April 30, 2004


Dividing people into polarized groups is very human: it's a survival mechanism for distinguishing those you can trust and be safe with from those who are a threat or a potential threat. Robert Heinlein had perhaps the best division:

Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.

This quote, while a billiant summation, doesn't address one key question: why do some people desire to control others? Robert Heinlein also had another quote that gives a start on resolving that question:
I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. (emphasis added)

When I was first studying Wicca, I learned that there is a difference between "power over" and "power to", "can" and "should", "desire" and "will", and "opportunity" and "duty".

Most Wiccans are of a type I call "fluffy bunny" Wicca: they were too late to be hippies or start a commune, so they looked for something that superficially resembled what they want, grafted on all kinds of New Age claptrap and called it Wicca. The obligation of personal responsibility that comes with power is overwhelming; for a moral person, the more power and understanding that is gained, the less freedom of action is available, for fear of destroying the good enough in the attempt to obtain the perfect. And frankly, most Christians I've known are "fluffy bunny" Christians - content to mouth the words, but not accept the crushing burden of living up to them. (Could you smile happily as you were torn apart by lions, because you knew you were going to a great reward when the pain was over?) I don't think this is a religious characteristic; it is a human characteristic.

But the unwillingness to accept moral responsibility must arise from somewhere, must be a result of some cause, and I believe that it arises from selfishness. While all of us are capable of selfishness, not all of us are capable of selflessness, or of being annoyed without desiring to use force to effect the removal of the annoyance.

I saw a story on Fox News the other day that shocked and outraged me: homeowners on the hills above San Francisco Bay are trying to get an ordinance on the allowable height of trees in their neighbors' yards, so as not to have their view (a false property rights claim) obstructed by their neighbors' use of their real property. If your neighbors' use of their property bothers you, morally you are in a stronger position to buy their property, cut down the tree, and sell the property again with a perpetual obligation on the title to never have a tree or structure on the property above a certain height; then people can buy the title or not, depending on their willingness to abide by its restrictions. But no, no! Instead we must use the coercive power of the government to solve the issue!

Why, though? Because in the end, a person who would go beyond annoyance at a situation that poses no threat to them, into the use of force to resolve it, simply sees other people, institutions, objects and conventions as matters of convenience to them. Why would that other property exist, except as it is convenient to you as part of the view from your balcony? Why would a political rule about when someone gets on the ballot, or how votes are counted, be valid when it is not in your favor? If someone is smoking, or gets fat from eating fast food, why should your aesthetic sense not be offended, and why should you thus not take action? After all, what they are doing affects you - however remotely - and so you should be able to control it, because those rules, those people, only exist at your whim and convenience, right?

I've been trying to find an issue where I disagree with the Leftist position, which does not come down in the end to selfishness on the part of the Left, and I haven't found one yet. And with the Right, too; I think that the reason that Pat Buchanan looks so much like a Leftist in everything he does and advocates, is because in the end he has a similar view - we're only here for his convenience - but a different set of people, policies and actions that inconvenience him.

Of course, we know where this leads, because the history of mankind is littered with its detritus: people who are incapable of selflessness inevitably either attempt to take absolute power (if control is more convenient to them than moral rectitude), or to give up all of their power to some (hopefully) benevolent overlord (if ease is more convenient to them than responsibility). In the end, selfishness in the public realm leads to corruption, decay and eventually tyranny.

Which, for some people, is better than having your view ruined.

Posted by Jeff at April 30, 2004 02:42 PM | Link Cosmos
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