Monday, November 03, 2008

Where Does Tyranny Begin?

In my last post I discussed the philosophy of liberty and why government becomes tyrannical when it exceeds the bounds of individual rights delegated to it by the free individuals that make up society. I presented a video clip that explores these concepts. I suspect that most of those that viewed the video clip found some things with which they agree and some things with which they disagree.

The video clip begins with the statement that no one has a higher claim on your life than you do. It goes on from this to suggest that the only obligation an individual has to society is to play fair and to engage in no fraud at any level. Consequently, this means that government’s main duty is to ensure a level playing field and to ensure that everyone plays fair. Engineering the outcome of the play is entirely outside the scope of government’s role.

I think, however, that most people don’t fully buy into this concept. All of us are who we are and have what we have partially due to the efforts of others, including many that have long since passed on. Moreover, some of our property is derived from accessing common resources, such as air, water, and roads. So, do individuals have other societal obligations? If so, what are those obligations?

This is a topic upon which a variety of viewpoints exist, seemingly along a sliding scale with pure individual liberty (the individual owes the group only fairness) at one end and total collectivism (the group owns the individual) at the other. Relatively few people think matters rest fully at one end or the other. Most people think that a balance exists at some point on the scale. But where is that point? It is about this that most of our political, legislative, and judicial contests are fought.

Most people agree that individuals have rights that the collective cannot infringe upon. But there are vast disagreements about what those rights are. Most people agree that individuals have certain obligations to the collective, but there are many disagreements about what those obligations are.

Is the individual required to sacrifice his life should the collective determine that a draft is required to conscript soldiers for war? Or must it be a “just war”? And who is the arbiter of whether a war is just or not?

Is the individual required to sacrifice personal property to subsidize other less propertied members of society? Who gets to say what benefits are subsidized, who is considered worthy of the subsidy, and how much the subsidizing individual is required to pay? The reverse side of this applies as well. Do I have a right to be generous enough to vote benefits for the less fortunate from my neighbor’s bank account?

Hearkening back to my Nov. 1 post, do I have a right to require that my neighbors help cover my expenses? What if I get more than half of my neighbors to say that the top earners in my neighborhood must help cover my expenses? What if I get a judge to require my higher-earning neighbors to help cover my expenses? Does that make it right?

Do I have a right to require my neighbors to enter into a collective insurance pool so that I and others can more easily afford medical care? What if 51% of the people in the neighborhood so vote? Does this make it right to force the other 49% to join us in this insurance pool?

What if I want a sports stadium? Is it morally right for me to force my neighbors to help pay for it, even if they never use it? I can argue that it’s good for the community. So, what if I can get more than half of my neighbors to vote that everyone must support such a stadium? Does that make it morally right? If this is OK for a sports stadium, is there anything that the majority cannot morally require the minority to do? Where does the line get drawn?

Since structure fires threaten surrounding properties, can 51% of the people in the community require everyone to minimize fire hazards? To what extent? Specification of storage methods of hazardous fluids? Requiring the installation and maintenance of ceiling sprinklers? Outlawing smoking in even privately owned buildings, since many house fires result from smoking products being dropped on furnishings?

As collective funding of medical treatments becomes more pervasive, does the collective have a right to proscribe certain higher risk behaviors? If so, which ones? Where does the line get drawn?

As you can see, when you start getting into real life issues, matters become far less clear. Moreover, the slippery slope argument becomes more apparent. If individuals can virtuously be coerced by the masses or even by the minority, is there any point on the scale that must never be crossed? If so, where is that point? At what point does collective coercion stop being virtuous and begin to be oppression?

As we slide through the gray areas, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where tyranny begins. It is so easy to look at what we assume to be unfair outcomes and then force behaviors we assume will produce more fair outcomes. In our support of such coercion, we work so hard to clothe our arguments in facades of virtue that we become oblivious to our own tyranny. We deny that tyranny exists. Like all tyrants throughout time, we claim that we are only doing what is in the best interest of all and we minimize the sacrifices we require.

Unfortunately, tyranny changes those that wield it, no matter how virtuous may be their cause. They unavoidably become oppressors, even if they have the best of intentions. And as such, they act like tyrants.

It is one thing for people to be required to abide by agreements into which they freely enter. It is quite another thing to force behaviors based upon an ill-defined, constantly shifting social contract to which the parties have never fully agreed. The difference between free choice and tyranny is vast. But in my conversations with people, it seems that few can clearly draw this distinction, or else they do it selectively to support their views.

If we do not fully subscribe to the viewpoint presented in the video clip linked in my last post — if we feel that individuals have obligations to society beyond just playing fair — where is the line that collective obligations become tyranny? To deny that such a line exists is to admit that you have TDS (tyrant denial syndrome). How do we keep from crossing this line?


y-intercept said...

I loved reading your nicely reasoned set of articles.

I am of the opinion that one of the quickest path to tyranny occurs when a culture loses its appreciation for reason.

When our society loses its appreciation for reason, then the notion of freedom devolves into being just another sentiment vying for notice in our collective feelings.

To preserve freedom, one must first take strides to foster the appreciation of logic and discourse, then we must take the next step to show that there really is a nice solid foundation for a free society.

Reach Upward said...

Well said.