Why do People Believe in Government?

Close up of a soldier in protective helmet symbolizes governmentI have had many debates with intelligent, rational and well-educated people about the virtues of a free society. A society based on free market principles without the need for a government that has a monopoly on force. The folks I’ve chatted with rarely change their minds in favor of a free market system. The logic used on both sides of the debate didn’t seem logical to the opposing party because our premises were at odds. What I discovered is that the type of political system or lack thereof that people endorse is a result of their belief in the makeup of human nature. In overly simplistic (and as we shall see detrimental) terms anarchist believe that people are innately good while statists believe that humans are innately bad. When proponents from these groups square off, like equally matched diaper clad sumo wrestlers, there is a big collision, some predictable maneuvering and some tired retorts, but not much progress. The real issue is that the underlying subject of the debate; people, are being viewed from opposite vantage points.  And each sweaty fat guy (have I taken the metaphor too far?) takes for granted his view on human nature, which is seldom made explicit. The argument is ultimately a debate on human nature, which is best resolved by looking to scientific evidence to establish our true nature. Research supports that we are predisposed towards rational self-interest, empathy and cooperation. However, a quick glance at the current state of society shows that people are not always living up to their true nature. This leads to the mistaken belief that people are incorrigibly bad and therefore need to be controlled by a government that uses threats of force as a control mechanism.

Let us begin unraveling this conundrum by defining what people may mean by “bad.” To couch humans in the moral terms of good and bad only serves to hinder our understanding. Moral labels of individuals direct attention to the person and not the action. It causes us to view the person as static and unchangeable instead of dynamic and adaptable. What “bad” ultimately means is that a person will try to meet his needs regardless of the effects of his actions on others. Unfortunately, as I am sure you are painfully aware; there are people who will do this. However, there is one important caveat. Currently a vast majority of people will meet their needs at the expense of others only if there are no negative repercussions for doing so. The effect that deterrents, both internal and external, have on individuals can be viewed as if on a continuum. For simplicity let us use stealing as an example.  Some people will not steal because it violates their need for consistency and universality. They understand logically that if they steal from someone then they are condoning stealing. They themselves however don’t want to be stolen from and are thereby holding the same action in contempt. They also understand that stealing decreases well-being and they don’t want to hinder their own or another’s ability to thrive. The threat of negative repercussions is not a critical consideration in their motivation and in fact these individuals would likely accept negative repercussions in order to maintain integrity. In short, these people are rational and empathetic.  Next on the continuum is the group of people who would not steal because they would feel guilt or shame to do so. This group has internalized past external punishments, usually in the form of religious fear mongering or parental reproach. The next group, after the guilty bunch, is those who would not steal only because they are afraid of getting caught. They fear the external punishment of doing time.  And finally, there is the group who will steal no matter the repercussions.  The previous information is best conceptualized as a bell curve with most people falling in the middle, not committing “bad” acts due to guilt, shame or fear of punishment. There are relatively few people who need no external deterrents and few who would ignore them completely.

Well, that should settle it, right? There seems to be enough people in the world who only respond to external negative repercussions to warrant a police state. So it’s off to the voting booth you go. Hey, this time vote for the tall guy, I mean his wife is so pretty. But before you decide which group of “criminals” gets the guns pointed at them please understand your presumed need for government rests on a very large assumption; the belief that governmental policies and laws actually create a deterrent.  The sad, yet predictable, truth is that government laws and programs produce far more predation than any predation they curtail.  Yes, there are people who will meet their needs at the expense of others but there a far more of them due to government policy.

When the people in government are not outright creating crime, as with the preposterous prohibition on drugs, it is more surreptitiously removing repercussions allowing for magnitudes of vice that would have made Al Capone ponder switching teams. Welfare policies are one of the many not so obvious ways that government removes deterrents.  Through welfare the normal hardships expected to be encountered by a single mother are mitigated thereby increasing single mother families. Single mother families have doubled in the US since 1970, shortly after LBJ ushered in the great society programs, and currently the US has the highest percentage of such families in the developed world with 34%. To compound that statistic, 85% percent of children who have behavioral disorders come from single mother families. These facts help to shed some light on why the US also has the highest incarcerations rates in the world. While street crime is a problem that induces a more visceral reaction that trestles the belief in government over the chasm of irrational fear, the far worse effects of the removal of disincentives is to be found in white collar crime. The current corporate structure in the US shields executive’s personal assets from risk due to their company’s negligence. Couple this with the notion of “too big to fail” (yet another shield from liability but this time on an institutional level) and is it any wonder why we are enduring an economic meltdown only rivaled by the Great Depression.  A near economic collapse in which trillions of dollars’ worth of fantastical derivatives evaporated and every major bank, including the Fed, found itself suddenly insolvent overnight.  As usual you and I and our progeny for eternity will foot the bill through forced taxation as those responsible for the financial maelstrom hide behind laws implemented courtesy of the US government (yes, the same government that a majority of people are currently clamoring to for more “regulation.”)  This is larceny on a grand scale which could only be perpetrated with the aid of government granted monopoly and protection. It makes the petty crime most people fear and use as justification for the government seem… well, petty. It’s a high price to pay for a little protection.

The examples of how the government creates crime and shields people from negative repercussions could go on indefinitely, much longer than your patience and my resistance to carpel tunnel could hold out. I thought a few examples would be instructive; however, let’s get to the bottom line. Using force to solve social problems fails. Force produces the opposite of the desired results and plethora of unintended consequences. Every useful service that government is currently trying yet failing to provide has been provided at some point in history by the free market, thus making the high price currently paid for government an unnecessary one. It is a sad testament to our current society that we need negative external motivation to keep people from taking advantage of others. That however does not mean that we need to use force, much less allow for an institution whose sole purpose is the use of force. There have been many books and articles written on how an anarchic society could provide free market based services, which are currently the province of government, while creating non-violent disincentives currently necessary to allow for a smoothly functioning society. Humans have the ability to live in harmony without handing over significant freedoms to a small group of individuals with the duty to point guns at everybody else.  This case has been made to no effect. Why? As you can see it’s not the difficulty or incredulity of the arguments. They are easy to understand and not farfetched. People hang on to their belief in the necessity of government force because of the false belief that people are irredeemably bad and will not comply without threats.

We are not born destined to meet our needs at the expense of others. On the contrary, we have a natural inclination towards rational self- interest, cooperation and empathy.  The reason that many have not reached their potential is due to a combination of non-effective parenting received as children and non-effective thinking as adults. Not surprisingly, scientific studies support that the way to encourage empathy is by the parents modeling empathy (Parenting Science: Teaching Empathy).  They also support the link between empathetic behavior and lower incidences of deviance (Science of Evil). It is possible to nurture empathetic people who are far less likely to engage in deviant behavior. It is also possible, although difficult, that people shown little empathy as children can develop empathy as adults. Why then do so many believe that a society composed of rationally self-interested, cooperative and empathetic people who do not need threats of force imposed upon them is impossible?

If you are tenaciously holding onto the belief in a pernicious human nature that will only respond to punishment, don’t fret. You came by your resistance honestly, but it is time to re-examine this belief as it is hindering you from achieving optimal well-being. If you believe this myth you more than likely believe it because of behavior modeled by your parents. They demonstrated by action that their needs superseded your needs and they met their own at your expense. Your indoctrination of humanity was that people will meet their needs at the expense of others. You lacked the knowledge at the time to ascribe the problem in the relationship to your parents, but you knew something was wrong, so you ended up believing what was inferred or explicitly stated: that you were what was wrong and that you were in need of an authority to control you. Sadly, what you are really saying when you say people are bad is that you believe that you are bad. When you say we need a government you are saying you believe you need a parent to control you. It is as Orwellian nightmare of complete internalization of false moral beliefs. You were told you were bad as a justification to ease the conscious of those who met their needs at your expense. And it is to these false beliefs that you have relinquished your freedom. You are beyond the age of being controlled physically by your parents; however you are controlled from within, thus allowing the government to control you by threat. So even with no one watching, you will sing the praises of control in the form of government. Tragically, you love big brother.

This sorted love affair can come came to an end, however. As you come to terms with how you were treated as a child and adopt a more accurate view of human nature you can begin to free yourself from the negative self-image adopted during childhood. And when the illusion is shattered you can slowly begin to see yourself for what you really are; a person who is trying to meet their needs. This shift in paradigm from bad people to people with needs allows you to devise new strategies (values) for achieving those needs which will in turn exponentially increase your well-being. Seen from this vantage point people begin to look less ominous. And this allows fear to be replaced with understanding and empathy for the all too human struggle of striving towards well-being.


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