Criminalizing Kindness: Will the Real Hobbesians Please Stand Up?

I read a lot of bad news every day, but this really tears it. A 78 year-old man named Rosco O’Neil has been charged with operating an illegal taxi service, has had his car impounded and a $2000 fine imposed upon him for offering to give a woman a ride home from a grocery store. The woman, you see, was an undercover police officer, part of a sting operation to rid society of the menace of cheap transportation for people who need it the most. Aside from the fact that this was a case of blatant entrapment, since O’Neil hadn’t even mentioned money and told the woman upon her inquiry that she could give him whatever she liked, this is also a case of the inhumanity that statism breeds.

There is a certain set that likes to proclaim endlessly on the evils and dangers of “Hobbesian” ways of thinking, who know so embarrassingly little about the political thought of Thomas Hobbes that they don’t realize they sound more like him than the people they wag their fingers at. We need a large government with an expansive role in the economy, we are told by these folks, because otherwise selfish individuals would never give their fair share to support the common good and millions will suffer as a result. But this case – and many others like it – demonstrate that it is the state itself that causes the very problem which it is purported to solve, and it also demonstrates who the real Hobbesians are.

In the case of so-called “illegal taxis”, there is a demand – people who need transportation – and there is a supply – people who are willing to put their vehicles at the disposal of the community for lower fees. “Licensing” is a protection racket for cab companies which are sometimes unwilling or unable to service certain neighborhoods, usually poorer ones. It is a ridiculous interference in free and harmless economic activity, and a burden on the very poor people that the typical statist proclaims is the ultimate beneficiary of all their proposed meddling.

We see this phenomenon throughout society. The moribund recording industry is aggressively pursuing people who download or even make home copies of copyrighted material. Even coffee shops where bands might play a cover by Bob Dylan or some other performer have been harassed virtually out of business by copyright racketeers. The fines and penalties they are seeking are sheer extortion, and they reflect the last pathetic gasp of a dying industry to retain monopoly privileges in a market that has completely evaporated. 95% of all music downloads these days are “illegal”, and it isn’t because masses of people have suddenly decided that theft is legitimate. It is because the advance of computer technology has transformed every owner of a home computer into a more efficient producer of digital media than the major record labels. With nearly limitless storage space and breakneck processing speed, scarcity in digital media has been eliminated, and so has its value.

On YouTube, increasingly organized and professional companies of actors, musicians, comedians, and other artists are freely exchanging their products without expecting millions in return. They make money from ad revenues, concert ticket sales, and good old fashioned private patronage. If it was good enough for Bach, it’s good enough for the Canon Rock guy. The idea that art is profitable was nothing but an illusion generated by a peculiar phase in technology that created the “entertainment industry.” Art’s true purpose, the elevation of the soul, has amazingly returned to the forefront in ways I wouldn’t have wanted to admit possible before, but am compelled to do so now.

The main idea is that when people can’t even come together and enjoy music together without a team of lawyers, cops, and bureaucrats monitoring them to ensure no copyright infringements are taking place, I think it has become rather obvious what the true cause of social atomization and individualism is, and where the real impetus for community and solidarity come from.

What breaks my heart even more than the persecution of a hapless old man being punished for a charitable deed is the persecution of little girls running lemonade stands. I can recall a hot summer day when I was gathering signatures for a candidate to get his name on a ballot, and I came across just such a stand. The girl only wanted fifty cents, but I gave her a lot more – I won’t say how much – partially because I was grateful for a drink, and partially because I thought that kind of initiative in a child ought to be rewarded. In cases like this one , it is “public health” that is the state’s reason for traumatizing and harassing innocent children. Has a more absurd argument ever been made?

If I sound like an anarchist, I apologize, because I’m not. I would like the government to actually perform its constitutionally-mandated tasks, such as securing the border and destroying the de facto gangster states that post a national security risk and a human rights crisis to millions. I’d like it to stop protecting failing and moribund industries by abolishing regulations that prevent creative people who can better meet people’s needs, be they for rides from the grocery store, aesthetic enjoyment, or a damned glass of lemonade on a hot day, from being able to do so. I’d like it to stop subsidizing and protecting powerful corporate interests that make it difficult for people with innovative ideas to develop them for the common good. I’d like it to protect legitimate property rights instead of protecting rent-seeking parasitism.

Because the consequence of its incessant meddling has been to create a fear in people of doing good. Now you can’t even help your neighbor without fear of crossing a legalized racketeering operation, violating an arbitrary health code, or some other obscure regulation that serves no good purpose. Every act of kindness that comes to mind will increasingly be checked against a concern that an absurd law may be violated in the process. The costs of doing good, in other words, have gone way up, and kindness is being priced out of existence.

Nothing more tragic could befall a people than this!

The “war of each against all” that Hobbes saw as the natural condition of man is utterly flawed. He got the basics right – that a government is required to ensure the conditions under which people can engage in social activity without constant fear of war. But so dismal and cynical was his view of human nature – which was mechanistic and deterministic – that the powers he would grant to the sovereign would stifle all creativity and genuine cooperation.

John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, while they shared Hobbes’ concern of the dangers of total anarchy, also saw man as something more than an object to be infinitely manipulated – they saw him as essentially free, and possessing inherent dignity. It is this different view of man that serves as the foundation for all differences between them and Hobbes, including what the role of government ought to be. If the government but provides a framework to protect basic, God-given inalienable rights, within it people ought to be able to prosper, to “pursue happiness” and meet each other’s needs, without excessive interference from either other men or the state. The family and a culture of religious values rooted in Christianity, and not the decrees of politicians, would provide the moral foundations of this social arrangement.

Our modern statists are the true Hobbesians. They do not believe that free people will ever be kind or generous people, and the decay of Christian culture – again, with irony, fostered by the secular state – does make the alignment of freedom and virtue less of a sure thing, I admit. Instead they appear to believe that a) the natural condition of man is one of unlimited acquisitiveness and selfishness, b) that selfishness is bad, and therefore c) that large amounts of individual freedom must be sacrificed to the state in the interests of order and justice, or as it is called, “the common good.” That is Hobbes’ philosophy in a nutshell, but it sure isn’t the founding philosophy of the United States, nor is it the teaching of the Church, which is far more closely aligned to the Lockean-Jeffersonian notion of natural man as a free being with dignity and inalienable rights.

Much of Catholic social teaching is rooted in natural law, which the Church does not create and does not enforce in the manner of a government. Without the Church, awareness of the full implications of natural law will falter, and it won’t be transcended by the perfect morality of the Gospels. But the basic impulse to cooperation and mutual satisfaction of needs does not vanish because religion does; it becomes harder to sustain but not impossible. With the reduction of the managerial nanny state, religion would once again thrive, freed from the threat of persecution for violating “hate speech” laws, running afoul of the educational unions and bureaucracy that attack religious homeschoolers, and the other initiatives of the thought police.

Liberty (limited government) and virtue (Christian culture and morals) require each other to exist in any meaningful way, and both are extinguished by the growth of the state. It is high time for Christians, Catholic, Protestant, and all others, to resist Leviathan, the sovereign that would replace God and demand the obedience, tribute and worship due to Him alone.

22 Responses to Criminalizing Kindness: Will the Real Hobbesians Please Stand Up?

  • c matt says:

    I agree with you on most things, but I might draw the line at the copyright issue. Artists are entitled to the fruit of their labors, and there really is no other way I can think of to protect the fruit. I suppose you would not mind someone photocopying the Harry Potter series or other books and selling them cheaper? Why should only musical artists lose their protection? Copyright is no more and no less than protection of property rights, in this case, intellectual property.

  • Patrick says:

    The photo is not explained. This is a little girl in Portland OR who set up the classic lemonade stand. A city health inspector shut her down because she did not have a $120 temporary food service license. Public outcry was so great that the city was forced to relent. But it should not be necessary for there to be a public outcry before common sense is used. All too typical are the statements attributed to a Portland police sargent who was walking through a food stand with an officer, taking food and eating it without paying. When the officer objected, the sargent said “Come on. We’re the f…ing police!” I think that pretty well encapsulates the attitude of government towards the people.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Patrick,

    I did link to the article I took the photo from in the paragraph about the incident.

    c matt,

    I love art. I am one of the biggest enthusiasts of classical and folk music that I know. I love it so much that I know that its value is not economic.

    Historically, art hasn’t been profitable. The artist has always been a non-productive (in an economic sense) member of society supported by the productive part, either directly through public patronage or indirectly through the patronage of aristocrats or governments. This is not to degrade art, but to elevate it in fact – if society is a body, then art is its thought. But we can’t live on thoughts. Our lives would be unpleasant and meaningless without them, but if had only thoughts, we would have no life at all.

    Please consider my point about the “entertainment industry.” It is purely the creation of a technological phase that has come and gone – the centralization of the means of production in mass media. Personal computers connected through the internet are the great economic equalizers of our time; they are putting dozens of moribund industries to the sword. They make efficient producers of everything from music and film to books and software out of any individual who can afford a laptop and an internet connection (and with free wi-fi, a lot of work can be done on the internet for free as well).

    The “rock star” is a creation of outdated technology. Prior to the 20th century there were no “stars” because people entertained themselves at home or in salons. Composers who gained fame did so through the quality and not the quantity of their work. Then came phonographs and recording studios, technology that was capital intensive and physically centralized. It wouldn’t have been possible for masses of people outside of this industry until the last decade of the 20th century to have their own recording studio, factory, warehouse, and distribution network.

    The technological revolution decentralized and dramatically lowered the costs of production and distribution of art. It has created a situation not dissimilar to what prevailed before, only now it exists on a much higher technological level. Now instead of large sections of the productive part of society supporting a relatively small number of unproductive artists, the productivity of the individual person allows millions enough free time to engage in artistic endeavors.

    Digital media has no value, and software in general has no value. Anything that can be infinitely replicated by virtually anyone anywhere is as economically worthless as the air we breathe. The copyright cartel is an inefficient rent-seeking cabal that never was and isn’t necessary for the production and enjoyment of beautiful art.

    Modern artists are rediscovering that they really have little to no role in the economy proper, and that their efforts have to be supported by people who actually value their work in a spiritual sense enough to freely part with their own thing of value in an economic sense (money). I think this is the best thing to happen to music in over 100 years. And I think artists born into this environment will be better than much of what we’ve seen since the 1960s.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Bottom line is this: in my view, charing people for music is about the equivalent of charing people to hear Mass. Things of the spirit are infinite and transcendent, and can have no economic value. The economy deals with finite, discreet, material objects. Such were the means of production of mass media until the 1990s. Now it’s over. It isn’t the artist being shafted, but the record industry simply being matched or outperformed by a guy with a laptop. That’s the march of technology, and nothing else.

  • Big Tex says:

    Well, the thing the keeps coming to mind when these situations come up is that there is no room for common sense when it comes to government employees and the regulations which they are “enforcing.” Basically, from their point of view, common sense is chucked out the window because not enforcing the regulation/law is breaking the regulation/law as well.

  • c matt says:

    I have no problem with the guy with a laptop making his own music and offering it free to the world. My problem is when the guy with the laptop steals a song written and performed by someone else. If DaVinci wanted to sell his Mona Lisa, or give it away, that is up to him. But if Guisseppe Lavorati (his sometime gardner) steals it and sells it, how is that not theft?

    They are not being outperformed if the guy with the laptop os stealing their performances. They are being robbed.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    C matt,

    No one is downloading music “illegally” in order to sell it. There’s absolutely no profit to be made from something that has no scarcity and no value.

    Think about it. If everyone and anyone can download a song for free, why would anyone pay some guy for it? If some shifty character on the street tried to sell me a stolen dvd, I’d be better off just downloading it. It doesn’t even cost me time – I can do other things while it downloads.

    Attempting to profit from something that is unprofitable – an abundant resource accessible to almost everyone – is nothing but rent-seeking.

    The original Mona Lisa is worth millions I assume, but how much do you think the copies hanging on people’s walls across the country are? Is it stealing if I download an image of the Mona Lisa, print it out on high-quality paper, and post it on my wall?

    The recording industries ARE being outperformed – my ability to duplicate a computer file is as good as theirs. When I bought a personal computer, I bought a factory, warehouse, and distribution network. So if you want to blame someone, blame HP.

  • If I sound like an anarchist, I apologize, because I’m not. I would like the government to actually perform its constitutionally-mandated tasks, such as securing the border and destroying the de facto gangster states that post a national security risk and a human rights crisis to millions.

    “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Ah, very clever!

    I don’t mind limited patents for inventions and “useful arts.” A 20 year patent for a new invention is not the same as 70 year copyright on a piece of music that should have become public domain years ago.

    As with the commerce clause, the necessary and proper clause, and other phrases, “limited times” is stretched beyond all reasonable application to enable rent-seeking.

    The philosophical foundation of the Constitution is the basic idea that the free, creative energy of the people should be unleashed to serve the common good. That’s exactly what people are doing in the arts today – without copyrights, without rent-seeking. They’re still making money, because people still want to be edified and entertained. But the reality is that technology has made the specific copyright laws on the books today – not the general idea set down in the Constitution – obsolete.

    When 95% of music downloads are illegal, there is no market anymore. No one is selling these downloads for money. No scarcity = no value = no market = no profit. Artists who can’t comprehend this really need to find a new occupation.

  • G-Veg says:

    “there is no room for common sense when it comes to government employees and the regulations which they are “enforcing.” Basically, from their point of view, common sense is chucked out the window because not enforcing the regulation/law is breaking the regulation/law as well.”

    This is simply not true. Most of these stories are the result of the overzealous – hardly a description that most people apply to their civil service. Most think of us as lazy and stupid – the incompetent who need a caretaker and are overpaid for their ability to fill a seat.

    I have been in the civil service for fifteen years. Frankly, I have witnessed worse service and less care in their jobs from retail stores, chain restaurants, and communications providers. In civil service, we have as great a variety of people as exist in the general public. Some of them are enamored by power and such persons gravitate to regulatory and law enforcement jobs. In my experience, you are much more likely to run into a health inspector with a chip on his shoulder than to run into a social worker that is lazy.

    I am an administrative investigator. I teach in the academy and have written several of the courses of study for basic and journeyman courses. It is axiomatic that discretion is necessary and expected of us and there is a strong social push-back against the abusive persons. Not only is common sense practiced, but it is taught and reinforced in reviews. So your statement is fundamentally wrong and offensive.

    Finally, where the law must be enforced, despite undesirable localized effects, there is invariably an appeal process to set things right. Public opinion is part of this process and absolutely necessary for there to be legislative correction.

  • Art Deco says:

    Finally, where the law must be enforced, despite undesirable localized effects, there is invariably an appeal process to set things right.

    If the article in question relates the sequence of events correctly, the ‘consumer services inspector’ was an agent provacateur. The ‘law must be enforced, indeed’. Do you suppose the ‘consumer services department’ gets to pay his legal fees once he is done with the ‘appeal process’?

  • G-Veg says:

    Good Afternoon Art Deco,

    I’m not sure I understand your reply so forgive me if I fail to answer your question.

    It appears you are agreeing with the general proposition that many of these types of incidents have more to do with the specific personalities of the regulators involved, rather than a broad defect in the character or discretion of civil servants. If so, thank you for the positive vote of confidence. Frankly, USA Today’s blunt and ill-considered article yesterday has raised quite a lot of misguided anger among the American public. (Glen Beck has nothing on the folks over at USA Today apparently.) I appreciate the more sober response.

    Your second point appears to be that the fact that there is an appeals process to “set things right” is of no great benefit to the person oppressed who, in vindicating their rights and obtaining a measure of discretion and justice has to bear the costs. If I understand you correctly, I think you are right. Whereas many federal statutes have burden shifting mechanisms to allow the victor in a suit against a government agency to have at least their attorney and court fees reimbursed, I don’t think this is as common a practice at the local and state levels.

    I think the federal approach – courts ordering agencies to pay the fees of winning plaintiffs for example – is the better approach, despite the costly and troubling connection between the awarding of fees and the filing of frivolous mandamus actions. My impression is that Congress latched onto the practice as a way to encourage mandamus filings, believing that mandamus actions push government agencies to reform internal practices more effectively than Congressional hearings and legislative changes could. My experience suggests that this is probably true.

    Applying the same principles to cases like that which was cited in the article, forcing individuals to pay the costs of challenging government over-reach and failure to exercise discretion both discourages manly resistance to tyranny and leaves some of our fellow citizens with a bit of a pyrrhic victory – reputation enhanced and position vindicated but financially poorer and with enemies among local regulators. I’m not sure what the remedy should be though since local and state governments have a harder time spreading out the burdens on their agencies than does the federal government. (I have had a few run-ins with local code enforcement and only once made the mistake of “proving” that a code enforcement officer was wrong with the actual code. Watching him drive passed my house and taking notes whenever I was doing any work on my place was creepy and unsettling. Stopping in to code enforcement, hat in hand, to apologize if I caused any offense was humiliating.)

  • Art Deco says:

    Considering that the man in question was collared and issued citations by several members of the municipal police force (evidently corralled in advance), I suspect it is not just one rogue official, but a policy pursued by that department.

    Many years ago, a friend of mind employed in the Monroe County (N.Y.) Department of Social Services and active in local politics explained it thus: “there’s a ridge-bone of competant people who keep [agencies] running; then, there’s the rest”. If I were to extrapolate from my own spell of public employment, the ridge-bone amounts to 1 employee in 8. You will find 2 in 8 whose performance is satisfactory, and 5 in 8 who do not have enough work to do and whose performance has deteriorated from too many years in a posting that is too soft. Of the last, one will be episodically very competant but also moody and intermittently brusque with the public; another will be an out-and-out troll.

  • G-Veg says:

    Dear Art Deco,

    I am sorry that your “spell of public employment” left you jaded. Your characterization of the civil service is terribly unkind and unjust. I assume that you know this.

    Where you hold up a stint of civil service as a bolster for your opinions, I hold my service in high esteem. I am proud of the work that we do and know that your description of one in eight civil servants as being worth employing is as outrageous as it is patently false.

    For many of us, this is a “calling” as much as it is for architects and doctors. It is fair to say that relative surety of employment is a great comfort and it is no small part of why we put out fires, direct traffic, investigate crimes, visit shut-ins, process applications, and manage contracts. But there is something far more rewarding than the compensation in being a civil servant. If your time in government service did not spark a feeling of satisfaction in being so intimately involved in making the machine of civil society work, then I am sorry for you. That reality tells me more about you than it does about the civil service.

    In the end, the civil service, like any broad grouping of individuals, is diverse and hard to pigeon-hole. I tend to gravitate towards those who seek satisfaction in their work and who find griping, stagnation, and challenge-avoidance troublesome. I would probably react the same in whatever profession I chose.

    I choose to be a civil servant. I hope you have found a calling that leaves you as fulfilled.

  • Art Deco says:

    I liked my co-workers, Mme. Troll excepted. However, recruitment, incentives, and office nurturance all worked to damage them as employees. They were also overcompensated. I have seen the same pattern in other public agencies I dealt with as a consumer. There are ways of improving agency performance, but keep in mind that doing so would offend vested interests here in New York, not least CSEA / AFSCME and Local 1199 / SEIU.

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