Thursday, July 15, 2010

You Can Fight City Hall

In response to Tuesday's post about libraries my wife emailed me the following comment:
I could relate to Mr. Moderate's comment and story about his father growing up poor and how important the public library was.  It was very important in our family too. Reading books was very much valued to dad and us kids, but we counted on the library for our books and any research. We didn't have money to buy books and of course, no Internet connection. However, Mr. Moderate is thinking all or none...public library or no library. I used to think that too. We're so indoctrinated growing up, it's very hard to even imagine that any big resource like schools or libraries could be owned privately.
There are two aspects of my wife's comment worth investigating further.

The first, and more fundamental, issue is the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made. Metaphysical facts are those governed by the laws of nature, such as the orbit of planets. Such facts are necessitated by the nature of the entities involved. Man-made facts, such as public institutions like education and libraries, are not necessary--they result from the choices made by individuals. Metaphysical facts cannot be different or altered; man-made facts can be.

Confusing these two types of facts can have disastrous consequences. To regard the man-made as a metaphysical fact is to declare that it cannot be altered, that it is beyond the choice of anyone. It is to declare that "you can't fight city hall" and that taxes are as inevitable as death. But you can fight city hall. The choices made by legislators, bureaucrats, and voters are no more inevitable and unalterable than your choice of attire.

The ultimate result of regarding the man-made as a metaphysical fact is the passive acceptance of the decrees and edicts of politicians and bureaucrats ("you can't fight city hall"). The result is to regard institutions like public education, public libraries, and taxation as beyond question, and a society in which education, libraries, roads, etc. are provided entirely by the private sector as unimaginable.

Examples abound of private businesses providing libraries, education, parks, and virtually every other illegitimate service currently provided by government. Even those who argue that government must provide these services often acknowledge the existence of private providers. Why then, the stubborn refusal to consider the possibility of completely eliminating these improper public institutions?

In a word, the answer is: Altruism.

If you raise the issue of abolishing some public institution, such as education, it does not take long for someone to retort: What about the poor? Without government involvement, it is argued, the poor would not have access to education, libraries, parks, etc.

Again, history provides an abundance of examples to refute this claim. For example, prior to the Civil War public education was virtually non-existent. Yet, there was no shortage of educational opportunities for immigrants, the poor, and minorities. Educator Robert A. Peterson wrote:
In 1767, there were at least sixteen evening schools, catering mostly to the needs of Philadelphia’s hard-working German population. For the most part, the curriculum of these schools was confined to the teaching of English and vocations. There were also schools for women, blacks, and the poor. Anthony Benezet, a leader in colonial educational thought, pioneered in the education for women and Negroes. The provision of education for the poor was a favorite Quaker philanthropy. As one historian has pointed out, “the poor, both Quaker and non-Quaker, were allowed to attend without paying fees.”
While these examples provide practical refutation of claims that the poor must do without if government isn't involved, the primary refutation is moral.

The needs of one man, no matter how dire, are not a claim on the property or money of another. That some may desire an education that they cannot afford does not give them a right to seize the property of others to attain that education. This does not change merely because government acts as the thief.

Each individual has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. To deny him the fruits of his labor is to deny him the right to live; it is a declaration that the individual does not exist for his own sake, but for the needs and desires of others.

Granted, few make such declarations openly and explicitly. But this is the meaning that underlies claims that you must place the "common good" or "general welfare" above your own personal desires. Further, consider what occurs if you do not "voluntarily" comply--you are force to do so. Your own desires, interests, values, and judgment is irrelevant--you will be compelled to live as others demand.

The logical application of altruism represents the other error that results when the distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is confused: The metaphysical is regarded as malleable.

The use of coercion negates an individual's judgment. It is an attempt to "persuade" with a club rather than logic. It pretends that a man can be compelled to accept an idea as true, regardless of his own knowledge and conclusions. It ignores the fact that the mind is an attribute of the individual, and nobody can think or reason for another. It is a denial of the fact that man's metaphysical nature is that of a rational, volitional being.

The sad irony is, those who claim that it is impractical to fight city hall simultaneously believe that it is practical to compel the mind of an individual. They are wrong on both counts. As Ayn Rand wrote: "To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by persuasion."


AMAI said...

Great post, Brian!

And so, the short answer to those who worry about how "the poor" will manage, is that in a fully private market, the poor will be much better off.

Brian Phillips said...

Yes. At least those who want to be productive and responsible. The parasites will be worse off, as they should be.