Real Freedom vs. Forcible Utilitarianism: The Case of “The Tall Man”

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The Tall Man” is a movie that was released in 2012. It’s a crime drama that introduces a deep question in a way that anyone can understand: Is forcible utilitarianism right or wrong?

This article will contain a spoiler, because I am going to discuss the theme of “The Tall Man”, and I can’t do it without revealing the plot. If you are a movie-goer, watch the movie without reading reviews and reading this article. It’s a good, suspenseful and twisty movie. You will probably be caught up in it.

The story takes place in a really poor mining town in British Columbia that has lost the mine as a going concern. A complete summary is here. Children are being kidnapped. The people think that a mysterious figure that they call “The Tall Man” is responsible. Some have glimpsed him. Here’s the SPOILER. What’s actually going on is that a doctor and his nurse wife are stealing the children and placing them with wealthier families in a prosperous city. They are utilitarians who believe it is right to use force to produce a greater good for a greater number. The parents are heartbroken to lose their children, but the kidnappers think that weighs lighter than the better homes in which they are placing the children.

At the end, a question is raised and repeated three times by one of these children in her new environs. She wonders if she is better off. Here is what the wiki summary says about the ending:.

“Jenny lives in a beautiful home, where her art is encouraged and she has the best of everything. She has begun to talk and seems well-adjusted and happy. As she walks to an art class, she gives a voice-over expressing love and gratitude toward her three mothers: her birth mother, whom she misses; Julia, who gave her a chance at a new life; and her new mother, who is providing her with everything she could ever want. As she crosses a park, she sees David with his new family, which he now accepts as his own. (Jenny thinks he and the other younger ones have forgotten and do not recognize her, but the visual cues leave it decidedly open-ended.) Despite getting her wish of a better life, she sometimes wishes to return. Jenny’s closing thoughts question society’s implication that her new life is better.”

The summary is accurate. Jenny, who has been kidnapped and has material opportunities that she couldn’t have in the mining town, “sometimes wishes to return”.

Whoever wrote these words puts the question to “society”, not just to the doctor and his wife who engineered the plot. This is as it should be. The drama is not simply a personal drama. It does raise the deeper question about “society”, because the beliefs of the doctor and his wife mirror the “social welfare” activities going on in all the major Western societies. What these kidnappers did is a specific instance of what societies and specifically their states are doing every day and have been doing for a long, long time, even before any of us were born. The term usually but loosely used to designate these welfare state activities is “socialism”. This I stress involves social manipulation that goes way beyond any traditional notion of providing justice in cases of criminal behavior and torts.

Is it right that children be forcibly taken away from their poor parents in a poor environment so that they can have better lives? No one asked the children or their parents. In the same way, no one asks the individual persons today who are subjected to society’s rules through the state. To vote is not to be asked. It is not to have a genuine choice. Socialism imposes on a person without asking his permission. If you believe that people belong to themselves and that this is right and just, then you will reject the kidnapping as wrong. You will then have to reject socialism as wrong too.

Frank van Dun distinguishes real freedom from effective freedom. A person’s real freedom, associated with free will, cannot be removed from a person. However, the state can restrict your opportunity to exercise your real freedom (or free will) without interfering with your free will’s existence. Your abilities to exercise your free will are your effective freedom.

The state routinely reduces your effective freedom. Its rules reduce your freedom of action.  To be made to obey by the state is to lose one’s effective freedom. As Frank van Dun puts it:

“Obviously,  however, none of these legislated regulations change the nature of natural persons. They leave the real freedom of natural persons intact but provide legal pretexts for impeding and restricting their effective freedom by authoritarian acts.”

The doctor and his wife as kidnappers stand in for the state’s and society’s forcible utilitarianism. They think they are superior beings. They think they have a justification, which is that they are improving lives on net, that is, aggregated over those they’ve hurt and those they’ve harmed. They think that this gives them a warrant to steal children and place them somewhere else.

In accepting forcible utilitarianism as their guide, they and society necessarily are rejecting various natural law propositions. They are treating people as if they did not belong to themselves but to others. In practice, the state is even worse than these kidnappers, who at least are dealing with individuals, because it groups people into classes and pays only bureaucratic and legal attention to their individuality, which is to say no attention at all. The state de-humanizes people, and this has to follow from its enforcing the utilitarian idea of a society-wide greatest good for the greatest number. With its restrictions and manipulative rules, that is, the rules that go far beyond any notion of dealing in justice with criminal behaviors and torts, the state takes innocent people, who by their innocence should rightfully have effective freedom, and treats them as objects. It treats them as if they are guilty and can therefore be made to obey its rules. In doing so, the state inverts the natural order of law. When innocent people fail to follow the state’s arbitrary social rules, the state declares them guilty and subject to punishment.

Utilitarianism has been the trend in Western societies for over 200 years. As society and the state have risen, the person and his effective freedom have declined. And so it is refreshing to see a movie raise a fundamental question. This one raises it artistically and in the mode of a captivating mystery-thriller.

It’s one of the ultimates and basics of a utilitarian-paternalistic-statist society, a cradle to grave welfare society, that a child belongs to society and the state, and not to its parents. This is taken for granted in legislation, even if it is not exposed openly as a belief. It’s usually hidden under the old myths that the people are “free” and that the society is a “freedom-loving” society. The more socialistic that the society becomes, the more that it becomes necessary to spread the myth that the legalities being imposed are not restricting freedom, but raising it. Much of society is already operating on the premise that children and adults belong to society, not to themselves.

This movie questions the utilitarian-socialist premise through the back door, by showing a couple, a doctor and his nurse wife, who take it upon themselves to steal poor children and remove them to better environments. Do they have that right? Of course not, by any natural law that recognizes that young children belong to themselves and to their parents, as long as they are not being abused.

If people are to be free, one must accept differences in endowments and circumstances of each natural person in this world, to be altered by voluntary means only. There can be no human authorities that have any rights to intervene forcibly in order to make “something” better, be it social welfare or their idea of a better world. All such authorities reduce effective freedom; they deny the person the use of his free will. This denies a person his humanity. The utilitarian will quip that it means little to have a right to a park bench or poverty. Let that utilitarian combine with others voluntarily to ameliorate the evils they see, for it means even less if people are turned into penned up cattle to be ruled by a handful of beings who regard themselves as superior know-it-alls. Where does that lead except to totalitarianism? Forcible utilitarianism goes and leads invariably in a totalitarian direction.

In this movie, the doctor and wife have decided that they will create this better world by kidnapping children. They have an elaborate ruse to do so. The doctor has “disappeared”, but really hasn’t. He’s the tall man who transports the children to their better city homes and away from the poor mining community. His wife has stayed behind to keep the children for awhile and prepare them. Their plan goes haywire when one of the parents of a kidnapped child becomes suspicious of the nurse and sees her with her son.

In our world, our government superiors decide daily that they will create this better world. Their latest effort domestically is the abomination known as Obamacare. Their better world includes a mountain of debt and taxes. Their foreign efforts recently have included invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Before that, they managed to bring attackers and terrorists to these shores. The better world includes abuses occurring daily at every airport in the nation, a monstrous spying apparatus and new and horrible incidents of police violence every day.

The sorry record of government attempts to create a better world, based squarely on forcible utilitarianism, is so extensive that this is a philosophy that is eventually going to be rejected as a huge false turn leading to a dead end for human beings. The entire world is going to see this and shift toward greater effective freedom, as that is the only alternative. The struggle between these two philosophies, utilitarianism and natural law, has made utilitarianism the victor for now. But that is only for now and that victory is only apparent. Real freedom in the form of free will still exists. Its day lies ahead. The struggle for effective freedom is gathering strength beneath the surface. It will need that strength and it will need a clear vision and confidence in its purpose. One cannot be complacent about the eventual victory of individual persons over the state’s formidable forces arrayed against them. This is a struggle of wills and ideas, of belief and fortitude, of right and wrong. This is a struggle of more significance than any war that the world has ever seen, and it will be won by the forces of real freedom.

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