The Best of Intentions

I like people with a good heart.  People with a good heart recognize that helping others is one of the nobler instincts of our species.  They often see themselves as lucky, having sometimes enjoyed privilege through no effort or choice of their own.  They seem to feel obligated to help those whom they perceive as suffering through no fault of their own.

In some cases, these kinds of folks call themselves liberals.  Many of my best friends, people I have known for over three decades, would call themselves liberals.  Clearly these are not bad people.  Were I ever truly in need, they would come running, just as I would for them.

This presents me with a problem.  I know these people to be bright–exceptionally bright.  I know them to be honest.  They are pleasant to be around, fair-minded, and loving.  Despite my fondness for them, though, I cannot countenance their political views.  I find it tragic that their wanting to do good for people translates into a political view that has led us to the brink of economic disaster.

How can this be?  How can a virtue at the individual level become a vice at the societal level?  In my view, it is the element of coercion.

Benevolence on the part of an individual is not forced.  By its very definition, it cannot be.  Benevolence reflects one person wanting to give to another.  In some cases, groups of people give together, but their giving is still voluntary.  Great things have been accomplished by such charities.

Social programs run by the government are never voluntary.  This too is definitional.  By their very nature, they are coercive.  Over the years, I have had a brief glimpse into the minds of some liberals.  When I state that I have no problem with people helping one another but that I oppose being coerced to do so, I am met with a blank stare.  Thinking myself not heard clearly, I add, “You know, like when our money is confiscated through taxation.”

I have had (and no, I am not making this up) some people deny that tax money is confiscated.  Stay with me on this next part, because I am not certain I can do it justice.  Apparently, because we vote on the people who represent us in government, taxes are not confiscatory.  As one openly liberal friend put it, “We vote to tax ourselves.”

No, the majority votes to tax everyone, including those who oppose.  Aside from the fact that direct voting on taxation is rare, it is a thinly veiled attempt to hide the truth.  We don’t tax ourselves, because we don’t pay taxes–individuals do.  Even corporate taxes eventually come out of the pockets of its individual owners or customers.

The problem with coercion is that it is coercive.  Those of us who still believe that the government’s proper role is to protect us from coercion find it astonishing that our government does so much of it itself.

Coercion seems just fine when it’s the other fellow.  I would love to see most reality TV banished to the realm of the never-to-be-seen-again.  In fact, I could make a pretty good argument that we would all be better off without it.  But what would I say if shows explaining evolution were banned by a religious majority?  Coercion tempts us to lose our humility in favor of an especially destructive kind of hubris–we know what is best for others and if given the power to force others to do something, we generally will, as long as we convince ourselves it is better for “us all.”

All of which brings me back to my good-hearted friends.  Please, do go out and help people you think are deserving.  By all means, organize others to do the same.  I may even join you on a couple of charitable efforts.  But don’t reach in my pocket to fund your causes.  Much as I think of you, you may just pull back a nub.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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