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Samizdata quote of the day

Professor Sunstein is undoubtedly correct that “people make a lot of mistakes.” Most of us can look back over our own lives and see many mistakes, including some that were very damaging. What Cass Sunstein does not tell us is what sort of creatures, other than people, are going to override our mistaken decisions for us. That is the key flaw in the theory and agenda of the left. Implicit in the wide range of efforts on the left to get government to take over more of our decisions for us is the assumption that there is some superior class of people who are either wiser or nobler than the rest of us.

- Thomas Sowell, quoted earlier today by David Thompson

32 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • John

    It is even worse than that. I have some very smart and perhaps even noble friends who disagree with me and with each other, about which incidents and actions were mistakes and which weren’t.

    Whether something was a mistake, or unavoidable, or worth it, is a very personal matter.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Even if I could say with 100% certainty that I would be better at governing your life for you than you would be yourself, that still wouldn’t make it right for me to impose my rule upon you by force.

    The fact that governments are incompetent as well as megalomaniacal is just the icing on the cake, but we shouldn’t let that blind us to the fact that the root idea is itself depraved.

    One of the most important freedoms, if not the very most, is the freedom to make bad choices. Because without that, you really don’t have any freedom at all. It would be a bit like saying “You have free speech, unless you want to say anything racist or homophobic or anti-government….” and no one could be so foolish as to claim that constituted freedom, could they?

    Oh wait…..

  • Very reminiscent of Bastiat, and still just as true…

    “If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?”
    ― Frédéric Bastiat, The Law

  • Regional

    The great majority of politicians are over confident narcissists and shallow opportunists who want to get their snouts in the trough to enjoy the trappings of office..

  • Pat

    Mr. Sunstein is undoubtedly correct- which is why we don’t want people ruling over us, even if Power did not corrupt, and even if there was no knowledge problem.

  • RRS

    Once again:

    The maxim, that governments ought to train the people in the way in which they should go, sounds well. But is there any reason for believing that a government is more likely to lead the people in the right way than the people to fall into the right way of themselves?

    And to say that society ought to be governed by the opinion of the wisest and best, though true, is useless. Whose opinion is to decide who are the wisest and best?

    Macauley’s Commentary on Southey’s (Sunstein’s ?) Collouquies on Society

    But, more later on “Governement.”

  • veryretired

    The great ongoing myth, and utter fallacy, of the collectivist mentality is that governments have made, and will continue to make, wise decisions which are to the benefit of the ordinary people in society.

    But the historical record, either long term throughout human history, or short term, as in the recent history of any particular country, is painfully clear and unambiguous in showing an endless stream of poor, harmful, and even deadly decisions made by state after state, regardless of the governmental form (although some forms are also clearly better than others).

    How could this be, if the state has been governed by men and women who, according to their own claims, widely documented, were chosen by god, or directed by supernatural forces, or belonged to a natural elite of noble families,or were totally dedicated to the well-being of their nation, tribe, or society, or humanity at large?

    Shouldn’t those marvelous wellsprings of power have resulted in a land flowing with milk and honey? Why, then, is human history a seemingly endless catalogue of misery, oppression, poverty, starvation, disease, violence, warfare, slavery, genocide, famine, and bestial behavior so bizarre and disgusting as to bring any normal person either to tears or sputtering rage?

    Perhaps there is an answer to these questions, but it will never be found in the rationalizations of the collectivist ideologue, who can always find any number of flaws and failures in the behavior in the actions of individuals, but cannot admit any of those same flaws will then carry over to governance when those same individuals are given the enormous power of the state to direct the lives of others.

    There was a point in human affairs, however, at which certain ideas were developed, and then used to fashion a new type of state, in which some of these flaws and failures were ameliorated.

    The state was based on the concept of just powers, derived from the consent of the governed, and restricted in its scope and power by a fundamental recognition of certain rights and liberties, certain powers if you will, that remained with the individual citizens, and could not be denied or alienated by the state.

    Such was the only true, revolutionary political idea in history, and when it was put into practice, the society that was formed upon it took humanity from horse and sail, subsistence and scarcity, human muscle and backbreaking labor, to a worldwide culture based on technology, science, and wealth developed from the creative powers of the human mind so far beyond our forebears’ dreams as to be almost magical when seen from the mindset of someone living a only a few centuries ago.

    But today, as the progressive/collectivist era moves toward its denouement, as the blue social model’s bankruptcy comes ever closer and more inevitable, we are faced with an awesome task.

    New definitions and new methods will be required for our society and culture to advance along new paths of freedom and liberty, instead of collapsing into the swampy mire of collectivist repression and stagnation.

    At every opportunity, in every venue, every conversation, every election, every occasion which arises, whether great or small in scope and audience, those who desire to live as free men and women must articulate the strongest, most coherent, most attractive intellectual and emotional case for liberty, the severe restriction of state power, and the absolute necessity of personal responsibility.

    As a great man once said, we may walk in the sunlit uplands, if we can only generate the strength and determination that we should have that reward for ourselves and our posterity.

    Such a future must be won, by any means necessary, and the collectivist vision denied and defeated.

    There is no other task so important, so momentous, and so achievable, to which we could dedicate our lives, and our sacred honor.

  • Tedd

    …the assumption that there is some superior class of people who are either wiser or nobler than the rest of us.

    And that it is those people who will end up making the decisions!

    Randy Barnett expands a bit on this idea in his recent paper: Afterword: The Libertarian Middle Way.

  • Paul Marks

    veryretired – very good (as always).

    My own comment will be less profound.

    Cass Sustein (and his “libertarian paternalist”, oxymoron, friends) declare “we are all Homer Simpson sometimes”.

    But the do not mean it – what they actually mean is quite different.

    “The masses are Homer Simpsons – but we, the enlightened elite, are not”

    They are Saraman for the Lord Of The Rigns.

    And they should be replied to as Theoden replied.

    “If you were ten times as wise, you still would have no right to rule me and mine”.

  • Chip

    And worse, governments and centralized decision-making tend to amplify these mistakes.

    And worse still, whereas an individual often learns from mistakes, politicians never seem to learn.

  • roland

    my cat killed a bird today. She is the sweetest cat, and before today has to my memory not killed anything else. My instinctive reaction was anger at my cat for killing this poor creature, however a few seconds reflection and I realised that my cat was only acting on instinct and had no moral agency anyway; blaming her was stupid.

    then it occurred to me that humans too, as products of evolution, are as much subject to natural drives and instincts as a cat, or a cockroach for that matter. To give any human being power over another, as in the case of government, monarchy or religious office, is to pretend that humans can have some objective and disinterested perception of the world and the people around them. Humans, including politicians, prime ministers, popes and presidents, are as subject to Darwinian imperatives as any other creature. All government and all authority is based on the illusion of the anointed.

  • If I make mistakes, and my neighbors make mistakes, and their neighbors make mistakes — at least the mistakes are somewhat random, and have a tendency to cancel each other out.

    When a government makes mistakes, they’re likely to all be in the same direction, and add up to a horrendous sum.

  • Julie near Chicago

    JV: Very true.

  • JohnB

    Looks like there is an inevitability of disaster here unless perhaps that declaration/mindset to which veryretired seems to me to refer was, in fact, founded on a willing, individual, submission to God. And that it can somehow be brought to bear, again, on the situation.
    But hard to do something relative to something you don’t really think is there. I do realise that.
    So I guess we just muddle along with the cleverest and most ruthless taking the most which, with the utterly efficient and pervasive technology now available, means just about everything?

  • This is OT but I couldn’t find a better place to put it:

    The rise of fascism in Europe, Round II, Grillo:

    http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2013/03/grillo-national-socialist-fascist.html

    Grillo – National Socialist Fascist.

  • Brian Swisher

    I would say to Mr. Sunstein, as would Stephen Maturin, “That is the excuse of every tyrant in history.”

  • Paul Marks

    “individual” submission to God – I think “submission” is not quite the right word John B., but I think I know what you mean.

    If an INDIVIDUAL is loyal to something beyond the state, the “free stuff” of the state no longer holds such an appeal to him or her. This was the argument of Samuel Adams and (although “for some reason” the HBO series misses it) of his cousin John Adams also.

    “Collective Salvation” (the “Liberation Theology” docrtine of collectism) is rejected by such individuals.

    Sadly this can be given an antiCatholic spin – with people (for example) pointing out that it is mostly the minority of Protestant hispanics who reject statism – i.e. “free stuff” (that some 75% of hispanics in the United States want a “bigger government that will provide more services”, according to the Pew Research Centre, is one of the great nightmares of American politics).

    Actually there are many good Catholics and many bad Protestants – but opinion polls (and other such) go for the “average”.

    Also some atheists are loyal to a moral code beyond “we want free stuff” – Randian Objectivists spring to mind.

    But, in the main, the sterotype of the Republican remains true.

    Bible in one hand, pistol in the other and (cynics point out) account book in back pocket. Walking down Mainstreet to do deadly battle with the forces of “social justice” (cattle thieves, Democrat Big City Political Machines, Populist K.K.K. [it is often forgotten that the Republican National Rifle Association was the sworn enemy of the K.K.K.- doing battle with them for decades, somehow this history has been "forgotten"]and so on).

    For “If I am with God – I care not how many are against me”.

    Perhaps philosophy will provide a substitute for all this – but, for most people, I have not seen it.

  • Paul Marks

    If human beings are not different (different in a FUNDEMENTAL way) from “cockroaches” then it is of no moral importance if humans are controlled – or, indeed, exterminated.

    That need NOT mean the existance of the supernatural (contrary to what is often thought materialism does NOT mandate determinism – I only wish it did, as determinism is false [self evidently false in fact] so if materialism did mandate determinism then materialism would be proven false), but it should be kept in mind.

    If the rulers regard the population as nonsentient – calling back “you are nonsentient as well!” is not a good reply.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    There are certain positions that it is unwise to try and debate rationally – specifically because they are not rationally held positions.

    An example would be some particularly cretinous postings I came across today by an advocate of the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”. Now when you listen to this guy it is apparent that he arrived at this view point not out of any application of reason, but because he is a misanthrope and hates everybody. Accordingly his position is not a rational one, but an emotional one.

    Trying to debate with feelings is a pointless endeavour.

    The only reasonable responses to such a position are either pragmatic, or appeals to emotion themselves.

    Pragmatic:
    -Go out and buy a gun in case he is ever in a position to enforce his ideology

    Emotional:
    -Make the accurate (but inflamatory) observation that “When you say things like that, it makes you sound like a sociopath.”
    -Or, try the “Sure why don’t you go extinct – loads more room for me and my 9 kids” approach. Mostly to enjoy watching steam come out their ears.

    However, nothing you say is really likely to change the minds of such people.

  • Lee Moore

    These are separate questions :

    1. Whether / when it is morally justifiable for X to make a decision on behalf of Y, overtrumping Y’s own decision
    2. Whether / when a decision can reasonably be said to be better than another (ie different people’s judgements about the value of outcomes, different judgements about what risks are worth taking, and different judgements made by the same person at different times)
    3. Whether / when, ignoring the moral question (No.1) and in cases where X and Y agree, in hindsight, about which was the better decision, X may sometimes make a better decision on behalf of Y than Y makes himself
    4. Whether / when there is a way of determining, in advance, the circumstances in which 3 is likely to occur

    Some people seem to be on the verge of arguing that 3 is almost impossible and 4 definitely so. This seems to me to be very unlikely. Some people are undoubtedly stupider than others, some (like me) are very bad at deferring gratification, some people with expertise in area A imagine that that expertise can easily be translated to area B while others are more humble. And so on. Of course we can doubt that the agents of the state are wiser than the average Joe, and we can doubt that they hold Y’s interests in as high regard as Y does. But mostly we think that parents are capable, in some cases, of taking better decisions than their children on matters concerning their children’s care and development. Ditto, sometimes, for the mentally ill and their carers. Is it really so much of stretch to believe that some adults would consistently make better decisions on behalf of other adults than those others would themselves ? After all, do libertarians really struggle with the idea that some people are successful in life because they have made better decisions about their own lives than have less successful people ?

    The libertarian answer to the moral question will not convince Sunstein, or the vast majority of voters who do not really care much about (other people’s) liberty. Harping on about the evils done by evil people who have taken control of governments at various times, eg Nazis, won’t work either. Only a small proportion of the population believes that Obama, or Cameron or Gordon Brown or the EU intend to do unpleasant things. What is needed is a set of tats for each statist tit.

    Sunstein says the government should control how big a sugary soft drink should be…..find an example of an evil that has come from the government “healthy eating” laws. If you can’t, the populace will simply conclude that government rules on healthy eating are OK.

  • JohnB

    Yes, I don’t want to pull this yet further into difficult territory, but seeing as we are here:

    I had thought the line ‘in humble submission to almighty God’ was in the US constitution, but on looking it up I see it is the previous, earlier but recent, South African constitution.
    The words were subsequently replaced with ‘we the people’.
    Could this be identified as where things start to go wrong, or at least part of that process?

    Does one need some moral reference point that is absolute?
    One could say that if we have individual freedom and the anarchic pulling of myriad conflicting interests, then that will preserve freedom.
    And substantially I would agree with that.

    But what happens when the capability to control becomes more or less unlimited, such as we have now with the capacity to obtain and process information, an ability that is increasing every moment?

  • Paul Marks

    JohnB. – reading the Constitution of Liechtenstein (or the start of many State Constitutions in the United States – crises! call the ACLU! they mention the “G. word”) may please you.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist: “There are certain positions that it is unwise to try and debate rationally – specifically because they are not rationally held positions. … nothing you say is really likely to change the minds of such people.”

    But have the debate anyway. Those who overhear it might then be prevented from joining the wrong cause.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    But have the debate anyway. Those who overhear it might then be prevented from joining the wrong cause.

    I beg to differ Rob.

    Such debates always always follow the same format:

    Person A: I think that people shouldn’t X
    Person B: You’re wrong to think that because of Y – look.
    Person A: Well, I would feel unhappy with a world where people could just X
    Person B: But as I’ve already explained, this is an irrational viewpoint.
    Person A: Yeah but, what about completely irrelevant point F???!!
    {Debate descends into argument at this point}

    You can’t debate with people who don’t understand the notion of propositions following logically from one another. All they’ll perceive is that you’re attacking them and they wont understand why. All the passers by will hear is you apparently brow-beating an intellectual midget. That wont win any supporters.

  • Ernie G

    @Paul Marks

    “The masses are Homer Simpsons – but we, the enlightened elite, are not”

    They are Saraman for the Lord Of The Rigns.

    I think that they are more like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Rob Fisher: Couldn’t agree more. Well said. There may well be a C present as well as A and B, not taking part in the conversation but listening, or half-listening, and struck by the odd point…which 20 years or 2 days hence he may find persuasive. And a conversation in the street or Starbucks is broadcast a short way into the either where it is picked up and processed similarly by total strangers.

    In my case, unfortunately, the discussions I pick up in the Starbuckian* ether tend to have the volume set on “Loud” only when the Dim is explaining how Govt Program X must be supported even though it doesn’t go far enough, for instance in giving Power and Voice to unions.

  • Julie near Chicago

    JV–Obviously a person’s manner of presentation can put off the bystander. But (a) many persons can either train themselves to improve in their manner or else get such training from a professional coach or coaching club–like Toastmasters, I think, if it still exits; and (b) the Wrong Guy is just as likely as the Right Guy to come over as a jerk.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Ernie G – March 4, 2013 at 6:10 pm.:I think that they are more like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss.

    Oh no. The New Mandarin Class are not stupid and ineffective. Many of them are extremely smart, and they are often right on questions about which average people are ignorant or even wrong.

    For instance, the New Class are nearly all convinced free traders (in the classical sense). The creation of the EU (and its predecessor the Common Market) as a free-trade zone, and NAFTA, and the opening of trade with the “Asian Tigers”, has been a New Class project from the beginning. It’s been carried through against populist objections from the labor-union left and the nationalist right, and I think it’s fair to say it’s been a success.

    That’s what makes them so dangerous.

    Their real abilities, their successes, and the natural tendencies of human societies to aggregate power have made them confident and unrestrained. As Charles Murray noted many years ago, they have self-segregated: culturally, academically, socially (they marry each other) – and became a monoculture.

    They think they know it all, and that they don’t need to answer to anyone else. They don’t explicitly reject democracy, as the fascists did. But they control the mass media, and so they can “manufacture consent”.

    If they all embrace a false idea (quite easy for a monoculture), they are quite capable of taking civilization over a cliff, since they answer to no one.

    Another related problem is that the New Class has defined itself as much by cultural and social cues as by actual ability, which allows incompetents to rise to power; and as certified New Class members, they are beyond control.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    While what you say could indeed happen Julie, it has not been my experience that it ever does.

    Nothing good has ever come from trying to have a civilised debate with people who lack the equipment for such a task. The best approach I have found is to steer well clear.

    As usual though, YMMV.

  • [...] in among the comments on this SQOTD is a disagreement between Jaded Voluntaryist and Rob [...]

  • J.V. (3/3/13) We are currently going through that very type of debate process here in Colorado over gun laws, and the emotionalists (emos?) seem to be winning. If it’s any consolation, the gunnies already have guns and understand that the antis are insensitive to ridicule as long as the newspapers don’t print it.

    We are also discovering that if you have enough money, you don’t have to listen to anybody, you just buy the rules you want.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I sincerely hope that not too many people get killed.