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.