Of all the famous quotes that I have read, one in particular stands out to me. It states a fundamental belief of mine with more clarity and precision than anything I could ever hope hope to write:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”
— C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 1948
This type of tyranny is pervasive in our society. It can be seen in many forms, but always the end result, or the intended end result, is the same. I would like to offer some recent examples here. Some are more trivial than others, but they all have the same underlying theme of the omnipotent moral busybody seeking to usurp the rights of others to make their own choices in life.
New York’s mayor Bloomberg strove last year to place a 16-ounce size limit on high-calorie soft drinks. The cap would have applied to restaurants, stadiums and many other places. His justification was as follows:
“Obesity is the only major public health issue we face that is getting worse, and sugary drinks are a major driver of the crisis. The related epidemics of obesity and diabetes are killing at least 5,000 New Yorkers a year and striking hardest in black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods.” — Bloomberg
That the perceived injustice is disproportionately affecting the poor and minority groups is a typical component of such pleas, as is the perceived price paid by society if such pleas go unheeded. But consider this: Mayor Bloomberg has been exposed to the same world full of these evil sugary drinks as everyone else in New York. He has seen advertisements for them and seen them on menus and in movie theatres. And yet, somehow, having been exposed to these sugary drinks, he has avoided them. He avoids them because he has taken in all the information at his disposal and came to the conclusion that such drinks are bad for you. So what is his real argument in that quote up there? Is he not really saying that others, less enlightened than himself, and in particular those “in black and Latino communities and low-income neighborhoods,” are incapable of making their own decisions? That seems to me to be exactly what he’s saying.
More recently and more ominious, a couple of individuals have called for the incarceration what they call “climate-change deniers.”
“Man-made climate change happens. Man-made climate change kills a lot of people. It’s going to kill a lot more. We have laws on the books to punish anyone whose lies contribute to people’s deaths. It’s time to punish the climate-change liars.
This is an argument that’s just being discussed seriously in some circles. It was laid out earlier this month, with all the appropriate caveats, by Lawrence Torcello, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.” — Adam Weinstein, Gawker.
That “with all the appropriate caveats” seems especially chilling to me. As with the Bloomberg case, Weinstein has been exposed to all the corrupting influences that he believes plague society. He has listened to the arguments from what he calls “climate-change liars” and still he is unconvinced of their position. He isn’t worried about his own intellectual capacity to separate the good from the bad and find the truth in the arguments. Rather, he is worried about your capacity to find the truth. For your own good, he wants to control what information you are exposed to, just in case you should come to a conclusion that differs from his own, and perhaps vote for politicians or endorse policies not to his liking.
Emmanual Goldstein (i.e. the Bogeyman) is gonna get ya!
In George Orwell’s book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian regime periodically brought out images or rumors of Emmanual Goldstein to get the population worked up in anger at a common enemy. Emmanual Goldstein was the standard traitor and enemy of the state, and while it is possible that he existed early on in that fictional world, he eventually came to exist as an idea only – a ghost that could be conjured at will by the government to provide the population with a target at which they could focus their anger.
Today, there are many Goldsteins. Goldstein is “big government” itself. Goldstein is “big banks” and “big pharma.” Goldstein is the Koch brothers, The Bilderberg Group, The Illuminati, Monsanto, Exxon-Mobil, and The World Trade Organization. Some of these may not exist, or may not exist in the form that their Goldstein images suggest. But that doesn’t matter, as long at the idea of Goldstein exists and it can be maintained that Goldstein is the enemy of the people, his existence is irrelevant.
At the Huffington Post, a frequently used Goldstein, especially in these years following The Great Recession, is “big banks.” That is the case in this article that I read the other day. It is a story of how “big banks” steal from the poor by charging ATM fees. The specific example in the article is a teenage mother with a CalWORKS card (CalWORKS is a California welfare program) who is being charged exhorbitant fees by banks when she uses her CalWORKS card at ATM machines. Those big banks sound so mean!
The reader is invited to become enraged at the injustices of Goldstein. But when one digs a little deeper, the story changes. As it turns out, California has close to 2500 ATM machines throughout the state at which one may withdraw money using a CalWORKS card without fees. In addition, those in the CalWORKS program have the option of having their welfare funds directly deposited into a bank account, thereby bypassing the use of the card entirely. Finally, use of the cards in stores to purchase items such as groceries does not entail a fee, and a person using the card in a store may also get cash back without a fee, along with their purchase.
So the true story is this: The woman in the Huffington Post article has three different methods at her disposal to withdraw funds using her CalWORKS card without paying a fee. The three options may not be equally convenient. For example, it’s possible that she doesn’t live near any of the state’s 2500 fee-free ATM machines. Still, she has the other two options by which she may avoid the fees: (1) a direct deposit of funds into her bank account, which the article said she had, and (2) withdrawing funds along with her purchases in stores.
All of us have multiple options that we may freely chose from in making purchases. Why should that be any different for this person? The fact is, she is freely choosing to pay fees to withdraw funds using her CalWORKS card. She has plenty of options to not pay such fees, but apparently it is her choice to pay the fee. Should she not have the right to make this choice?
The tyranny in this example may be subtle and easily overlooked, but think about it. We are constantly barraged with various schemes and offers designed to take money from our wallets. Companies pop up in tax season that offer to give us our tax refunds earlier than we could otherwise get them from the government … for an exorbitant fee that most of us refuse to pay. The related “payday loans” are also ridiculously expensive. I frequently get unsolicited “checks” in the mail that are, in reality, obscenely high interest rate loans. The ethics and legality of some of these things may be questionable, but what if I want to forfeit a good chunk of my tax refund to get the funds earlier than I would otherwise? What if I want to pay an unnecessary fee for better or faster service or for convenience. I should be free to make such choices, correct? So why should the woman on welfare in that Huffington Post article not also be free to choose? Is the underlying assumption in that article that those on welfare are inherently stupid and in need of protection? If I suddenly became destitute tomorrow and found myself on welfare, would I also find myself suddenly so stupid that I could no longer make the choices that I’m free to make today?
Freedom means being free to make potentially bad decisions. It means freedom to make choices that others disapprove of. Bloomberg offers me the freedom to choose, as long as my decision is not to consume sugary drinks. The writer at Gawker thinks I should be free to come the conclusions he has come to concerning global warming, but that any sources of information that might steer me in another direction should be thrown in jail to protect my decision-making process. The writer at Huffington Post thinks I should be free to pay fees for convenience of service, unless I am poor in which case I would be too stupid to make such decisions on my own.
All of these delusional do-gooders think they are heroes fighting for a noble cause. Bloomberg is saving you from your own gluttony. Adam Weinstein at Gawker is saving the world from annihilation. Kevin Short at Huffington Post is fighting to protect the poor from the evils of greedy capitalists. But you have to watch such people carefully because what they offer you as “free” is always far more costly than their sales pitches suggest.
Bloomberg offers you healthy living. If you turn your freedom to choose over to him, he’ll make sure you don’t suffer from obesity and that society will assist you should you get diabetes. Adam Weinstein offers you a green Utopia where unicorns frolic. But his Utopia may cost you your freedom, should you step out of line and question the wisdom of those who run things. Kevin Short of the Huffington Post wants to make sure as many people as possible receive as much as possible in the form of government assistance (e.g. foodstamps). But if he is the guy behind you at the checkout stand when you are using that government assistance, he will probably be the first to complain loudly that you are not making purchases the he approves of. No lobster for you, wretch!
There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to eat healthy. And there is really no debate as to whether or not governement assistance should be available … the only real Left-Right arguments there are how much and to how many. But healthy eating and welfare should not be offered in exchange for one’s right to make the very same choices in life that mayor Bloomberg and Kevin Short enjoy making.
What these people offer to sell you is just not worth the price. They offer healthy living in a distraction-free Utopian Wonderland where unicorns frolic and everyone is cared for. But the cost is your very identity as an individual, sentient, intelligent being. The cost is free will.