The hardest thing in the world is...well, frankly, I couldn’t say. But I can tell you about something I find massively difficult: assessing someone I like personally as holding pernicious assumptions.
If you’re a freedom-loving American, you’re going to meet such persons now and then. You’re going to get to know them, find them personally appealing, perhaps even make them regular parts of your discretionary time and activities. You might even be related to one or two. From the moment of recognition, you’ll struggle with the “fight or flight” response that characterizes politics in our day: the counterpoised impulses to distance yourself from that person or to “re-educate” him.
Neither of those approaches is fruitful. Take it from a graduate of experience.
The problem is embedded in the mechanisms that support learning. In the main, education as formally understood can only teach us bloodless things. Grammar. The dry facts of history. Algebra. Perhaps a little non-organic chemistry and simple physics. Note that none of those subjects have a moral or ethical component. You cannot teach another person moral or ethical principles.
Radical, eh? I realize that I’m going against thousands of years of pedagogical received wisdom. So what? They’re wrong. If human experience has taught us anything, it’s the sadder-but-wiser conclusion John Pugsley presented in The Alpha Strategy:
Man will steal if he perceives it to be the best way to get what he wants. He is primarily interested in satisfying his immediate needs, not in providing for some distant future. He cannot be educated to altruism. In a political democracy that gives a voter the power to confiscate the wealth of his neighbors, human nature guarantees that he will do so. In my estimation, neither politics nor moral preaching offers a rational, workable solution, and it would seem that the historical evidence corroborates this.
But you have moral and ethical principles. So do I – and I’d bet the mortgage money that they’re identical to yours, or nearly so. Moreover, we adhere to them pretty scrupulously, you and I. It’s what allows me to face myself in the mirror, and part of what makes you one of my Gentle Readers. Where did we get them?
Most people think of themselves as “good guys,” regardless of the truth of the matter. That’s mainly because each of us uses himself as a standard by which to judge others. The standard, of course, is above judgment, so Smith gets an automatic A+ from himself.
But without the benefit of an attractive model or considerable personal experience, no one can internalize the moral and ethical precepts that make a free and prosperous society possible. Sentience on this ball of rock is a minimum of 25,000 years old, and probably much older. Yet only in the most recent two thousand years have there been societies that were not dominated by systematic predation and the consequent pandemic misery. Why?
Well, first of all, we needed to accumulate some history. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you’re going. Written historical records only reach back about six thousand years. More, until quite recently those records were nowhere near widely available nor accessible. Ordinary persons – folks such as you and I, Gentle Reader, who make up society and determine how it will function – had little beside their own personal experiences to steer by.
Second and at least as important, the moral exemplar was rare and likely to be killed out of hand. Force reigned supreme; he who abstained from the use of force to advance his personal interests was more likely than not to find his skull on the business end of a well-wielded antelope femur. Thus, there weren’t many persons deserving of emulation for the rest of us to observe.
Only after the emergence of compact, coherent societies that maintained historical records and cultivated knowledge of them could moral exemplars be observed and their excellence comprehended. Even then, their illuminative effect was limited to those who were fortunate enough to be near them, and to pay attention to them. And of course, free will being what it is, “dissidents” ready and willing to prey upon others will forever remain among us...even within the gatherings that proclaim and celebrate the principles the exemplars illustrate.
In the conclusion to the “who” segment in this series, I deliberately misstated the “enemy” to be “defeated:”
Pugsley has fingered the correct “who” for our purposes: those “unaware, ineducable masses” who support the State’s plunders with their voices and their votes. They probably include many of your neighbors. They might include some of your relatives. Despite their mundane appearances and seemingly agreeable conduct, they are the enemy we must defeat.
I sacrificed precision for emphasis, an uncomfortable thing for a scientifically minded person to do. For it is not the “unaware, ineducable masses” themselves who are the enemy, but rather their assumptions about right and wrong and the relations between ends and means.
There’s no way to argue a man out of his assumptions. They can only be defeated by experience. He who can do that has a shot at being listened to with respect. But it’s a hard road to travel for several reasons. Preeminent among those reasons is this one: no one will listen to you unless you can demonstrate your good intentions – by his standards.
Psychologist Peter Breggin made an excellent point about this when, during a lecture, he condemned the Schadenfreude – the celebration of catastrophe and, by implication, the smug “they deserved it” attitude toward its victims – that sometimes emerges among liberty-movement types when a massive government failure becomes visible. Dr. Breggin said plainly that to persuade the typical American liberal, you must first convince him that your intentions are good ones – that you want most, if not all, of the outcomes he favors. (This is equally true of the persuasion of the authoritarian-paternalistic conservative, of which there are still a considerable number even at this late date in our decline.)
However, even the profession of good intentions is insufficient to defeat your neighbor’s faulty assumptions. You must demonstrate that your moral principles produce a superior result – and you must do so by his standards. If you cannot or will not do so, he’ll retreat to the comfort of the familiar.
Success breeds emulation, and nothing else does.
There are pitfalls, of course. In particular, there are some, perhaps millions, for whom no demonstration of “a better way” could ever be sufficient. Sometimes it’s merely a form of mental rigidity – an unwillingness to let go of one’s faulty assumptions and logical errors the late Don LaVoie called “sunk intellectual capital.” Sometimes, it’s a demand for Utopia – and Utopia is never among the options. Worse, there are some for whom the end is not and will never be anything but power over others. These are not persuadable, for obvious reasons; time and effort spent on them will be wasted.
A great deal of the material published about promoting the freedom philosophy focuses on “out-competing” the statist mindset. This is good as far as it goes, but it’s worth a moment’s thought about why it works (when it does). They who desire to equal the ends of the more successful are drawn to emulating their means. This is more obvious when the ends are personal gains than charitable aims, but it’s true in both cases.
To sum up: it’s the faulty assumptions of those who support the status quo and its pervasive statism that we must defeat. We must show them a better way to the ends they cherish – and we must be humble about it. No one likes a smartass.