What They Think of Us

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It's funny
how a very minor incident can shed light on the roots of major issues.
At a recent meeting of my hometown's governing Board of Trustees,
a measure was proposed that would allow local businesses to legally
sell liquor for longer hours. The proposal ultimately passed. There
was, however, some heated opposition, and I thought the rhetoric
used was interesting and revealing, not just about small-town politics
but about the nation as a whole.

The objection
raised by the member of the Board of Trustees who dissented was,
in effect, that longer hours for liquor sales was the sort of thing
that would turn our town into a den of depravity — that we needed
the government restraining voluntary adult consumption of a legal
product to prevent us from destroying our own society. Grim visions
of social ruin were presented.

Note that this
was a public meeting, with dozens of voters in attendance and the
press recording what he said. He was telling the voters he depended
on, to their faces, that they were untrustworthy, that they
could not make their own choices competently. This seems odd. Wouldn't
calling the voters a bunch of irresponsible drunks be a pretty foolish
thing for an elected official to do?

Actually, I
doubt the insult cost him much support among those listening. He
knows better than that. Those who might take offense were against
him anyway, and most of his supporters who heard it probably thought,
"Well, he's not referring to me. It's all those other drunken
degenerates who need to be kept on a short leash."

Likewise, I'm
sure the Trustee who warned of booze-fueled social collapse doesn't
think he would be that way in the presence of looser liquor
laws. And he's probably right; I have no reason to believe he is
anything other than decent, responsible, and upright in private
life. But he seems to think that the rest of aren't at that level.

I bring up
this rather obscure bit of local politics because it is a microcosm
of what we face nationally. We are told, over and over again, that
the Drug War is necessary because legalization would result in a
society of junkies. We are told that without the government parents
would not bother to educate their children, seemingly rational citizens
will become deranged killers and start Wild West-style shootouts
if allowed to carry a gun, and that without Social Security no on
would have the foresight to save for retirement.

In short, the
American people are subjected to a nearly continuous stream of insults
and calumny from their own elected officials, as well as from many
pundits and intellectuals. 19th Century monarchist reactionaries
had more respect for the goodness and intelligence of the average
person than the typical modern champion of democracy seems to. And,
yet politicians of both major parties never cease talking about
their love and admiration for the American people!

How do they
get way with it? Well, I suspect it's because a great many Americans
agree with them. Not about themselves, of course. In my experience,
very few people think that the laws they support are necessary for
them; almost no one has such low self-esteem. There are probably
very few supporters of the Drug War who think that they would suddenly
become crackheads if the law ceased to restrain them, for instance.
The average supporter of Social Security doesn't consider himself
too stupid to save money. The gun control advocates don't think
they're the ones who would become irresponsible maniacs if given
a firearm. No, they could be trusted with freedom; it's always everybody
else who needs a boot kept on their neck to keep things from falling
apart. So they ignore the constant insults from politicians and
the government, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that
they are too stupid and wicked to be free. It doesn't bother them,
since they're convinced their superior virtue means they're not
the target.

Libertarians
blame statism on many different drives and emotions: the greed of
special interest groups, the envy of intellectuals, the fear of
people who think the state can protect them from every danger and
uncertainty. None of these should be discounted. To a very large
extent, though, it's about pride. It's about the arrogance of people
who consider themselves a special breed apart, the only people capable
of acting with prudence or decency without having the government's
gun to their head. This arrogance helps to drive the politicians
who make policy, and it's what allows the people to accept, even
embrace, laws that are expressions of their rulers' contempt for
them. So it goes from the highest levels of government to the lowest.

December
22, 2006

John
Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous
Man
.

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