What They Think of Us


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