Sunday, January 23, 2011

Seeking Perfection Leads to Tyranny

There is nothing more human than the quest for perfection. Equally there is nothing more human that the failure to obtain it.

We all have ideal concepts of how things ought to be were we living in the perfect world. We often don't agree on those ideal concepts.

To the rational person such ideals point us in a direction. They guide us. We need them.

However I've often seen this quest for perfection used as an excuse for some horribly inhumane actions.

Let's look at a couple of examples. In the perfect world people not only respect one another but show human kindness. In the perfect world we don't want anyone to starve, to sleep in the cold, to die alone, to have medical problems that go untreated.

The Left applauds those ideals. And when Leftist regimes have tried to force people to be "fair" and "kind" and to give "to each according to his need" the result has been Gulags, misery, starvation, murder and torture.

The Right, and I use Left and Right in the traditional way here, wants people to be moral. Ask them and they'll produce a huge litany of traits that would be part and parcel of the moral man or woman.
Alas people are not perfect. They make mistakes.

We classical liberals realize this. Now there are three kinds of imperfections. One is when we violate the rights of others. We usually call these crimes. These are actions that violate the life, liberty or property of another person.

Second, there is the issue of vices. A vice is something that is harmful to oneself but which does not violate the rights of others.

Third, there is the issue of human decency. It's etiquette but a bit more as well. These are the things in life that one "ought" to do because they make life easier for everyone. It's the "please" and "thanks" of life. You don't fart in the elevator. It's not nice. You treat people with respect.

For the classical liberal the issue of state intervention is limited to the first category only. But for both the Left statist and the Right statist, the other two categories are of great importance. They want perfection there as well and won't stop until they have it.

They are thus willing to coerce perfection out of people. Of course they assume that their own values and standards are the perfect ones to which everyone else must be moulded.

The safety nannies wants a perfectly safe society. They even have the Precautionary Principle to impose it. Nothing shall be done until it is proven safe. Well, nothing can be proven perfectly safe. So nothing gets done. It's the reason that people who hold this view are against almost everything.

If pesticides on vegetables raise the risk of cancer by some infinitely small percentage then stop the use of pesticides—never mind that the same pesticides lower the cost of vegetables, which in turns means they are eaten more often. And ignore the fact that the anti-cancer benefits of the vegetables more than out weigh the risks. Just ban the pesticide and go for organic.

The safety police want our roads to be perfectly safe. Remember air bags. I was recently watching an old video of a debate between Milton Friedman and Jill Claybrook. Claybrook was one of Nader's people who got some position in the Carter government that put her in charge of "safety". Of course, she took the usual view that no cost is too much, if it saves "just one life."

She was arguing for mandatory air bags in cars. In the US air bags are now pretty routine and poor Jill didn't realise we don't live in a perfect world. The air bags work—too well. They go off when they shouldn't. They also have a terrible tendency. Small children, when hit with the force of the air bag, can have their necks broken. The accident may not kill them, but the air bags can. 

I saw a documentary not too long ago about accidents. It showed how air bags sometimes fail to engage at the time of impact. Unfortunately they often do engage afterwards. Rescue workers have been severely harmed because as they are are extracting someone from a vehicle the air bag engages hitting them with it's full force. They had actual video footage of this happening and it's rather shocking to see.

Market liberals have long noted that life is not about perfect states. It's about trade offs. The utopian who is ready to mould people thinks perfection can be attained. We don't think so. We realise that if you have more of one thing you may have less of something else. The perfect state is where you can have your cake and eat it too, but it's not the world in which we live.

Take the example of government regulations imposed to protect young children on air flights. Now the overwhelming majority of flights take off and land with no problems at all. Very few times do such planes hit severe turbulence and they rarely actually crash. It's the safest form of travel known to man.
Airlines allowed parents to hold young children in their laps on the flight. This meant they didn't have to buy a second seat. The safety patrol noted that in unusual circumstances—like a crash—the parent may not be able to hold the child. So they want all flights to ban this practice. It's for the children they'll tell you.

What is the trade off? Well, parents who flew with young children may not be able to afford to fly. Some will forgo travel altogether. Others will do something else. They may find that driving is now the cheaper alternative. The problem is that driving is far riskier. Children who are priced off the flight due to the extra ticket cost, and who end up in a car, are more likely to be harmed than before. Perfect safety eluded us once again.

Classical liberalism is merely a political philosophy for living in this world. It's how imperfect people can minimize problems between themselves. We don't fight over who gets to use a piece of property because we recognise property rights. When we ignore property rights, conflict is exacerbated. The rule of "mine and thine" is a way of helping people get along. The concept of rights is basically a property right to one's life. It says that each individual is sovereign over their own property, their own mind and their own body.

When government starts to intrude on those areas conflict is created. The moralists on the Right say that obscenity must be banned and they must be allowed to define what is obscene. The result is conflict between them and the people they wishes to control. It gets worse when the PC Left joins in and wishes to ban other ideas or images. Government is all too willing to placate both, and the result is a steady decay in freedom.

When government decides it has the right to take the wealth of some, for the benefit of others, we automatically create thousands of factions. Each wants to manipulate the political process to maximise their benefits, while limiting their costs. We call them special interest groups. But they are gangs which are basically war with all the other gangs. Conflict is created, or where it already existed it's made worse.

When rights are respected there is a tendency toward more harmony. Today most people accept the idea of freedom of religion. We don't fight anymore over which church should exist and what it should teach. Each person is free to make up his own mind. It wasn't always that way and much of history is the history of wars conducted in the name of religion. When the right to individual religious expression was recognised the conflict ceased.

The classical liberal wants to limit state intrusion to the protection of basic rights—which means the control of crime. He knows that to the degree that the state exceeds those boundaries that human conflict is magnified. He also knows that when we try to have the state handle issues in the quest for perfection that it's highly unlikely to achieve that goal. Instead we experience trade offs. What we think we gain in one area we  often lose in another. We also forget that there are often unintended consequences which undo much of the "good" that might have been achieved. In fact, evidence is strong that there is a net loss overall.

Traditional liberals want freedom. They don't think it will create a perfect society. It does create a society where incentives to get things right operate. People will still make mistakes. Some people will still harm themselves. Some will still fart in the elevator. We wont' like it. We might yearn for them to adopt our "perfect" way of living. But we know that they must be free to make these choices. When they aren't free, things become very messy indeed.

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