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Jul 22, 2015

“For Your Own Good:” The Problem with Trying to Save Us from Ourselves

Dale reviews Chris Berg’s Liberty, Equality & Democracy and discusses how some people think they should rule over others “for their own good.”

I grew up queer in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. This is the Australian equivalent of growing up black in George Wallace’s Alabama. Like Wallace, Bjelke-Petersen was populist, racist, and religious: he hated socialism, but the Queensland of my youth also had Australia’s only free hospitals. You couldn’t get an abortion in one of them, though – that necessitated a quick trip south of the border, into New South Wales.

Queensland was not a good place to be queer.

My most enduring memory from that time does not, however, involve the police beating people up in gay bars or booking Aborigines for driving while black. It involves being told – earnestly, sincerely, and at great length – by various conservative Christians that God had sent AIDS into the world “to clean out the shit.” It was a force for good, would save queers from themselves, and maybe even win some over to Christ. “AIDS,” they told me, “is the plumber’s friend of God: pump, pump, pump!”

Conversations like these – although awful enough to make me glad of the closet in which I was hiding at the time – were also illuminating.

I needed saving from myself. And, because I spread disease, other people needed saving from me.

A great deal of public policy these days is predicated on saving people from themselves, for their own good and the good of others. And it needs to stop, in large part because it springs from the same place as the belief that AIDS is the plumber’s friend of God.

I realised the extent of this when I read two things. First, George H Smith’s splendid essay on how Saint Augustine argued that religious persecution was justified when done in the interests of those persecuted, and secondly, Chris Berg’s Liberty, Equality, and Democracy. Berg is Australian – his book is peppered with case studies drawn from Australian and English political history – but I have never before seen the case against laws enacted “for our own good” put with such wit and grace.

At the core of Berg’s book is this: if we persist in thinking people cannot make simple decisions about what to eat, when to drink, or what games to play, why then do we think they can do something as complicated as choosing between different political visions?

Among other things, Berg takes aim at the widespread popularity of rule by experts. Perhaps the best bit is his account of how experts who purport to have superior knowledge are susceptible to exactly the same sort of cognitive biases and systemic errors as the rest of us. Likewise, just because individuals make poor decisions that does not mean governments make better ones. There is abundant evidence they generally don’t, and because governments are so large, their bad decisions have far more dramatic, expensive, and destructive consequences.

He also considers what he calls the “cult of independence” – that is, the creation of “arm’s length” agencies formally separated from lines of government accountability and immune to the whims of the electorate. He is kinder to QANGOS and government instrumentalities than to would-be expert rulers, in part because the most prominent examples of independence are central banks, and at least some central banks have proven more economically competent than politicians (although the people of Greece may well disagree). However, his related point – that when “arm’s length” agencies do not improve governance, they should be abandoned – is well-made.

Unusually for a work of modern classical liberal scholarship, Berg’s book also considers race and gender hierarchies, laws based on the idea that “betters” ought to rule “lessers.” There is a dedicated chapter on race – one where classical liberalism emerges (to its credit) as a strong opponent of racism, both historically and more recently. Meanwhile, the relationship of our tradition to support for gender hierarchy is more complex and less flattering.

In a thoughtful discussion of the Levellers and their contribution to classical liberalism, Berg notes that they spoke of “the poorest he, not the poorest she.” He outlines a fair bit of later political history, and goes on to observe that “hierarchy based on gender is a long stain on the development of liberal democracy – even some of the most passionate democrats of the past had this unforgiveable blind spot.”

While you should read Berg’s book for its own merits, I wish to use it to press the point about laws “for our own good” and the fraught relationship between classical liberalism and feminism a little further.

It’s often argued that the rupture between feminism and classical liberalism is borne of the former’s tendency to call on the coercive power of the state to achieve its aims. The rupture is real enough, played out on a daily basis on libertarian and feminist blogs and webpages, in acrimonious fights on Twitter and Facebook, and no doubt in the “meatspace” many of us inhabit.

However, I think this rupture exists in large part because feminism has a long and troubled relationship with the nanny state. The coercive power it has enlisted historically wasn’t just about equal pay or anti-discrimination laws, things that are now a respectable part of the political mainstream (regardless of the views on them held by many classical liberals). Historically, feminism was just as often about controlling what people put into their bodies or consumed as entertainment. Very often, it was about laws introduced to restrict personal choice “for the individual’s own good.”

I am of course talking about Prohibition, but the criticisms of both sex-work and violent video games many feminists make these days are siblings-under-the-skin to banning booze, particularly when they seek to enlist regulatory aid, either from the state or large corporates and universities.

During Prohibition, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was fond of boasting that “As long as the Nineteenth Amendment Stands, the Eighteenth will stand also!” Suffragette leaders in the United States were happy to make common cause with some truly toxic organisations – including the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan – in order to advance their interests. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Prohibition enforcer, feminist, progressive, and throughout the Twenties the most powerful woman in the country – knowing that the Klan had thrown its weight behind woman suffrage – commented thus: “I have no objection to people dressing up in sheets, if they enjoy that sort of thing.”

Prohibition is the epitome of laws made “for our own good.” Its cataclysmic failure is, however, in danger of being forgotten by modern legislators and activists who want to control people’s consumption habits in one way or another.

This brings me back to the core of Chris Berg’s excellent book: every time those in love with their own expertise seek to regulate what people buy or how they spend their time or what they put in their mouths, they forget that the people who shop and the people who vote are the same people.

I have heard – at various times – educated and scientifically literate friends of mine say that “x is too stupid to vote” or “ye gods, and these people vote,” etc. These comments are typically made about socially conservative religious people, although often the target is broader: the ignorant and unhealthy more generally.

Even very great supporters of liberal democracy – John Stuart Mill for example – were worried about what would happen if too many stupid, ill-informed people misused their ballot. Mill supported the existence of university constituencies, where graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, and the Ancient Scottish universities got two votes: one in their university seat, and one where they lived. Those constituencies were not abolished until 1950. It was meant to be a force multiplier for the clever, to allow them to guide the ship of state out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population.

The idea that the state ought to be governed by experts or the “best people” has been around for a very long time. Berg outlines how Plato’s “Guardian” class was meant – through a programme of education, training, and selective breeding – to rule as “Philosopher Kings and Queens” (to his credit, Plato was not sexist; most historical arguments about those “fit to rule” or “government by expert” peremptorily exclude women).

It is a deeply elitist argument, and it is one fraught with danger for feminism, because it makes such wide-ranging assumptions about both moral goodness and markets, coupled with empirical claims unsupported by evidence. One that comes to mind is the oft-repeated attempt to draw a link between, say, playing Grand Theft Auto and violence against women. A link that science, repeatedly, has found does not exist. Another is widespread feminist support for laws criminalising the purchase of sex. And no, that doesn’t work either.

We feminists should consider our premises if we find ourselves on the same side as those who would micromanage people’s private choices, if only because we have had it done so often to us. Arguments about trying “to save people from their own objectively bad choices” – smoking, say, or drinking, or watching porn or playing GTA V – come perilously close to the Catholic Church’s denunciation of people like me as “objectively disordered.”

I do not need laws saving me from myself, laws for my own good. Most of the time, nor do you.


Citation for review

Liberty, Equality & Democracy

Chris Berg

Connor Court Publishing, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

ISBN: 978-1-925138-56-6

193 pp

Pub: May 2015