stop gesturing, and start analyzing.

People who are no damn good fail to meet some minimum standard of good. The standard implied by throwing up hands and sighing is a subjective one: "People are no damn good because they don't do what I want." Does that mean I only want freedom for people if I can be the boss? When challenged, I deny it. I try for a more objective standard. "People are no damn good because they are selfish."

Littering is selfish when you want clutter. Jaywalking is selfish when you want accidents. If those are examples, then being selfish is living on impulse, acting on the spur of the moment, thoughtlessly. Acting without thought is not really selfish, because it gets your self in trouble.

To be selfish, you have to act for your own benefit. Throwing garbage around does not qualify. Stepping into traffic does not qualify. Cooperating with others to produce prosperity does qualify. But it does not justify calling people no damn good, so I'll have to find a darker meaning for selfishness.

Try this: "People are no damn good because they put themselves first instead of putting others first." Does that mean you feed yourself and starve your family? Or does it mean you refuse to feed my family first and yours last? To spend a day helping others, better start with a good breakfast. If you neglect yourself, then you're no damn good to me. If defending values is good, then be sure to keep yourself in shape for that.

The more I try to damn people for selfishness, the more obvious it becomes that what I really resent is that they go by their choices instead of by my choices. My standard is still subjective. I want to be the boss.

Here's another try at a more objective standard: "People are no damn good because you can't count on them. Even when they try, they get things wrong." This makes infallibility the standard. People are no damn good because they are fallible.

That standard falls apart as soon as we discuss parameters. To be infallible, must you get things right in an instant, or can you take some time? If so, how much time? To acquire a skill, you can spend years doing it wrong before practice makes perfect. The first time you tried walking, you fell down. By the standard of infallibility, you must not have been really trying.

Getting things right is not a miracle, but a process. You start the process by falling down. You end the process by winning the marathon. Saying that humans are fallible by nature does not mean they are incapable, but that their method of getting things right starts with ignorance and ends with mastery. If in the middle of the progression, somebody says, "You're just not trying," that's a subjective judgment, not the application of an objective standard.

In my quest for an objective standard showing that people are no damn good, I'm getting frustrated. I could say that people are by nature untrustworthy, or by nature stupid, or by nature greedy. But that would be like saying that people are no damn good because they are, by nature, wingless. An attribute that nature left out is not a standard but just a fact.

I am left with only one objective standard by which people could be judged as no damn good: survival. People are no damn good because nature has not equipped them for survival. That's why the human race died out eons ago.

Here's my final try at objectivity: "People are no damn good because they refuse to use reason, the method of survival nature gave them."

Now I've really got a problem. If all people refuse to reason, then that includes me, so I did not reason my way to my conclusion. If I do reason, so do others. All I'm doing is complaining that some people are unreasonable. By what standard? I'm back where I started. I'm complaining that people make their own choices instead of my choices.

In other words, people are no damn good because they have free will.

That's why the argument by throwing up hands and sighing is so popular. Talking about it reveals eventually where it comes from: the desire to make other people's choices for them. In an openly slave society, this desire would be respectable. In a society where slavery is confined to slave labor, this desire is common, but not respectable. Hence the gesture: it reveals enough, but not too much.

It is easy to make an air-tight case for freedom. Start with the nature of man. Man has the capacity to walk and talk, but has to learn how by choice. Man has the capacity to use reason to survive and prosper, but has to learn how by choice. Since this choice cannot be forced, man cannot live by being forced. Reason is man's means of survival, and freedom allows reason to function.

Since it is an air-tight case, people don't usually argue. Instead, they throw up their hands and shrug. "So what?" they say. "That doesn't change the fact that people are no damn good. If you have to have freedom, you have to be careful not to have too much." Then they complain about being stiffed on a deal, and overcharged for a repair, and annoyed by a neighbor.

In addition to logic, reason requires objectivity, the habit of separating your observations from your feelings. Objectivity says, "It is so," or, "It is not so." Subjectivity says, "I want it to be so," or "I want it not to be so." Objectively, my attention is focused on what I observe. Subjectively, it is focused on what I feel.

Objectively, I notice that reasonable men differ on many levels, so they specialize. There is a division of labor, which gives me things I don't know how to make in trade for things I do know how to make. We can cooperate, and all get rich.

Subjectively, I hate it that some people harvest trees in the forest, while others plant trees where they block my view. What kind of cooperation is that? We need more regulation of both the cutting and the growing of trees. People are just no damn good.

Freedom means change. Reason, when free to function, invents new things, new methods, new delights. Objectively, the change is an improvement. Subjectively, it is a threat. Why should I have to learn new things all the time? Why won't they let me hang on to the old ways? People are really no damn good.

If you ask me if I love freedom, then speaking objectively, I will say yes. If my thoughts are subjective, however, I may think no. That is why I might demand more freedom right up to election day, and then vote for less freedom. That is why government tends to grow more coercive, while voters complain about coercion.

There was a time when people felt sure, subjectively, that they could not do without slavery. Now they feel sure, subjectively, that they cannot do without slave labor. It is the way government gets financed. It is the way needs get taken care of. It is the way people who are no damn good are made to do some good.

To decide subjectively is to decide by feeling, and not by reason. For people who do not decide things by reason, freedom has no attraction. Lacking reason, they lack a means of self-regulation, so coercive regulation is a relief. When one regulation after another adds up to total coercion, they sigh and accept slavery as their fate. After all, what can you do when people are no damn good?

What does this subjective condemnation of the human race mean to you? It means nothing. If you know, or are learning, how to reason, then you go by observation, which is that people range from no good to very good. You go by logic, which shows that condemning your own nature would be a meaningless self-contradiction. You go by principles, one of which is that reason grasps reality, and feelings do not.

When feelings guide action, your guide is a liar. With reason as a guide, your compass is true. When feelings guide action, you need the biggest safety net you can get. With reason as a guide, you stop seeing coercive regulation as a safety net, and start seeing it as a ball and chain.

People who hate reason hate their means of survival, so they hate themselves, so they think everybody is bad by nature. They condemn themselves to the ball and chain. The question is, do they condemn you to the ball and chain?

Pretend you are the regulator trying to figure out how to make bad people do good. You can't just orders citizens to do good, because "good" has many meanings. You have to order specific actions. You have to spell everything out. Your law would go on forever.

A way around that problem would be to get each citizen to decide individually what would be good, and do that. Your law could specify the standard. For example: "All citizens must act for the welfare of others." But then you have to teach each citizen how to judge the welfare of others. Is it good for the beggar or bad for the beggar if you donate? Your law would still go on forever.

The more you wrestled with the problem, the more you would have to fight off the notion that the only way to accomplish your purpose would be to order all citizens to use reason as a means of regulating their lives. How would you know if they complied? By noticing that they all cooperated and prospered. But then, what would they need you for?

That's why regulators settle for laws forbidding bad things. Instead of saying, "All citizens must smile in public," and trying to define a smile, you say, "Excessive frowning in public is forbidden," and let police decide the details.

Now you have a new problem. You try to make bad people do good by forbidding all the bad things you can think of, and leaving the details to enforcers. To do all the things you require of them, the enforcers must be super-human. Instead, they are no damn good like everybody else. You have to make laws against corruption, and hire more enforcers—who also need to be super-human, and so on.

The insoluble problem of coercive regulation is that it tries to replace reason, but has nothing to replace reason with. It stifles reason by usurping its purpose, and has no better means of survival to offer. It says that all are "only human" and then asks enforcers to be super-human.

The ball and chain has a missing link: reason. Its victims must agree to carry the load, and not pull on the chain. Victims must be convinced that they are not capable of self-regulation. If they improve their reasoning skill, they see the dilemma of coercion: force is the enemy of reason, but forcers cannot survive without reason. Either reason is allowed to spread, resulting in a demand for freedom, or else reason is made to wither, resulting in death for the society.

When you make observations for yourself, and draw reasoned conclusions for yourself, and make sure all your knowledge fits together logically, then those who try to go by feelings will be left floundering in your wake. Coercive regulation will have a hard time keeping up. The people-are-no-good crowd will discover that their condemnation applies only to themselves.

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