THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 397, December 10, 2006
"What will you do when your government assumes unlimited power?"
How Do You Feel?
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
This weekend, a friendly argument offered a revelation of sorts. It also explained a whole lot about why people vote as they do, and why politicians lead as they do.
There's a new party game out in time for the holidays called "Would You Rather." It's really less a competition than it is a device for getting interesting conversations going. The premise is a fairly simple one. Players are asked a series of questions beginning with the words, "Would you rather. . . ?" Players then discuss their answers as they try to reach a consensus. It's the utter ridiculousness of many questions that are supposed to make the game fun to boot (for the record, it's not, but we didn't know that when we first took out the box).
There are some very silly questions in the box. But one of the first we encountered wasn't silly at all: "Would you rather be able to insert true facts into people's heads, or manipulate their emotions?" As far as I'm concerned, the answer is easy. I'd rather give people the facts. That's what I try to do virtually every day of the week because I continue to believe that people who really know the facts will eventually make the right decision. I was surprised not only to find myself in the minority, but a minority of one.
I argued with the other players, saying that people often make decisions based purely on emotions that turn out to be entirely wrong (with several of us at the table having failed marriages behind us, I didn't believe further explanations were really required). But that, as it turned out, was the primary argument behind everybody else who would prefer the power to manipulate emotions. Right or wrong, they said, since most people made decisions emotionally, the manipulation of those emotions would be the more effective ability to have.
After being outvoted 5 to 1, I realized that though my motives were the right ones, the reality was that the majority was making sense in the context of the question. If you really want to influence people, get their emotions involved. Facts be damned, they know how they feel, and that's how they'll be voting. Further, since their feelings are their own, the hell with everybody else while they're at it!
All of this made even more sense after seeing the movie Bobby (click here to see my review). The movie tells the story of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night he'd won the California Democratic primary. But before that fateful day, Kennedy was campaigning with great effect by appealing to the emotions of the voters.
Kennedy went to West Virginia where unemployment was rampant, and he said he believed the federal government should be offering money to the unemployed for living expenses and for re-training. Kennedy appeared in Los Angeles where the black and Hispanic communities welcomed his message of unity with open arms. The facts had nothing to do with it. It was Kennedy's earnest and charismatic assurances that mattered.
Senator Kennedy's popularity with the "common man" and minorities was ironic to say the least. RFK was a white man of great privilege who was born into wealth, a fortune founded in part on skirting the law (Joe Kennedy was long suspected of running booze during prohibition) and off the misfortunes of others (the elder Kennedy's manipulation of the stock market was well known, and plenty of the family money came directly from the devastating losses of others). His father was vilifiedand rightfully sofor siding with the Nazis during World War II.
Robert was the third of the Kennedy boys to attend Harvard which was viewed almost as a birthright. (In fact, JFK was nearly expelled during his tenure at Harvard, but quick action by his father forestalled that from happening; Teddy was expelled, but managed to get back in and later graduate. In each instance, men of lesser influence would probably have been out for good.) He graduated law school, but never practiced. Instead, he assisted his older brother in his political career, and eventually became the Attorney General far more out of nepotism than any pretense of real qualification.
Somehow, though, the "common man" felt some sort of camaraderie with Senator Robert F. Kennedy. How could that be? Because Kennedy was able to say with a straight face that he could relate, that he understood. Even more so, it was because Kennedy promised that he would work to alleviate racial tensions, and that he'd provide money to those that needed it whether it be cash for day-to-day requirements, education, health care, or job trainingnever mentioning, of course, that the money would come from the hard-earned taxes of others. His charisma was such that people believed that he genuinely empathized despite the virtual impossibility that he did or could; and his earnestness was such that voters thought he'd come through on his promises to them.
Though there are fewif anypoliticians alive today who can match the magnetism of Jack or Bobby Kennedy, the promises haven't changed much. Neither have the people. Just a few weeks ago, politicians who appealed to voters on a very personal level were elected. These politicians, almost all of them Democrats, focused on entitlements ranging from amnesty for illegal immigrants and affirmative action programs (which tend to appeal to many minorities) to nationalized health care (those who can't afford health insurance or who have or fear catastrophic medical bills are on board for that one). Many swore they'd increase the funds available for Medicare and promised to protect and raise Social Security benefits, so those on fixed incomes rallied behind them. They said they'd get us out of Iraq (nobody really said how, but then, nobody really pressed them on that), so people with young sons, brothers, and husbands perked up.
These things all sound nice. Nobody wants children to starve or old people to have to choose between groceries and needed medications. Americans, despite their carelessness with their freedoms, still tend to think that others ought to have themas long as they don't have to actually physically help them win them. Aside from those with misplaced feelings of guilt or responsibility, those most in favor of food, medicine, education, money, and citizenship for all tend to be those most in need of them. But whether the motives are selfish or selfless is immaterial. The bottom line is that such programs are nothing more or less than the redistribution of wealth. In even plainer terms, such programs are outright theft.
If you're the beneficiary of such theft, if you can avoid considering the fact that somebody else has lost so that you could gain, your feelings are likely positive. You appreciate the food, money, goods, or favors you're directly or indirectly getting. As long as you don't think about those whose tax burdens have increased almost beyond bearing; those who've lost jobs so you can be overpaid for your skill level or because you're the "right" race or gender; or those whose property rights are mitigated or negated so you can buy a condo, force everyone to follow your views on smoking, or see more taxes paid into your city coffers, you'll probably continue to feel pretty good about things.
Yes, it's a fact that some people are hungry and out of jobs. It's a fact that health insurance is expensive, prescription drugs often costly, and medical care even more so. And "fixing" these things makes those who "fix" them feel good right along with those who were suffering in the first place. Here's another fact: I agree that these things should be "fixed." What I don't agree is that fixing them should involve emotions over and above facts.
If I break into your house and steal your television and jewelry and sell them, does it matter to you whether I spend the money buying drugs or giving the funds to a family in need? Probably not. Chances are good you're focused on the fact that your jewelry and your TV are gone. What if you were the family in need to whom I gave the money? Do you care where I got that money? Again, probably not. And that's where my original argument for facts over emotion comes in.
Any kind of democracy is based on the idea first and foremost of responsibility. It supposeserroneously, as it turns outthat voters will cast their ballots based on the facts of the matter and in favor of freedom. Instead, they've come to typically do what's easiest and what feels good.
Many apparently don't stop to consider that by giving even the most basic of responsibilities to the government in exchange for largesse from the treasury, we're also handing over the powers it uses to take everything else away from us to redistribute as it sees fit. You may benefit now and again, but you'll also lose on a regular basis. Worse, failing to fight against actions by government that takes from some to give to others means it will just keep right on doing so until there are no longer any winners anywhere.
Despite the obvious threat, emotions rule too many of us any more. Time magazine says we worry a lot, but that we worry about the wrong things apparently because we're more afraid of the terrifyingly unlikely than the mundanely probable. Comedian Michael Richards said some stupid and racist things at a comedy club, and suddenly it's headline news and spokesmen for the African-American community are demanding wholesale apologies and talking about a time for "healing." Richards, meanwhile, is publicly declaring his agony over his remarks. And yet in the grand scheme of things we're making mountains out of molehills.
Why do we worry about things that logically have little chance of occurring? And why don't we worry about things that are happening now? (Read the news if you don't think there's anything more important to think about than your chances of getting mad cow disease.) The answer is simple enough if we're willing to hear it: We worry about those things that frighten us most, and we fail to be afraid when we ought to be because we refuse to think about things that are legitimately scary. We turn an even blinder eye to those things that might actually require us to get up off the couch and do something, such as the ongoing erosion of civil liberties or the Balkanization of our country with its proposals for illegal immigrant amnesty and its misplaced emphasis on diversity over unity.
Why do so many of us profess to be grievously wounded by some idiot's ill-considered words? We're losing our right to free expression piece by piece as we pretend we have the right not to be offended, and we're accelerating the losses even as we increase the government's power by demanding it enforce various speech codes. And while we're weeping our crocodile tears and condemning someone else, we're effectively silenced ourselves because we're afraid to hurt somebody's feelings (given the Attorney General's recent comments, we should probably be even more afraid we'll be arrested for speaking out).
Why do we selfishlyand self-righteously, more often than notconsider government largesse okay as long as it's we who benefit, but turn around and cry foul when it's we who suffer so that somebody else can gain? It's apparently because we want to have our cake and eat it, too. We don't want to exercise responsibility for ourselves and our loved ones because it's too much work. Then we teach our children to let big government take care of them, too. And many of us have the nerve to feel good about our limited activism and our example!
It's a vicious circle that's been spiraling downward for some time now into the police state we see clearly on the near horizon today. We've brought our circumstances on ourselves solely because we insist on doing what feels good, or what makes us happy in the short term. We ignore what's right and do instead what's convenient. And we feel good about ourselves and what we're doing becausefor now, anywaywe're often rewarded for it which, in turn, makes us feel even better.
But here's the thing: If we don't buck up and pay attention to the facts and make our decisions accordingly, we're going to pay even more than we've already stolen from others. It will be hard work sometimes, and painful on occasion, too. We won't always feel happy or even comfortable. But the alternative means that everyone will be burdened by taxes and regulations, everyone will be watched almost all the time, and no one will be free. How do you suppose that will feel?