On Promoting Right Conduct
Tibor R. Machan
On far more occasions than I care to recall I?ve been told that my
politics is altogether too negative??You are a naysayer,? it often goes.
And I must confess that with the bulk of contemporary politics that?s what
I am??stop it,? ?put a halt to it,? ?desist,? ?forget about it,? and on
and on I go.
Beneath this apparent negativism lies, however, a firm commitment to
something entirely positive, the confidence that free men and women solve
problems far better any day than a bunch of regimented folks. So, I say,
?Yes? to people setting about figuring out solutions to and going about
solving their and their various communities? problems, be these simple or
indeed extremely complex.
Not that I have utopian expectations, not at all. People are likely to
fall down on the job of fixing everything for themselves and their loved
ones, but on average they do much better when they aren?t being pushed
around by politicians, bureaucrats, or the police than if they are treated
as invalids or helpless slobs by others thinking they possess this special
authority derived from God, the General Will, the majority, or the tooth
fairy. No, give me the risky, messy collection of free men and women
anytime and I bet the results will be far better, even more admirable,
than when leaders march us all toward some glorious end we haven?t been
convinced to freely pursue.
But, of course, there will be plenty of recalcitrant individuals among
those free men and women in whom I am and urge the rest of us to place our
confidence, despite the risks that some will fail. If I do not believe in
placing guns to such people?s heads?making laws and regulations to
straighten them all out, as the eager beaver statists among us believe is
proper?what solution can we find to such recalcitrant conduct? Is there
anything else beside the force of laws and regulations that can offer us
the hope to improve others?
Well, to start with, forcing people to be good is entirely pointless. As
a general principle, coerced good conduct brings no merit at all to those
engaging in it. It also wastes the energies of those who do the
coercing?they could be doing something productive instead of ordering and
pushing people around to do the right thing. Then there is the
non-negligible fact that when people are legally empowered to push others
around, they more often than not become corrupted by their morally
unauthorized power. Power over others, even when well intentioned, tends
to reap that result?both history and common sense informs us of this. So
is there nothing to be done?
To start with, there is rational persuasion, approaching those whose
conduct leaves something to be desired with good arguments, with an
effective appeal, the most civilized way to dealing with our fellow human
beings, the way that distinguished how human communities ought to function
and how the rest of the animal world does in fact function. No brute force
but reason must govern among us.
OK, but this is a bit utopian, is it not? Some people just will not
listen to reason?that cliché is one because it is so true. What is to be
There are peaceful ways of imploring people, of inducing them to do the
right thing, when they aren?t initially inclined and even when reasonable
persuasion does not achieve this goal. Boycotts, well orchestrated
ostracism, rebuke, chiding, and even ridicule are all peaceful and often
quite effective approaches to getting folks to act right. Labor unions had
initially placed their confidence in such methods as they attempted to get
reasonable terms from employers, although in time many of them turned to
governments to achieve this goal and thus became lobbyists for coercion.
(And, of course, too many commercial firms, the employers, also went?and
continue to go?to governments for special privileges against both their
domestic and foreign competitors.)
Sadly, this civilized approach to inducing proper behavior in other
people is not even considered as a live option in our time by most who
complain about people not doing the right thing. Neither the Left nor the
Right embraces such peaceful means but turns, instead, to legislatures,
city councils, state commissions, federal regulators, and vice squads?or
to out and out war?in order to have their edicts adhered to. This lack of
patience with the civilized approach is a sure sign of politics having run
amuck, having reverted to the era of conquests and subjugation.
Yet it does not at all have to be that way and
certainly should not.