Personal Responsibility – An Optimist’s View
I want to start with two Disclaimers:
What you are about to hear is not the traditional viewpoint of most speakers at this platform. I will be attacking some strongly held beliefs. My wife warned me that I will be creamed for many of the points I make, but she hopes that some of the points will be sufficiently helpful that we will be allowed to stay on as members.
Despite what I am about to say, I am actually a moderate person in most respects. However, in order to make myself clear, I will be exaggerating the differences between various viewpoints. In practice, most people don’t hold the extreme views I will be discussing.
My talk is about what I believe to be the heart of our approach to life – trusting people and giving people the opportunity to bring out the best in themselves. Now there are obviously times when it is not prudent to be so trustful. For instance if someone is shooting at you with a gun, you don’t keep walking towards that person. You duck and call the police for help. However, what do you do when walking down the street if you see a gang of teenagers that are being very boisterous and rude? Do you keep going, do you cross the street or do you call the police? This talk is about when you should call the police and when you should take personal responsibility. It is not about ignoring potential problems.
I believe that most people are too quick to call the police over problems and they are too quick to believe that anyone who opposes calling the police must be insensitive to the problem. I want to speak about a third way – taking personal responsibility, sometimes by taking action and sometimes as in the previous example by crossing the street. Not every social problem should be solved by calling the police.
First, I would like to briefly review what government is and what I mean by saying many people are too quick to call the police. The one underlying factor about the government is its police power, its ability to force you to follow the law or go to jail. This includes especially the ability to force you to pay taxes, no matter how your tax dollars are spent. When I say people are too quick to call the police, I mean people are too quick to lobby for more laws that restrict people’s behavior. I strongly believe in being more trusting of people and less eager to pass more laws that force people to behave the way others want.
In political terms, there are basically four categories: liberal, conservative, socialist and libertarian. I am a libertarian, most of you are liberals, some of you might still believe in pure socialism, and probably no one here today is a conservative. What is generally meant by these terms?
Conservatives believe there should be laws regulating moral values – in America this is usually Judeo-Christian values. Examples are invoking God’s name at public events, banning pornography, drugs and homosexual behavior, restricting abortion, etc. Conservatives have changed as America changed. At one time, they discriminated against Catholics and Jews. Today both groups are welcome but atheists are still clearly excluded.
Liberals believe there should be laws regulating economic activity such as minimum wages, unionization, business regulations, health insurance, and especially welfare payments and redistribution of wealth. Recently liberals have started competing with conservatives in passing laws regulating moral behavior such as anti-smoking, hate crime and anti-discrimination laws.
Socialists believe the government should control every aspect of life – economic and moral. The socialist ideal is for the government to own everything, including your house, all businesses large and small and all newspapers, TV, radio and the Internet. Nothing should be possible without the government’s permission. The government decides how long you go to school, where you live and work, what you eat, when and where you vacation, what clothes you wear. Some of you may think this is an exaggeration. Believe me, I have personal experience that it’s worse than this.
I tried to do business in Russia as the old system was ending in 1992. My wife and I spent 4 weeks in Romania adopting our twins in 1991. Both experiences were worse than any stories you read. They were truly like the novel 1984! People were not allowed to leave their town without permission, even for a visit. All carried internal passports identifying where they lived and their ethnic background. Buying something in a grocery store was an amazing event. First, you stood in line for the cashier to pay for your purchases. The cashiers used old-fashioned Chinese style abacuses even in 1992. Then you stood in the appropriate line with your receipt to get what you wanted. If you were buying meat, you did not have a choice. The butcher gave you a piece that might be fresh or old and you had to take it. One store had a huge display of Turkish tea – tea not Turkish coffee. I was told that the government bought all this tea at a big discount but Russians did not like the tea. However, the tea was going to stay in every store and no other beverages would be carried until all the tea was sold.
In Romania, there was a constant shortage of light bulbs. The government had a rule that you could not get a new light bulb until you turned in your old one so there was a black market in burnt out light bulbs! The hospital where the twins were born was a modern high rise. However, the glass door had been broken for several days and there was snow drifting in the lobby. No one was allowed to fix the door or even board it up until the government sent out official repair people. We had previously met someone who lived there. She asked us one day if she could borrow a few paper tissues because she was out of toilet paper and she was expecting an important guest. She was not allowed to buy any more toilet paper for another week. Yet she and her husband were both senior professionals working for the government.
I could go on with many more stories. They all illustrate what happens when a central government tries to control every aspect of everyone’s life. The communist system was based on a dictatorship. Would it have been much different if the government were a democracy, elected by 51% of the people? Could a small group of people in Washington with all the best intentions devise rules to cover every aspect of living for every person in the country under all circumstances?
Today there are still many people, especially in Universities and in liberal groups, possibly even some of you, who believe that communism and socialism in general are well -intentioned approaches to life. I personally find the idea of living in a beehive or an anthill as extremely repugnant! I believe that anyone who advocates socialism is advocating a system that is even more evil than Hitler’s Nazi system. At least under Hitler some people could live as human beings however repugnant his slaughter of the unwanted. Under Stalin, not only were the unwanted slaughtered in greater numbers, such as the Ukraine famine, but also no one was allowed to live a human life. Everyone was treated as a prisoner of the state, with even less rights than prisoners in this country.
On a personal note, I find it amazing that this group has had as speakers people who still advocate such socialist systems. Our leader has made it very clear he would never let a neo-nazi speak or become a member yet he did not object when a neo-socialist recently spoke and would even consider a Stalinist as a member. Does no one else here see the complete negation of human individuality that is the basis of socialism? Didn’t socialism cause much more pain and destruction than any other system in the history of humanity? How can we think of Socialists as well meaning when they mean a paternalistic slavery? Socialists do not like people as they are – they want to create a new soviet man. Socialists are very open about their goals. Why not accept what they say and condemn it.
Why do I dwell so long on socialism? It is partly because of my personal revulsion of the system, partly at the seeming tolerance of many of you for what I believe negates everything our organization stands for, but mainly because it explains why I am a libertarian. A libertarian is almost the mirror opposite of a socialist and wants the government to have very little to do with normal living. A libertarian does not accept the goals of conservatives to have the government impose their own morality on everyone. A libertarian also opposes the goals of liberals to regulate so many aspects of life. A libertarian accepts that some government is needed for a well-ordered society but in general laws should only be passed to cover extreme situations.
My wife keeps reminding me how important it is to use personal examples so my talk doesn’t get too boring. Since I’ve known this person for 25 years, I believe I can use an example involving him without getting into too much trouble. Since he is a member, I’ll refer to him as Jay for this talk. A few months ago Jay told me one example of what he didn’t like about a pure free enterprise system. He mentioned how complicated the telephone system has gotten. Until a few years ago, the government forced us to use AT&T for all our long distance calls. Jay liked the fact that we did not have any decisions to make. He said life offers enough choices. We shouldn’t have to make so many decisions. Today he is constantly being given options, which require paying attention and making a decision. I reminded him that no matter what option he chose he was better off than before. This did not satisfy him. He gave me the impression he didn’t like knowing that he could save money if he only paid more attention.
This is an almost pure example of the socialist mentality! Jay liked it when someone else made the decisions for him, even if it costs more. Jay also did not take any comfort in the idea that any choice he made, even without thinking, would be better than what the government used to mandate. Because he is given choices he feels that he is making a terrible mistake if he doesn’t study the issue and become an informed consumer. Although he didn’t use these words, a person with this attitude is usually afraid that he now could be taken advantage of by the big bad capitalists. When the government forces a “one size fits all” solution, everyone is treated equally. No one can take advantage of you. But when you have a choice, you might make a mistake and someone will be taking advantage of your ignorance. With the government, everyone is treated exactly the same way. There are no choices to make. Some government bureaucrat is responsible for deciding what the phone company can charge and everyone is treated equally without having to be involved. No one can get ahead or be left behind.
This illustrates the second difference between libertarians and liberals. Liberals put a very high premium on equality. In the phone situation, Jay preferred the past where everyone paid a high rate but was treated equally rather than the present where everyone has the freedom to choose. With freedom comes difference. Everyone will not make the same choice. Some will pay more than others, even if everyone is better off! Libertarians prefer empowering the individual by allowing choices. Liberals are afraid that with choice some will make mistakes. Liberals generally assume that the poorest people will most likely make bad choices, basically that the poorest people are stupid. The basic liberal position is that we must protect the poorest from themselves, even if this requires restricting everyone’s freedom.
Once upon a time about one hundred years ago liberals were afraid of the great-unwashed masses. Liberals were worried that the recent immigrants from Europe had the wrong attitudes, basically that they were too wedded to the Catholic religion. So liberals had laws passed that would force everyone to support a public school that would wean people away from Catholicism. They did not ban private schools because they could not but they did everything they could to make a single public school system the only viable alternative for most people. The original schools were very explicitly Protestant in orientation. However over time liberals have just about eliminated any Protestant influence. Today everyone is forced to support a government monopoly school system that is probably the single most important government undertaking in this country. Libertarians view this as a major evil, as the biggest and most pervasive example of a socialist orientation. Fortunately most public schools are run by local governments with only modest state and national controls. Since people are free to move, most communities expend a lot of effort to ensure they have a good school system. Thus the school system as it currently exists is run by many competing districts and so has not developed the failings of most government monopolies such as the Post Office. This is not true of large city schools. They are almost all total disasters. Yet liberals are wedded to the concept of a uniform system of state controls where everyone suffers equally, just as Jay preferred the old phone system where everyone was charged the same absurdly high rate.
As many of you know, I helped found a Charter School in Englewood. A Charter School is a public school that reports to the state rather than the local district. It is an attempt to introduce competition into a very rigid system. We must accept all students on a non-discriminatory basis. Englewood is the worst performing school in Bergen County and one of the worst in the state. Yet Englewood spends more money than almost any other district. Englewood blamed the low scores on the fact that so many students came from poor families. Since the Charter School would have the same students, there could no longer be any excuses. Englewood reacted very forcefully. They went to court many times over many issues, going all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court twice. More significantly they accused us of violating the Constitution. They said we were racist even though 5 of the 6 board members were African American. Even more extreme, they accused us of violating the 13th Amendment that freed the slaves! They used very typical liberal reasoning. They said that students who attended the Charter School would be perceived to be getting a better education so the other students would in their words “bear the badges and indicia of slavery”. This really happened. I was personally accused in a formal resolution and in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court of reintroducing slavery! How could intelligent well-meaning people do this?
This is the ultimate result of emphasizing equality above all else. In this view, it is unfair to allow a Charter school because it might actually be better than the existing school, which would harm the psyche of students attending the existing school. In other words it is better that all do equally bad than that some be given an opportunity to improve. If I weren’t personally in the middle of this I would not have believed this could happen, that people would think this way. I know that our group has not condemned Charter Schools but they have condemned all other forms of school choice. Again this seems to be the result of emphasizing equality rather than results. It doesn’t matter how bad the public schools are to big city liberals – in New York or Washington. Well to do parents in big cities from President Clinton on down, all send their children to private schools. But they don’t trust poor people with these decisions. No matter how badly they do poor people must use the single government run public schools. Children’s education is of secondary concern. Government control of the education of the poor is the primary objective of most liberals. This is another example of not trusting people. Poor parents obviously can’t be trusted to make decisions about their children’s education. The government under liberal control must do what’s best for them.
On a positive note, I was very pleased a few weeks ago to hear that we had invited a guest to explain how we could voluntarily use alternative forms of energy. The law finally allows individuals to make individual decisions on this issue. I believe in freedom of choice. Why should poor people be forced to use the much more expensive wind energy? Conversely middle class people should have the option to do so voluntarily. Then groups such as ours can try to influence others to switch rather than trying to pass a law that forces everyone to do so. Clearly convincing people one at a time to use alternative energy sounds less efficient than having a law passed which forces everyone to switch but it respects the rights of the individual to disagree with the group. Are you so sure of the importance of using alternative energy that you would jail all who disagree with you? Yet jail is what passing a law means. Once a law is passed, no dissenting actions are allowed. Everyone must conform to the one way of acting or face going to jail.
This is a perfect example of the difference in approaches. A libertarian would lobby to have a law that lets each person decide individually and then would assume personal responsibility to convince people of what is the best choice. A liberal would decide what he thinks is right and then try to pass a law to force everyone to do so. But is using renewable energy such a life or death situation that people should be sent to jail if they don’t agree with the liberal position? Remember passing a law means deciding that the police must arrest anyone who disagrees. This is where believing in others comes into play. Do you believe people are inherently good and only need to be informed of the alternative or do you believe people are not to be trusted and so must be coerced to do what you personally think is right?
This is very clear in the debate over Social Security reform. Liberals prefer the status quo where the government decides everything. Liberals sincerely believe that many people cannot be trusted with such important long-term economic investment planning. To protect those who might make mistakes, liberals are willing to ban everyone from making decisions. Of course, most liberals are middle or upper middle class and they know they themselves can be trusted. Thus Social Security stops at about the income level of most liberal decision makers. It’s just those poorer people who will be mislead, who need the government to force them to invest wisely. Of course this has the quite expected result that the rich are allowed to get richer by investing while the poor are banned from investing their retirement funds. The poor must settle for whatever return the politicians decide to let them have, almost totally a political rather than an economic decision. Is it any wonder that people are starting to notice what an insult the current Social Security system is, not only to their economic well being, but equally importantly to their intelligence and freedom.
Liberals don’t trust people, especially poor people. Liberals always justify their actions as helping the poor. But somehow it always translates into limiting the poor, into forcing the poor to do what liberals believe is best for them. Through all of recorded history until the twentieth century, people were expected to provide for old age without any government involvement. Today all upper middle class people are allowed to manage their own savings. But liberals sincerely believe that if poorer people were given a choice they would make two mistakes:
1. They would not save enough for old age.
2. What they did save would often be lost because they are gullible and easily mislead. The current Social Security system demeans rather than empowers individuals. Yet not only is this view controversial, it is not even discussed. Liberal groups act like there is only one correct view and all people of good will should obviously rally to save the current system from those who would dare question it. The current government Social Security system has become close to dogma in its unthinking acceptance.
Liberals are generally afraid of offering choice. Liberals don’t trust people to make reasonable decisions in economic matters in exactly the same way conservatives are afraid to let people make decisions in ethical and moral areas. Libertarians are willing to let people make more decisions. Yes people are not perfect and will make mistakes. But there is a better way to help those who make mistakes than to prevent everyone from making decisions. For instance we have bankruptcy laws that allow people to start over with a clean slate. We also have various forms of insurance to cover many types of mistakes. Instead of banning choices let’s develop more safeguards to help those who make mistakes. I dwell on Social Security because it is being reviewed and because it is probably one of the most important ways that liberals have of regulating people’s lives. Do you think this group will ever support alternatives that start trusting people and giving people a little more control over their lives rather than perpetuating the current “Big Brother knows best” approach to Social Security?
I should take a small detour at this point and remind you of my introduction. I am saying things that you do not normally hear at this platform. I am also exaggerating the differences to make my points clearer. In fact most people hold mixed views. Almost no one is a pure libertarian or a pure liberal on every issue. Different members of this audience are probably ready to hang me on some of these issues and praise me on others. Hopefully I have illustrated the difference between a libertarian mindset that trusts people to make their own decisions and run their lives relatively free of government control and a liberal mindset that wants to protect the week and poor by removing everybody’s choices.
I will mention a few more examples very quickly without going into much detail. I strongly oppose government subsidies to so-called National Public Radio and Public Television Channel 13 even though we listen to them and personally contribute. These appeal to a very upscale audience that can easily afford to pay for it. Why should tax dollars be compulsorily extracted from poor people to subsidize upper middle class offerings? I know the claim is this makes high culture available to the poor. But all audience surveys show very few poor listen. This is just a flimsy excuse for liberals to reward themselves and pretend they are being altruistic at the same time by forcing people to pay for what liberals deem good.
Consider the debate over health care. If liberals were really interested in extending health care coverage to the poor they wouldn’t constantly propose extensive government interference. In every country with government run health care, the politicians and the upper middle class are able to ignore it by paying for private care, just as public schools are ignored in large cities. Who needs health care run the way New York City runs it’s schools? Why not use the model that has been developed for automobile insurance? It isn’t perfect but no system is. It has far less problems than our current health system. It ensures that everyone is covered and provides a partial subsidy to the poorest. Yet it does not require government management.
Naturally as a libertarian I don’t believe the government should be confiscating 35% of my money to spend on so many projects. It is not just the waste although there is certainly plenty of that. More importantly it is the basic principal that the government should only use force in the most extreme circumstances. The government should not force me to pay taxes to support rich farmers, to subsidize exports by large companies, to subsidize your favorite radio programs or about half of all expenditures. Thus I welcome every tax cut because it forces government to focus on what is truly urgent instead of what a majority would sort of like to have. Yet our Sunday School teaches our children that tax cuts are actually evil because they deprive the government of money to do good things! There was no mention that reasonable people might disagree about the proper role of government. The whole point was that anyone favoring tax cuts is favoring the most backward reactionary view of life. That such people are heartless and cruel. When I heard this I got a little out of control because I was personally being attacked in what I believed to be a dogmatic mindless manner. I was very annoyed that the Sunday School would sanction such an extremely uncharitable view of my motives in supporting the tax cut. I tried to convey my feelings as forcefully as I could to partially counter the obvious years of indoctrination that went into that view. I used strong words but I believe in using strong words when the occasion arises.
Recently we sang, “We shall overcome” at a Sunday platform. It brought back memories of 1964 when I spent a few days in Greenwood Mississippi as part of the Civil Rights effort. Most of the students came down by bus but I had just bought a car and drove there. I was told that at the bus stop the Sheriff’s deputy took pictures of all students so they could be carefully monitored. We were there to help African Americans learn enough to be able to pass the very difficult voter registration tests then in effect only for them. It quickly became obvious that it was unsafe to walk in the white parts of town. The law was being administered in a way that favored the white majority. The scariest moment occurred one morning when I decided to sleep late. I let my friend drive my car and both he and the car were arrested! It gave me a real lesson in what a democratically elected government can do to minorities of any color. In this case, northern white college students were the enemy. That experience helped me realize that no government, even a democratically elected one, should ever be given too much power. We need a culture that frowns on using the government to solve all our problems. We should be reluctant to turn over our freedoms to any government without strong justifications. Only a constrained government will allow room for minorities to exist and disagree. I don’t believe you can give governments extensive power to regulate economic issues without also giving government great control over all parts of our lives. The power to tax and spend is a big power, not to be lightly handed over to any government.
On a different note, I was very happy to read Joe’s words in December where he emphasized the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to humanism. He noted that the concept of human rights is rooted in the value of the autonomous individual. A logical consequence of this is that the individual must be given every opportunity to act autonomously and any governmental constraint should only occur for the most serious issues. The individual cannot be forced to practice a particular religion. Nor should an individual be forced to invest in a government retirement income. How autonomous can an individual be who is restricted from acting in a wide variety of ways? Conservatives believe religion is so important that government should force it on people. Liberals believe that economic security is so important that government should force it on people. I don’t agree with either position but I would say that conservatives have the better argument. The moral well being of people is more important than their material well-being. Somehow liberals are willing to let individuals make their own moral decisions but don’t trust people to make many economic decisions. Somehow liberals allow churches to recruit people to their belief system without any safeguards such as disclosure laws but don’t like it when corporations try to influence people in economic decisions. For instance should banking laws really force bankers to go to jail if they don’t properly explain the difference between simple interest and compound interest?
While I’m offending everyone I can’t resist adding one more – namely the issue of Bush vs. Gore. I find it very offensive that so many people here think Bush is a total dunce and Gore is smart. Bush got an MBA and graduated in the middle of his class at Harvard Business School – the most difficult in the country. Yet people act as though he was only a rich undergraduate at Yale who got special consideration because of his connections. By contrast Gore dropped out of Divinity school. Bush was Governor of the second largest state and was reelected. Even though the Texas Governor has less power than almost any other Governor, he generally was able to achieve his goals working with a Democratic majority government. It takes political skill and lots of plain smarts to do that. By contrast Gore wrote a truly terrible book about the environment. It was filled with every cliché of the late 80’s and clearly provides very bad advice if taken literally. From my perspective the most important negative about Gore was his very close ties with the teacher’s union and how much more minorities would suffer if he were elected and adopted their policies.
Most of my examples have been very negative – illustrating what not to do. Let me conclude this rather long talk by giving a positive example of how a libertarian approach can help solve problems better than the alternatives. The environment is on everyone’s mind. Do libertarians believe the air and water will magically stay clean with no effort? Or are libertarians so against government action that we are willing to live with filth and disease to uphold our principals? On the contrary libertarians are very conscious of the fact that no one is responsible for the air and water – it is a public good so no one individual has any incentive to maintain or improve it. This clearly requires government action. But not all government action is the same. Libertarians have developed very practical ways to clean the air and water with the least government restrictions on our freedom. In the last few years this libertarian approach has almost become accepted conventional wisdom. It is even included as a basic part of the international effort to reduce global warming known as the Kyoto protocol.
The basic idea is for the government to set the desired goals and then let individuals use the best means they can to achieve these goals. In the case of air pollution, this involves giving each city or each industrial complex a permit that specifies how much pollution is allowed. These permits are then traded between groups so that the group that can do the most to reduce pollution makes the most money. In this way air pollution is reduced at the lowest cost to society. Also, as new technologies are developed, new groups can bid for the permits, allowing ongoing improvements without any government involvement. In using this libertarian approach, the government’s role is restricted to setting the goal and handing out the initial permits. There is then no need for a large bureaucracy to monitor everyone’s behavior or to constantly revise detailed rules to reflect changing circumstances. Society can decide in a democratic fashion what goals to pursue while allowing individuals the maximum freedom to decide how to achieve these goals. Surely that is the proper way to act so as to bring out the best in others.
In closing I would like to summarize by saying that taking personal responsibility for our lives is an important aspect of living as a human being. I know that liberals want to help those less fortunate. But they are not doing poor people any favors by sheltering them from personal responsibility. They are not fragile children who will wilt if they make a mistake. Treat the poor as you would treat yourselves – as fully-grown humans who are allowed to make mistakes and are willing to accept the consequences. It is OK to help those in need when they are in need but it is not OK to suffocate them with rules or to assume they always need help as though they are children. The alternative to letting people make mistakes is to keep them in a form of perpetual paternalistic slavery. People would rather go hungry and be free than have a guaranteed meal and live as kept animals. Fortunately we have learned that freedom not only is the morally sound approach but it also provides the most material well-being.
Please note very carefully that I did not talk about free markets or about capitalism. I am talking about the government regulating us vs. our taking responsibility for our own lives. Free markets are a small but important part of this. But the bigger issue is trusting people with freedom. Recently Joe gave a talk where he clearly mixed these two concepts. He said “Market values have taken over everything”. Somehow liberals decided to equate the freedom to choose with the idea of marketing. In fact under a more libertarian government people are free to live in communes, pursue research in a University, be a religious leader or pursue a business career. Under a system of extensive government rules, these options are restricted to whatever 51% of the people approve. If people don’t approve of communes, a libertarian government can’t interfere but a more powerful government can and will impose restrictions, claiming it is for their own good. A famous visitor in the nineteenth century – Mr. de Tocqueville – noted how much freer and more willing Americans were to get involved in local community groups. This is precisely what people do when they are not closely regulated. By contrast people in Europe tend to live under more paternalistic governments and so they do less voluntarily. Yes there is some attraction in not having to think, not having so many decisions to make, not having to worry about economic security, but it comes at a high price – the diminution of our humanity.
The highest principals of ethical behavior can be brought out in others by encouraging people to take personal responsibility rather than by lobbying for laws that force people to behave. Asking the government to solve the issues that arise in our daily existence should be a last resort rather than an acceptable first step. A society that allows unlimited expansion of government power in good causes is a society giving up its freedom through a thousand small cuts. Don’t look at the good intention behind each proposed new law. Ask yourself instead if this issue is so important and you are so sure of yourself that you are willing to jail anyone who disagrees with you. Capital punishment is not the only use of state force that should be minimized. All use of state force should be minimized! Most issues should be resolved through the longer slower but more civilized and ultimately more effective process of persuasion rather than by passing laws. Society functions best when we place greater trust in our neighbors and are reluctant to resort to force. I am an optimist. I believe in my fellow human. I invite you to consider that this is the true ethical spirit.