E-Prime and Politics – how a little thought can avert a lot of strife

“That movie was funny” takes an opinion and presents it as an objective fact. But it is not possible to objectively (that is to say, outside of the observation of a human) evaluate the merits of a movie. There is not a movie in existence that will have been liked by everyone. No matter how funny some people will find a comedy, others will dislike the type of humor, be offended by it, or simply never laugh. Some might smile a few times but find that the humor wasn’t evocative enough. Either way, there is no such thing as an objectively “funny movie”.

So when two people who disagree about the merits of a movie come together and one of them says “that was a funny movie”, this is bound to lead to endless argumentation. “No it wasn’t” – “yes it was!”

Both people are presenting their opinions and judgments as though they were facts, and are now pushing each other aside as they metaphorically try to climb the hill of truth and plant their opinion of a flag at the top.

When the conversation is presented as an argument between what is or is not true, there is the implicit assumption that there is only one truth. But when it comes to subjective valuations and opinions, there are as many opinions as there are people who can hold them.

If on the other hand the first person starts the conversation by saying “I laughed at the movie”, the other person can scarcely argue and deny this fact (unless it is a lie). All they can say is, “Oh, well it didn’t make me laugh much.” And they can therefore both agree that they had a different impression of the movie, but that neither of these impressions is objectively “correct”. There is no hill on which to plant a flag, and therefore no pushing and shoving.

Is there a parallel with political thought?

I think there is a similar tendency in political thought. Because everywhere we live under a legal governmental monopoly, there is only one set of rules. Competition is not allowed. Either a certain type of substance is legal, or it is not. Either immigrating without a visa is legal, or it is not. Thus, for someone to implement their view of how things are to be done, he thinks he must take control of the government through his “representatives”, and then force his opinions on everyone else.

The political system of democracy is designed from the outset as an institution of domination, and will inevitably foment disagreement between people who might otherwise have lived in peace. Instead, there are constant arguments about what the “right” way is. The king of the hill is the one in charge of the government, and everyone feels they must get their team color to the top. And within the limited confines of boxed-in thought, it makes sense, for if they don’t, the other team will impose their views on them. Dominate or be dominated.

But even if your goals are simply to impose your point of view on others, such a system is not ideal, for it invites retaliation by the dominated. No party or idea has ever successfully dominated society for eternity. Sooner or later, the incumbent oppressors find themselves the oppressed. A society in which the grand aim is a Win-Lose outcome of one party winning at the exclusion of others, ends up being a Lose-Lose for everyone, for the greater the forcible imposition of your views on others, the greater their resentment towards you and their will to hurt you in return once they are in power.

As Frédéric Bastiat noted a century and a half ago,

    “Legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism.

    But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

    Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil in itself, but also a fertile source for further evils, for it invites reprisals. If such a law is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.

If on the other hand your goals are freedom, peace, and prosperity, then a system of taking turns at domination is far from the best way for a society to be organized.

A few people, often still claiming that they know what the right way is, will agree not to attempt to impose their way upon anyone else, providing they agree to do the same. These people are called libertarians, or voluntaryists, or anarchists. They understand that just as the people with differing views of a movie’s humor can live in peace despite such disagreements, so can a pot smoker and one who dislikes the habit live in peace. They do in Holland, do they not?

Thus, I identify the greatest source of needless strife in society to be the State. With its promises of domination, it lures people with a mere disagreement to hate one another and even spill each other’s blood. Political power does not merely corrupt those who hold it, but also those who vote for them, down to the very language they use in conversation.

P.S. Interestingly, Austrian Economics professes to be wertfrei, or value free. The idea is that AE does not aim to assess the merits or demerits of the ends someone pursues, but rather the means they have chosen. Thus, an Austrian Economist (so long as he sticks to being wertfrei) would not argue about the merits of a minimum wage, but rather look at the very real ways that such a minimum wage can hurt the very people the policy sought to help.

Although approaching things a little more cynically, you may notice that often minimum wage policies are lobbied for by unions of highly-skilled laborers whose wage greatly exceeds the minimum anyway, but who would benefit from new entrants into the market being scarcer due to their entry-level job wages being below the minimum, and therefore unemployable.

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