The Mental Inertia of Statist Quo Bias

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Column by Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski.

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Possibly the most troubling aspect of any form of statism is not that individuals are treated instrumentally and their property rights are regularly violated, but that the vast majority of both the victims and the perpetrators of these happenings consider them as "normal" and "uncontroversial," as if propelled by some form of anthropological necessity. They do not normally think that siding with such a system requires asking oneself very seriously some fundamental economic (do I believe that institutionalized, regularized violence and coercion can generate or safeguard prosperity?) and moral questions (do I condone institutionalized, regularized violence and coercion, especially if perpetrated by myself?), nor do they normally conceive that such a system can be fundamentally contested on the basis of answering such questions in the negative.

In other words, the problem is not that the vast majority of statists answer certain fundamental questions in the way that, for various reasons, might be thought of as misguided or wrong. The problem is that they grow into a worldview that removes such questions from the ambit of questions worth asking or even thinking in the first place. To put it differently, the intellectual isolation of a libertarian consists not in the fact that he or she is in the minority, but in the fact that, at least as of now, the majority does not even think of the relevant issues in terms of majority and minority positions. This does not make the task of the libertarian hopeless, but it certainly makes it all the more formidable.

The above difficulty is compounded by the fact that uncritical acceptance of the statist quo is carefully cultivated and enhanced by relentless institutional indoctrination. The goal of all propaganda is to shut down the minds of its victims. In this respect, statist propaganda has been an almost unbelievable success. It would be scarcely an exaggeration to suggest that 99% of the world population, including those who call themselves "political philosophers" or "social theorists," when confronted with a case for voluntarism, would respond with an endless stream of pro-statist-quo what-ifs, what-woulds, and who-woulds, epitomized by the immortal "without government, who would build the roads" slogan.

Notice that a voluntarist or a libertarian never responds with his or her own list of such hypotheticals. To ask "what if the government decides to set up a gulag and throw me there," "what would happen if the government decided to kill or maim thousands of civilians in some remote part of the world," or "who would protect me if the government decided to issue a warrantless order to assassinate me" would be ridiculous because these are not hypotheticals at all--this is the reality of statism.

In other words, in the context of analyzing the merits and demerits of statism, the Nirvana fallacy is clearly a fallacy, but--for lack of a better term--there is no "dystopia fallacy" corresponding to it. Instead, there are dystopian facts--it would be difficult to think of a worst-case scenario that the state did not already make all too real.

In sum, this is how the situation looks like--while an honest statist would have to acknowledge that the system he supports can be likened to constant teetering on the brink of hell and occasionally falling over it, he will typically cling frantically to the belief that it is the best and only way to organize social affairs and that no logically and economically informed non-coercive alternative should replace it unless its implementation can immediately catapult us straight to heaven.

This is the power of the large-scale, institutional Stockholm Syndrome. And it is because of this power that large-scale preference changes in the direction of non-aggression, non-violence, voluntaryism, and free enterprise are so comparatively rare. The only effective tool of countering its influence is to lay bare its ugly nature as often and as clearly as possible, as well as to promote the great economic and moral benefits of liberating oneself from its influence. Fortunately, today, in the age of the Internet, this task is easier than ever before, so let us try to accomplish it as soon as humanly possible.

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Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Jakub Bozydar Wisniewski is a philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge, a three-time summer fellow at the Mises Institute, and a three-time fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, currently working on a PhD in Austrian Economics in London. He has published in, among others, Independent Review, Libertarian Papers, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and Reason Papers. Visit his blog at jakubw.com

Comments

ReverendDraco's picture

Asking, "Without government, who'll build the roads?" is like asking, "Without slavery, who'll pick the cotton?"

Same question gets the same answer: The Market.

Since the abolition of chattel slavery (because wage and tax slavery still exist), "The Market" has given us the multirow cotton harvesting machine - the latest models bale the cotton, too.
Guess we have to change the song. . .

"Gonna sit down, crank the A/C, pick 200 bales of cotton
Gonna sit down, crank the A/C, pick 200 bales a day. . ."

(doesn't roll off the tongue like the original. . . but it's a work in progress =P)

Individual's picture

"Notice that a voluntarist or a libertarian never responds with his or her own list of such hypotheticals. To ask "what if the government decides to set up a gulag and throw me there," "what would happen if the government decided to kill or maim thousands of civilians in some remote part of the world," or "who would protect me if the government decided to issue a warrantless order to assassinate me" would be ridiculous because these are not hypotheticals at all--this is the reality of statism."

Maybe it is time to ask statists more hypotheticals. When these hypotheticals become reality, perhaps a polite "we told you so" may move just a few of them to start examining their positions. We can ask them questions such as:

Secondary enforcement of seatbelt laws? What will you say in a few years time when TV and radio is littered with ominous "click it or ticket" ads? (Oops...already happened.)

When owning your own business becomes not merely expensive and time-consuming due to licensing and regulation, but flat-out illegal (under the guise of safety or consumer protection or some such BS), and the only "legal" options for earning an income to support oneself and family will be a handful of government-backed "private" mega-corporations which are under no obligation to hire anyone so unemployment is at least 50%, will you continue to insist that this is the best arrangement of human affairs?

When the prison population quadruples once again by 2020 or 2025, this time ensnaring some of your friends and relatives into a nightmare, all for causing no one any harm, will you blame overcriminalization, or will you viciously taunt your own children with the tired "if you can't do the time..." line? (Oops...already happening. Look inside any courtroom, and witness looks of disappointment directed not at the government kidnappers, but family members about to have their lives turned upside down.)

When simple furniture and household appliance purchases will require an expensive license and hours of mandatory "safety" instruction, will you vigorously object, or merely "suck it up" with a smile and pretend your life has not been diminished needlessly in some way?

Will you continue to defend the state if US forces murder two million Brazilian peasants, adopt a national dress code, pass a constitutional amendment banning red meat, or legislate leg amputations for jaywalking? (Admittedly a stretch...at least for now...)

Each scenario has to be geared to each particular conversation. Conversations with statists usually go nowhere because we have no answers that, as you accurately put, "will catapult us straight to heaven." Maybe we can gain some ground using strategically-asked hypotheticals, or maybe I'm way off, but I'm desperately grasping at any tactic I can short of confrontation (which it usually ends up being anyway...)

Jim Davies's picture

Elegant, Jakub, thank you.
 
"The goal of all propaganda is to shut down the minds of its victims" - yes! Government schools have indeed been a stunning success.
 

Glock27's picture

Words are one thing, action is another. Nuff said.

Paul's picture

I'm in complete agreement, but will add that when picking at worldviews, you have to be gentle and indirect (except perhaps in venues like college). Frontal attacks mean you will be ignored, because the automatics defenses come up. Just a few gentle questions, always questions - with which to draw the person out. And to have your questions even considered at all, you want to be at least somewhat identified as part of the person's "in" group. For example, it was homeschoolers for me, for several years.

I wrote an article a while back, that bears on this subject.
http://strike-the-root.com/problem-with-people-are-idiots-meme