Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Just say "no" to government bias

I was infuriated (but perhaps should not have been surprised) to read an article by Joe Carter (in the Acton Institute's blog, of all places!) explicitly defending the idea of harnessing bias in governmental institutions. Summarizing the difference between the conservatism he wants to defend and the libertarianism he wants to critique, he gives the following quote:
Libertarians believe that neutrality between the various spheres of society—and especially between the government and the individual—are both possible and desirable, and so the need for bias toward a certain outcome is not only unnecessary, but contrary to liberty. Religious conservatives, in contrast, recognize that such neutrality between individual and social spheres is illusory and that bias is an intractable aspect of human nature.
The application of this position came today, in a follow-up article he wrote in agreement with state intervention in aiding start-up companies:
As Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, says, “It would be naive to think we can cleanse the law of all biases. But what if the law were biased, not toward the oil and gas industry or the cotton farmers, but toward the creative, the self-employed, and the entrepreneurs?”
You can watch Derek Thompson explain himself on the Alyona Show here.

Carter and Thompson both have intentions which are pure enough. After all, it would be a great thing to see more young entrepreneurs contribute to our prosperity instead of watching all of it go to CEO's of big corporations.

But as Milton Friedman said, good intentions are highly overrated.

What I cannot comprehend is why "religious conservatives" have completely forgotten the ideal of impartiality, an ideal which is commonly attributed to God throughout the Bible. It would be one thing if Carter had merely said, "I think government will always have some bias in it." What he is actually saying is that we should direct this bias toward ends we desire. Does this really pass for a defense of liberty? Are we really now to believe that it is the well-meaning free-market activists who really know the ends toward which society should move?

Whichever intellectual forces brought us to the point where we believe in embracing institutional bias in government deserve to be burned in the fires of hell (and please do not construe "intellectual forces" to refer to people; hate the sin, love the sinner, as they say). A free society is unique among all other forms of social order in one crucial sense: in a free society, the ends to which members of the society strive are never determined by human authority. Thus the end to which government ought to strive is strictly one of defense: preserving the social order from those who would seek to impose their will on others. When the government is in the habit of imposing its own will on others, I call that tyranny.

I acknowledge that what Carter and Thompson are suggesting is benign. It is their way of thinking about the issue that poses a serious long-term problem to freedom. They are not the innovators, of course; they are simply imitating the status quo. As long as people who wish to defend freedom keep imitating the status quo, we will never get justice.

So let me say it plainly: anyone who utters the words "bias is inevitable" is defending tyranny. There is nothing inevitable about a government which picks winners and losers, which defends its own interests at the expense of others, which takes from some to give to others, and which compels all members of society to contribute to particular goals. In other words, the status quo is not inevitable. We must examine how we got here, and seek to move in a new direction.

Let's be clear on what I am not saying, before we go accusing "Mr. Libertarian" of being a cold-hearted bastard who believes in a society consisting every man for himself. I am not saying there should be no cooperation between people in order to help those who may want to take risks and start a new business. I am not saying that young entrepreneurs don't need encouragement. I am simply saying that the strong arm of the state doesn't need to be part of this, and more generally coercion doesn't need to be the instrument by which people help each other.

But the goal of having more entrepreneurs and less power in corporations is an admirable goal. One way you could help entrepreneurs is by defending them from the overreaching powers of the government. The Institute for Justice is the only organization I know of that tries to raise public awareness about the problems with over-regulation and actually do something about it.

Freedom is about protecting the individual conscience, and I believe conscience will drive many people to do great things to change society for the better. What we must  never do is succumb to the temptation to force others down a path we believe is just. The ends do not justify the means. The injustice of coercion trumps the justice of any one cause (unless that cause is itself to prevent coercion, which is a case that must be dealt with separately). If we surrender the ideological battle to the "inevitability of bias," then in the long run freedom has no chance.

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