Compassion vs. Coercion: Good vs. Evil

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How odd that government--an institution run entirely on the basis of coercion (which is to say, on the basis of violence, both threatened and real)--presents itself, whenever possible, as a tool of compassion.

This mismatch between government's actual methods and its supposed goals reveals two things: first, that much of what governments do is not what people want (thus the need for coercion) and, second, that what people DO want is a more emotionally healthy and compassionate, and thus less coercive, world.

It should be obvious, but clearly is not for most people, that using force and violence to bring about a world of love and compassion is counterproductive and doomed to fail.

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A single (if complex) misunderstanding allows the power elite to present coercive government programs as "compassionate." This misunderstanding is powerful because it has genetic foundations from the distant past, when mankind lived in small groups -- very small by today's standards. Our cousins the bonobos, chimpanzees, and other primates still live as we once did, in small bands where each individual knows and has connections with every other. Only humans create massive nations with millions of anonymous citizens, "governed" from afar by power-hungry strangers who enforce their artificial laws via men with guns.

In a small group--a family, a hunter-gatherer band, or even a small village--the social dynamics of our primate ancestors continue to serve us well. Those dynamics work extremely well, actually, as long as group members have a reasonable level of emotional health. Even when levels of emotional health are too low for good results, keeping group size small at least limits the negative results to a relatively few victims.

But presidents and kings are not fathers or village elders, and the actual dynamics of such artificial leadership positions are unhealthy and harmful in the extreme. What works well among small groups of people who grew up with one another does not work in our modern mega-states, or even in a large town. This makes emotional health--the foundation of compassion for others--even more critical in large, modern societies. Without widespread emotional health, the coercion wielded by a government can rapidly become a nightmare. This has happened repeatedly in history, and continues to happen in the present day.

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Allow me to define one of the terms in my title: by "evil," I do not mean anything supernatural. Instead, I see evil as the end result of infants and newborns (and even 'preborns') being made repressed, unfeeling, and angry by a childhood, and then a lifetime, of pain. In short, evil is people hurt so badly that they, in turn, hurt others needlessly.

Coercion is a major tool in that process. Coercion hurts people, and when you hurt enough people badly enough, you plant the seeds of callous and even purposefully hurtful behavior in them. Creating entire societies run, at their core, by "leaders" who enforce their will coercively cannot help but create massive, widespread emotional damage.

Pretending that the coercion is "god's will" does not help. Pretending that the emperor IS a god does not help. Pretending that the coercion is being used for the "good of the proletariat" does not help. Pretending that because some minority (or even an actual majority) of the population voted for a politician and thus that whatever the politician does is "the will of the people" does not help either, any more than gang-rape is positive because the rapists outnumber the victim.

Using coercion is evil, except in self-defense, when our ancient instincts prompt us to fight back, protecting ourselves and our loved ones. The essentially evil nature of initiated coercion is why coercion is a legal crime in most jurisdictions. Indeed, use of coercion* is the fundamental wrong behind murder, robbery, and all other real crime. Coercion is repugnant to human beings by definition. Less coercion is always a better goal than more coercion.

Americans have long acknowledged that truth with the saying "That government is best which governs least." Henry David Thoreau took the sentiment to its logical (and compassionate) conclusion in Civil Disobedience: "That government is best which governs not at all."

What decent person would argue with that? Using force and violence against our neighbors is no way to love them.

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* Or substitutes for coercion such as fraud.

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 104

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity. He maintains paradise-paradigm.net. This is one in a series of columns on the human condition.