People will behave in a manner that is consistent with their own best interest. Adam Smith first articulated this in his economic treatise, and at a very fundamental level it makes perfect sense. Those of us who are altruistic still receive a “benefit” from our selfless actions in recognizing the joy in others, or in some more narcissistic examples the accolades we receive from those who know of our philanthropic actions.
But how can you compel people to do things that they may or may not recognize are in their “best interest”. Or, more to the point of this blog, how can one compel people to engage in behavior that actually restricts their happiness… either for a supposed “greater good” or simply because you want to control their behavior to enhance your own happiness?
This can only be achieved through two methods: violence and persuasion.
The State (and I use that in the most global term) has maximized the use of this. Its ability to use persuasion is typically ham-fisted… (see North Korea below). Its ability to use violence, however, is unsurpassed.
Sandy emigrated from Korea to the United States when she was two years old. Her family’s story in Korea is fascinating and shows the intersection of global political movements and the resulting misery of totalitarianism.
Her father’s family inhabited what is now North Korea for multiple generations. (The family, interestingly enough, has a “family history” book [at my in-laws’ house] that spans literally a thousand years of Sunus… Sandy’s maiden name). Her father’s family was quite prosperous in the North and had established a thriving trade business. After World War II, the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung, a young Moscow-educated radical as its proxy in the North. Sandy’s family, seeing what was occurring, began preparations to move to the South. Unfortunately, Kim Il Sung’s aggression was taking place on a faster time frame than her grandfather had predicted and they ended up literally abandoning everything as they fled totalitarianism.
Her grandfather understood a basic principle: If the family remained behind, the only way for the North to achieve its workers’ paradise would be to use force and the threat of violence to compel capitulation on the part of the population.
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In a totalitarian state all must capitulate to the desires of a central planner. Independent thought is not only not tolerated, it is an existential threat to the State. Thus we see the advent of what we call “positive law”. Before a subject of the State can do anything, there must be permission granted… permission that can be revoked at any time if the interests of the individual become conflicted with the interests of the collective. This is the very antithesis of personal freedom… and a very, very easy road for a State to go down.
There is an arrogance of infallibility that exists in the Mandarines of a State. Those few select individuals truly believe that their policies will bring about greater strength for the collective. Worse, as human nature is not a dispensable attribute, those same Mandarines often place their own interests above that of the State. To be sure, they would never couch their actions in this way. They are selfless leaders of their countries… defenders of the revolution and protectors of the vision of collectivism. But make no mistake… their own palaces are monuments to their own egos, and they survive on the suppression of their people. That is why, on such a fundamental level, they are terrified of their subjects. They know that when the yoke of totalitarianism is lifted, even a tiny bit, exile to a foreign land becomes their best option, execution by firing squad the most likely.
Alexis De Tocqueville, in his seminal work, Democracy in America, noted some unique qualities of the “American Experience” that were far different from his native France and, for that matter, most of the European potentates he was most familiar with:
Chief among these qualities are… the use of “negative law” and fundamental constitutional protections of the individual, protections that shielded individuals from the passions of the majority.
“Negative Law” is by definition the single thing that ensures the greatest level of freedom for a State. Rather than outline what an individual can do, it simply prohibits what an individual cannot do.
Think of a “No U Turn” sign on the road.
When you see one, there is a declarative statement regulating your behavior at that particular intersection. You will note that every other intersection does not have a “Yes U Turn” sign. In the absence of a prohibition, the individuals are free to engage in conduct that is the most efficient for their particular circumstance.
This goes beyond mere traffic laws. In the absence of a declarative statement by a legislature prohibiting an activity, the individuals are empowered to organize their affairs in a self-oriented manner in which they believe they have the greatest opportunity to achieve happiness. This could be through self-sacrifice, or it could be through selfish accumulation… it is not up to the State to decide how one pursues his or her ultimate goal.
By articulating certain inalienable rights in our Declaration of Independence, and further taking fundamental rights and removing government interference with the exercise of those rights (The Bill of Rights), our Framers set the framework that unleashed the ultimate power of the individual.
But De Tocqueville also issued a warning to future generations of Americans: Legislative and bureaucratic creep will always threaten the freedom of the individual and, by extension, put at risk the entire “American Experiment”. For without the constant vigilance of the individual, governments will naturally expand, regulations will be promulgated, and freedom will be reduced. Each step towards collectivism comes with it necessary subtraction of individual liberty.
The State and her handmaidens, the bureaucrats, are a jealous mistress, and once she has achieved jurisdiction, she is profoundly hesitant to relinquish control. She also is well aware of a the fundamental nature of humanity: She can only ultimately control through the implicit fear of violence. Follow her rules and perhaps you will be lucky and she will simply ignore you. Fall victim to her gaze and you run the risk of loss of property and ultimately liberty… and the only way, in the final analysis, that she can turn you over to her jailer or seize your assets is to amass a force of pretorians who will enforce her will at the point of a sword. (Or in our modern world, a carbine.)
Yet, there are, in fact, moments of light that emanate from the State. For there are individuals who sit at the seat of power and are actual patriots. Our State (as opposed to totalitarian states), is not monolithic with party membership being a prerequisite to administrative control.
Last week, many of you know from our emails, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department issued a new policy governing what a CCW holders can do to modify their gun that they carry holstered for protection. The department, ultimately, decided that it would not arbitrarily restrict the capacity of the magazines that a CCW holder carried.
It had no legal mandate to relax these requirements. The department did it unilaterally. Last week when Sandy and I returned back from West Point after visiting Chaney, we met with the SGT in charge of the CCW licensing unit. I asked him somewhat matter of factly what the motivation was to relax the standards of weapons modifications. His reply was instructive: There was no legitimate reason to have had the standards in the first place. There is no statutory law preventing it, so in the absence of a law, why should they be promulgating a policy?
It was an exquisite example of department maturity. Their new position is not nuanced… it falls squarely on the shoulders of what our Framers intended. The individual is responsible, ultimately, not the Mandarines of the State.