Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Business vs. the Individual

Last year I appeared on a panel to discuss a proposed high-rise project in Houston. I was the only panel member in favor of the project. The audience, which consisted primarily of home owners in a neighborhood near the project site, was almost unanimously opposed to the project. During the discussion, two comments made by audience members were interesting, and I think, quite revealing.

The first comment was that I didn't appear to care about individuals, only businesses. The comment caught me by surprise, and at the time I didn't have the luxury of giving it much thought. In retrospect, I have a better understanding of what provoked such a comment.

Throughout the discussion I had defended the right of the developer to use his property as he chose. The audience saw this as a battle between individuals and business. Since I sided with the business, they perceived that I don't care about individuals.

This is not an uncommon view. Businesses, and particularly large ones, are often seen as impersonal and exploitative. The marketplace is often viewed as a dog-eat-dog competition, in which businesses cut one another's throats for the privilege of robbing consumers. The individual is lost and helpless in this feeding frenzy.

Such a view--and its less extreme manifestations--is founded on a perverted view of a business transaction, and by implication, self-interest. It holds that advertising is manipulation, sales is deception, and self-interest is whim worship. It rejects the idea that individuals can voluntarily trade to mutual benefit.

This is the false alternative offered by altruists--one must sacrifice to others, or sacrifice others to oneself. Sacrifice is the given, and the only issue to be decided is who will sacrifice. In the context of the panel discussion, the audience saw the alternatives as sacrificing the developer, or sacrificing themselves.

The second comment comes from the same error. An audience member claimed that I was telling people how to live their lives. In a certain sense he was right--I was telling them to respect the property rights of the developer. But that isn't what he meant.

He saw my position as an attempt to impose my values on the home owners by force. Again, the false alternatives were--use force against the developer, or use force against the home owners. Even though I had explicitly rejected the use of force, he was unable to comprehend such an alternative. That individuals can, and should, interact voluntarily and with mutual consent was a completely foreign principle.

This error stems from the view that man's nature is that of a snarling, emotion-driven beast. Left to his own devices, he would rape and pillage without constraint. He would use and abuse others, limited only by the ability of others to use and abuse him.

Such a view is a confession of one's self-image, and I certainly witnessed its manifestation that night. On multiple occasions the audience tried to shout me down. One audience member asked for my removal from the panel. I was booed and insulted. The audience acted like a snarling, emotion-driven beast, willing to physically silence me because it did not like the words I spoke. Believing that man's nature is that of a brute, the audience acted like brutes.

But man is not, by nature, a brute. Man is not guided by innate ideas or seething passions, but by his mind. His choice is not to sacrifice or be sacrificed, but to think or to evade. Man does not, and cannot, live by force, but by reason.

Projecting their own self-image onto others, the advocates of regulation believe that laws are all that prevent us from raping and murdering. If laws work in regard to rape and murder, then other controls and regulations are equally justified. They advocate controlling man to prevent him from acting according to their view of his nature. And in the process, they prevent him from acting according to his true nature--that of a rational being. They try to subdue his emotions, and in the end, subjugate his reason.


Burgess Laughlin said...

I admire you for your focus, on the area of property rights, and for your long-term persistence. You are also adding philosophical insight into the nature of those who support statism over individual rights.

I would like to draw attention to one narrow point that might be of value to other activists. You said:

"The comment caught [me] by surprise, and at the time I didn't have the luxury of giving it much thought. In retrospect, I have a better understanding of what provoked such a comment."

You have captured here an insight into the value of focusing one's efforts, that is, specializing in activism (whether it be philosophical, intellectual, or political activism--or some combination of them).

The insight you have here supported is that the accumulation of knowledge and experience takes time. For years or even decades, an activist may continue encountering new tactics and new arguments from his opponents. Thinking through responses usually isn't possible on the spot. Thinking takes time.

Afterwards, thinking through a response prepares the activist for the next time he encounters the same tactic or argument. He is then better armed. That process can take a long time. Specializing, to some extent, speeds up that process by delimiting the arena of debate.

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for the compliments and the comments.

Your are definitely right-- it takes time to build up one's intellectual arsenal. It also takes time to build up one's confidence, speaking skills, etc.

Debriefing--as I call my post-event thinking--is invaluable. I always identify something I could have said more clearly, or a better example, or something similar. But as you say, I am then better prepared the next time. This adds to my confidence, which I think also improves my speaking skills.