By Tibor Machan: Syndicated Columnist
Most of the time people try to justify coercing others to do things on the grounds that they know what’s right and those others do not or will not comply.
Even the recent 5-to-4 eminent-domain ruling by the Supreme Court can be viewed along such lines: The city officials believed they knew what the private-property owners ought to do, and so they may make them do it. In that particular case, economic development is supposed to be right and good, so let’s make those property owners bend to the will of those who understand this. Ergo, eminent domain which, although the Constitution authorizes it only for taking private property for public use, is now authorized for takings transferred to private parties who will do “the right thing.”
Never mind that most often those claiming such knowledge do not actually have it. Even if they do, this is just the sort of barbaric approach to making people do the right thing that was to be stopped by deploying the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
If you know what the right thing is for someone to do, you may not coerce him; you need to convince him of it. You need his consent. That’s because we all have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And having a right means one who has it gets to decide how to exercise it. And that may not always conform to high standards.
But if one is not supposed to coerce people to do the right thing, what is one to do about all the misbehavior that surrounds us? Well, the answer is one must use civilized means. Eminent-domain measures are barbaric means — taking from people to give to other people without the permission of the former. Imagine if one took this message of the Court to heart and proceeded to run around one’s neighborhood bullying everyone who doesn’t behave up to snuff to do the right thing. That’s what violent gangs presume to do!
Civilized conduct requires that one promote the right conduct of other people not by coercion but by persuasion, example, instruction, urging, imploring and, at worst, ostracism and boycott. Human beings, in short, must deal with fellow human beings peacefully even if those others don’t do the right thing. Unless someone is aggressive toward another, whatever wrong he or she does must be approached peacefully. That is what amounts to civil conduct, as distinct from the behavior of brutes in the wild that subdue one another violently.
But why abstain from such brutishness when it comes to people dealing with other people? Is that just a quirk or is it required somehow from human beings?
Most generally, if one makes other people do the right thing without their consent, these other people are deprived of their chance to earn moral credit, deprived of their dignity. They are treated as mere puppets, as little children, not as adults who need to make their own decisions so as to be morally praiseworthy, commendable. The reason animals may ordinarily be forced to behave as we want them to behave is that they are beasts without a moral sense — and even then it is nicer to manage them gently instead of roughly. But with human beings it is imperative that they aren’t pushed around, aren’t forcibly made to do the right thing.
Even with kids, as they grow older it is more appropriate to provide them with good examples of decent behavior instead of browbeating them. That is how understanding of what’s right is promoted, rather than mere compliance, mere following orders out of fear (which then tends to produce rebellion at the first chance anyway). Sending out the cops to have people do the right thing is the wrong way to act. Making laws and regulations that must be followed lest one go to jail is not how morality is promoted among people.
It is one of the most revolutionary aspects of the American political tradition that this lesson was given official expression by the founders. By now, however, America’s political leaders have nearly completely forgotten it. Now they resort to the same regimentation of other people that they had rejected on the part of the likes of King George the 3rd. It is time to regain the momentum the founders unleashed and promote right conduct the right way — peacefully.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org