No, You Are Not America

August 24th, 2009 - by Quincy

Unfortunately for the cause of liberty, many people have grown accustomed to judging whether government action is right by looking to its societal consequences. This method of judgment is so commonly accepted that many people would be surprised to learn that another method exists. People are used to consequence-driven decision-making; they are accustomed to making decisions by determining whether a particular course of action will produce the consequences they desire. In microeconomics this feature of human behavior is called “rational choice theory” or “rational action theory.” However, this consequence-driven method of judgment undermines individual liberty when it is used in government decision-making.

It is not offensive for an individual to choose his course of action by attempting to predict what will promote his personal values and goals. People commonly accept the idea that an individual is entitled to choose for himself how he wishes to spend his time and resources. And it is now almost a cultural heresy to tell someone else what his goals or values ought to be. Strangely, though, these principles are forgotten in the political arena. When individuals discuss government action they suddenly assume that they have the right to impose their values and goals on the rest of the nation. I call this the “I am America” mentality (no reference is intended to Steven Colbert’s book).

The “I am America” mentality expresses itself in policies that restrict the liberty of individuals who have not violated anyone’s rights for the supposed good of the community/nation/world. A few examples of such policies are government health care, public education, social security, financial regulations, and licensing laws. Proponents of these policies seek to excuse using force to redistribute wealth or restrict liberty by claiming that the harm to those whose wealth/liberty is taken is outweighed by the overall societal benefits that result. In other words, the “I am America” mentality adopts a variation on Spock’s line in The Wrath of Khan: “the needs of the many outweigh the [liberty] of the few. Or the one.” The theory of ethics that supports this moral philosophy is called Utilitarianism.

John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who named Utilitarianism, explained it as follows:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism 9-10 (4th ed. 1871). In other words, if an action promotes happiness or pleasure it is morally right. Notice that Utilitarianism looks to the consequences of an action (does it promote happiness or not) to determine its morality. This begs the question, consequences for whom? Whose happiness is the benchmark of morality for Utilitarianism? Mill goes on to explain, “that standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” Id. at 16. He elaborates further, “the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct is not the agent’s own happiness but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” Id. at 24.

I have no objection to Utilitarianism as a system of ethics for individual action, but its application as a tool for determining government action threatens individual liberty. It is this misuse of Utilitarianism—as a tool for determining government action—that I call the “I am America” mentality. Here is why. Those who espouse Utilitarianism in government decision-making audaciously presume to enforce their conception of what is good and what brings happiness on everyone else. The thought process goes something like this. “I think that it is good for children to receive an education, so it is alright to force everyone to pay for it.” Or, “I think it is good to provide care for the elderly and the poor, so it is alright to force everyone to pay for it.” Or, “I think is good to regulate risk in the financial industry, so it is alright to force financiers to adopt a level of risk that I think is reasonable.” Of course when pitched over the politician’s pulpit the “I think” is left off, giving the statement the sound of an indisputable truth (e.g. “It is good to regulate the financial industry”), but the “I think” should always be impliedly appended.

There are two glaring problems with the “I am America” mentality: foreseeability and responsibility.

The “I am America” mentality in government is only possible to the extent that the consequences of a particular government policy are foreseeable. Like the primitive kings, politicians gather around themselves wizards and prognosticators (modernly called by the less interesting titles of economist and expert) to foretell the outcome of various courses of action. At least this is what the honest ones do. More frequently, politicians surround themselves with yes-men and public relations specialists. That way they can avoid any objective challenge to their personal goals and values and focus on foisting their ideology on the voters. But even the honest policy advocate—voter or political leader—is engaging in a dangerous business when seeking to predict whether a government policy will produce “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” The success of government Utilitarianism is especially dubious in light of the fact that many of the details necessary to predict what will bring an individual happiness are known only to that individual. This alone is a compelling reason why decisions should be left in the hands of individuals.

The second problem with the “I am America” mentality is related to the first: the consequences of the ideology of those in power are borne by many people who do not share that ideology. In other words, when a government policy fails, the consequences fall on individuals who are in no way responsible for selecting the policy. Conversely, in a minimal government, economic, moral, and lifestyle decisions are made by the individuals who will bear the consequences of them.

In short, my response to those with the “I am America” mindset is this: You are no better equipped to know what is right and good than anyone else. That which makes you happy might very well make someone else miserable. You are only an individual, and as such you have no right to impose your morality or ideas about happiness on the rest of the nation. You are not America.

Of course I am not the first to voice these sentiments. Frédéric Bastiat offered a powerful criticism along the same vein in the closing lines of his magnificent work The Law:

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! A way with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

Frédéric Bastiat, The Law 76 (trans. Dean Russell 2nd ed. 1998).

Amen!

3 Responses to “No, You Are Not America”

  1. Jake says:

    Quincy,

    I’m glad I found your blog.

    Often utilitarians claim amorality and that they are above those petty disagreements, but I don’t see how that can be. If cocaine (or place any other vice here) would create more pleasure, or utils, if the government hands it out for free (subsidizing by taxation of productive individuals), then it is justifiable. However, the fact that my productivity enables what I consider to be immoral behavior demonstrates that the amoral stance has no substance.

  2. William Wallace says:

    I’m still finishing my response to your anarchy post, but as I happened to read this one now, I’ll briefly comment on it first.

    Some very true points made here. Individuals from both parties are guilty of the mindset you describe, which seems to be a common path to statist ideology. The irony is that the “my worldview is right so I should enforce it on everyone else”-mentality results in a complete contradiction of otherwise sacrosanct principles held by statists on the left and right. The religious right makes fierce appeal to the Constitution and states’ rights when it comes to big government federal “stimulus” projects, for example, but runs roughshod over it themselves if it means enforcing their desired drug laws religious code on everyone. Similarly, the left parades their belief in civil liberties and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights while simultaneously calling for U.S. subservience to the dictates of an International Criminal Court and United Nations. Especially ironic is the insistence for tolerance and open-mindedness towards other peoples and value systems, while it’s advocated in the same breath that one’s own particular views be enforced upon the entire country by the national government. The consistent, moral conclusion that ought to be reached is that per rule of law, such things should unconditionally be left to the states. Alas, this is completely lost on them.

    There seems to be a variety of utilitarian ideologies, but they all tend to place the goal of highest overall utility over other accepted principles. Unfortunately the utilitarian view seems to be the trend for most economists–at least as a default position–as they tend to advocate policies based on what they believe will bring the most benefit rather than based upon other principles. While the important distinction of normative vs positive analysis is often made in the classroom, it’s usually lost on students being taught mainstream theory.

    (Having said that, your characterization of economists would be more accurate if you placed “Keynesian,” or “central planning” before it XD–for there are still a few whose hands are clean of such madness [like Robert Higgs])

    Some believe that the application of consistent morals and principles will always result in the greatest potential for utility (individually and collectively), and use that conclusion to argue for the adherence to morals and principles. This strategy is often employed by well-meaning academics who can give compelling arguments to show this is the case. However, while I generally agree this is the case, and while this may be an important way to convert others to the importance of following true principles, it should be recognized that the first concern should be adherence to moral standards, and only secondly the goal of the greatest utility.

    Of course, as Jake pointed out, the discussion is moot for nihilists–as without any moral standards there is no reason to respect the happiness of another, nor is there any standard of utility whatsoever.

    P.S. I must say, the Bastiat quote is strikingly anarcho-capitalist in flavor. Stick in a couple more state functions in there and he’s a full-fledged anarchist XD

  3. Caleb says:

    Jake showed me your blog. I really enjoyed the read. Looking forward to more :)

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