Statism and Moral Responsibility

Exclusive to STR

June 14, 2007

One of the most horrendous aspects of the government is the degree to which it dilutes, undercuts and destroys moral responsibility within society. Old women who would never rob their grandchildren at gunpoint feel perfectly entitled to cash their Social Security check. Gentle mothers who would pale at the thought of spanking their children will march self righteously for "free" daycare. Corporations who would never imagine assaulting their customers assiduously lobby for legal benefits--or to escape regulations.

Sadly, the worst effects of the state are not always domestic. Overseas Imperialism creates generations of guilt-ridden sociopaths who, having murdered whatever foreigners their commanders pointed at, bring that moral horror home and spread it through their friends, family and children. Having been lured to the military with promises of honor and noble self-defense, they find themselves in positions that are hard to morally distinguish from your average hit-man, who asks no questions when pulling the trigger.

The gaping wound at the heart of our culture ' Why have we murdered? ' creates a violent antipathy to basic truths that only leads to further lies. In a recent episode of "60 Minutes," a father was asked why he and his son enlisted to go to Iraq . "Because of 9/11," he replied. The reporter ' obviously uncomfortable ' could only ask: "So you make that connection?" The obvious response ' "Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11" ' is hard, because when people have killed and died for a cause, questioning the moral validity of that cause becomes more and more difficult. The alternative to the fantasy of "patriotic defender" ' the reality of "gullible murderer" ' becomes increasingly volatile as more and more blood soaks through the verbal defenses of society. When people kill for a lie, they also murder the truth.

The connections required to link the tangible benefits of receiving state monies to the abstract violence that makes it possible are lengthy and complex. Expecting the average man to understand the violence at the root of the pleasant kindergarten he drops his child off at is like expecting the average Christian to understand the translation difficulties between Aramaic, Greek and the King James Bible. In moral philosophy, just as in nutrition and medicine, we need experts to make the causal connections for us. Asking society to learn the truth about statism from its disastrous effects is like asking people to learn about the dangers of smoking by getting lung cancer. Experts need to isolate the variables and make the causal connections clear.

In the absence of expertise, human nature works against the truth. Achieving and maintaining good health requires knowledge ' only eating whatever tastes good and exercising when you feel like it inevitably results in disaster. We respond positively to sugars and fats, which were rare in the infancy of our species, and prefer inactivity to activity, as an evolutionary means of preserving energy. Short-term gratifications ' when pursued exclusively ' lead to disaster. We cannot be expected to know this in advance, which is the only time it will do us any good. Thus we need experts to show us negative consequences before we experience them.

It is exactly the same with the state. The pursuit of short-term gratification inevitably leads to disaster. As experts in philosophy, politics and economics, we must fight against the tendency of people to pursue short-term interests by pointing out the long-term consequences of their actions. In many ways, ethical instruction is as simple as: "eat candy, get cavities."

This means that we must show people that we as philosophers practice what we preach ' that we are willing to abjure short-term comfort for the sake of long-term gains. As moralists, we must display the very behavior we wish to inculcate. This means repeatedly pointing out uncomfortable truths to people, despite the inevitable and negative consequences. Some such difficult truths are:

  • ' Going to Iraq to shoot Iraqis is murder, since it is not violence for the sake of immediate self-defense.
  • ' US foreign aggression is responsible for the hatred that foreigners bear towards the US .
  • ' Muslims do not "hate America for its freedom." Americans were far freer in the 19th Century, and suffered no Muslim attacks. Switzerland is also free ' and far closer ' yet suffers no Muslim attacks, because the Swiss keep their guns inside their own borders.
  • ' The US government is by far the world's largest arms seller. The idea that your government exists to protect you from foreign enemies, while assiduously arming foreigners, is too ridiculous to be believable.
  • ' Like the institution of slavery, the state is an agency of violence, evil to the core. It cannot be reformed, but must be abolished.
  • ' Almost everything you were told about society in public schools is propaganda, directly detrimental to your own self-interest.
  • ' Policemen are not primarily there to protect you, but to threaten you if you do not pay your taxes.
  • ' Our existing system is utterly unsustainable, and will collapse within 10 to 15 years at the outside.

These are all bitter pills for most people to swallow, of course ' but there is an even worse one, which overarches all of these issues, which is:

' There is nothing accidental about the fact that you were ' and are ' told all these lies.

It is very hard for the average citizen to realize that, in his relationship with his government, he is little more than a cash cow for taxation, a breeding animal for future taxpayers, and cannon fodder for war. People point to minor successes in the fight against the government, such as specific relaxations of regulations, slight tax cuts and so on ' but that is all pure nonsense! A farmer who finds that his cows are dying because they don't have enough room to move will certainly increase the size of their cage ' but that is so he can continue to exploit them, not because he dreams of setting them free! The low birthrate of many Western countries'the inevitable result of the fact that mammals do not breed well in captivity ' is currently prompting the return of some money to taxpayers in the form of breeding incentives, but that is scarcely a victory against the government!

Naturally, it is very hard to get the average citizen to understand the danger he faces at the hands of his government. Doctors face the same issue when trying to get their patients to drop unhealthy habits. Too many people only listen to their doctors after they have had a heart attack ' and only because their doctor predicted that heart attack. This is an essential aspect of what we are up to as libertarians. We must openly and repeatedly tell people that the system will self-destruct, that it is evil and rotten to the core, that the army and police are not noble, that currency is an illusion, debt is real and the countdown is almost at zero. There is no possibility that we can prevent the coming crash ' it's far too late for that ' but because we can accurately predict it, we are more likely to have credibility after the fact.

This is the paradox of the current system. The government ' and the citizens they rule ' are nothing but individuals, but individual ethics don't really matter when the cultural belief systems as a whole are corrupt and false. Morality is a form of science, and requires knowledge, logic and empirical testing to validate. Currently, people have no idea what is good for them, any more than a caveman knew about the heliocentric solar system. In the absence of rational philosophy, the hedonism of the moment is the only possible "guide." If you know nothing of cavities, weight gain and diabetes, what is to stop you from eating candy? If you know nothing of the elemental evils of the state, what is to stop you from grabbing whatever you can whenever you can? And really, who can blame you for trying? If you don't pick up that hundred dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, it's not going to stay there forever.

This is where I find sympathy for my fellow citizens. I happen to love philosophy ' particularly ethics ' but that is my particular fetish. I cannot expect everyone else to be as fascinated by the subject'and that is entirely as it should be! I study philosophy, you study medicine. You cannot philosophize, I cannot prescribe ' neither of us can be condemned for our respective lack of knowledge, since every choice involves an infinity of opportunity costs.

But I do expect you, as my surgeon, to tell me the truth, no matter how unpleasant it might be for me.

And we, as philosophers, must tell the truth to our world, no matter how unpleasant it is for others. A doctor who lies, who covers the truth to provide false comfort'for his own comfort really'is worse than no doctor at all.

If you pick up a scalpel, you must be prepared to cut.

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Stefan Molyneux's picture
Columns on STR: 17

Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards.  He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.