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Social Morality, Political Immorality

Why is the governmental use of force less offensive than bad manners?

by James Leroy Wilson
January 14, 2010

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Social Morality, Political Immorality

Al: "I am allowed to cut hair for free. Therefore, I should be able to cut hair for money. Therefore, I will, in my kitchen, and I'm going to charge less than anyone else."

Bob: "I think barbers who charge money should be licensed, and I think there should be regulations so that your shop meets standards."

Al: "As long as my customers are satisfied, who's harmed? You're a jackass."

In the conversation above, who's the bad guy?

On the face of it, Al is. He was insulting. He was probably unnecessarily rude.

On the other hand, Bob's insult was greater. He insinuated that Bob can't be trusted and that Bob's liberties should be curbed.

That doesn't seem very nice to me!

But Bob's insult wasn't personal. He wasn't insinuating that Al personally can't be trusted. He was, instead, insinuating everyone who charges money for services can't be trusted and must be regulated. In Bob's world, those who charge money should be treated with suspicion and are guilty until proven innocent, while those who live off the taxpayer can be trusted to curb our liberties and regulate us wisely.

Bob's version of the public good relies on the policeman's gun rather than on voluntary exchange. And the governing class is presumed to be more virtuous than the productive class. In Bob's view, Well-Meaning People Can Have A Civil Dialogue And Honest Disagreement. For himself and his position to be dismissed with the word "jackass" is insulting and hurtful to him. He doesn't realize that his own position is insulting and hurtful to the entire human race.

Having said this, I'm not suggesting that insults should replace civil debate. Instead, I just find it interesting how we separate our political morality from our social morality - Al's mere rudeness should be condemned, whereas Bob's authoritarian opinions should be respected - as if all political opinions are equal and would produce equal results. But in the long run, I much prefer to live in Al's world of voluntary exchanges rather than Bob's world of coercion. At the same time, a world where people call each other "jackass" or worse is not appealing either. Many look at the breach in social morality - such as manners - as a worse offense than holding the wrong political opinions. Even when, all told, wrong political opinions do far more damage.

The fall of Tiger Woods is an example of this. For his breach of the social morality regarding sexual fidelity, he has paid a far worse hit to his reputation than just about any politician hit with a sex scandal - at least since Gary Hart. And yet, his behavior was mainly hurtful to his own family. Politicians who start wars, impose taxes and regulations that throw people out of work, criminalize victimless behavior, and impose restrictions and surveillance on us seem guilty of far worse than adultery. Yet, even the worst adulterers among politicians are viewed as "elder statesmen" when they get older.

The condemnation of Mark McGwire is another example. He's not resented for using steroids, or even for lying. He's resented for not giving due respect. Matt Welch points out:

I can't shake the suspicion that there is some outrage-premium applied not to jackass ballplayers who lie to the public, but to jackass ballplayers who, when called to make the perp walk on C-SPAN in front of the people who make the laws they might have broken, understandably (if embarrassingly) clam up.

The sin of A-Rod was lying to the public about steroids. Winning a World Series redeems him. The sin of McGwire was not steroid use, and was not even in lying; his "sin" was in essence to defy Congress.

Personally, I find McGwire's refusal to incriminate himself admirable. Even more so considering the Committee who was holding the hearing he testified in. The Committee investigating steroids in baseball wasn't a Health Committee, or a Commerce Committee, it was a Government Reform Committee.

Government Reform Committee? Investigating steroids in Major League Baseball?

In the same year when contractors were looting billions tax dollars in a failing war on Iraq?

It would seem calling members of that Government Reform Committee "jackasses" wouldn't be have been rude, but rather too polite!

But no, name-calling is unacceptable, whereas Iraq - well, people can have an honest disagreement about that.

Likewise, the conventional wisdom, the "social morality" is that McGwire was wrong for not answering the questions of a Congressional Committee. The social morality tells us to respect institutions such as Congress.

I do understand public anger towards McGwire and Tiger. I understand why people such as Al in the above conversation are disliked. The fact that a Social Morality preserving respect, fidelity, and manners still exists is an encouraging sign for civilization.

Still, condemnation toward people who do no harm to the person and property of others, while giving respect and honor to politicians committed to Political Immorality of doing harm, seems off-kilter. Let's embrace the true morality that affirms the rights and freedoms of each individual, resist those who would violate them, and be less judgmental about other people's peaceful behavior.



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