Q: I read your website on a regular basis, and I really value your opinion on a variety of issues. I have one question regarding one of your recent blogs on entitlement. Do you think it’s possible, through education of some sort, to cure America’s sense of entitlement?
A: Education can be done only one mind at a time, through an individualized process — not through a collective one, such as “educating America.” Yes, individual people can be educated, assuming they want to be. First, people have to believe something is wrong, seriously wrong. In America, more people are starting to awaken to this fact. But so long as they can go about their business as they usually do, they’re not going to change much.
I’m reminded of a not so friendly debate I had with a liberal socialist not too long ago about the role of government in the economy. When I insisted that the government has no right to force people to pay for the services of another, at least not if you’re going to claim it’s a free country, she kept talking about the need for compassion. “I think of how my mother, who’s ill, has needed me at times. Compassion is part of life.” To which I replied: “That’s nice of you to be there for your mother. But what does that have to do with government? What does you helping your mother have to do with the government forcing people to take care of people they don’t know, would not necessarily choose to help or want to help?” She glazed over, stunned at first, and then exhibited a mild rage. She began to argue even more strenuously for the need for compassion in a society, and a government to see to it that it’s carried out. She had no rational answer to my question, only emotion.
I have heard similar things from people elsewhere. One woman I used to know said: “Everyone has to carry their part of the wagon; otherwise, the wagon won’t get across the plains. That’s how America started, after all.” To which I replied: “Are you suggesting our lives are wagons, collectively owned by others? Or do each of our own lives belong to ourselves?” She became angry and retorted, “Of course our lives belong to ourselves. You know what I mean.” But I didn’t, and I still don’t. And yet, everything our government does is based on the premise that she was right, and I am wrong. Everything the government says, implies and does is based on the premise that our lives belong to others (meaning, in practice, to the government), not to ourselves.
If our lives belong to ourselves, and not to others, then we are responsible for our own lives. Others are allowed to help us. We are allowed to help them. We are also allowed to trade with whomever we wish, on mutually agreeable terms. The only absolute rule is: No coercion. No force. Government’s role is to outlaw coercion, not impose it in the name of ‘altruism.’
I have also used this argument with people: “You would never break into my house and steal something, claiming that you were entitled to do so because you needed it. Yet you do say you’re entitled to vote for a legislator to do that very thing, to force me to give up ever increasing portions of my income to pay for another’s school, mortgage, automobile, medical insurance, or whatever it is. By what logic is this morally justified in one case, but not in the other?” The only response, when there is one other than a sneer or anger (or in one case, tears), amounts to: “Well, when the government does it, it’s different. That’s that.”
I offer you these examples to illustrate the nature of — and the magnitude of — the incredible, grotesque and profoundly illogical errors in thinking, and outright evasion, that most people apply when thinking about society, ethics and politics. Evasion and denial are rarely, if ever, curable because the person engaging in them has by definition shut off reason, at least on that particular subject. Once reason is shut down, in any context, education is futile and worthless. So to that extent, education will not make any difference.
The kind of education that is worth trying is pointing out people’s contradictions and at least leaving them to think about them. In the short-run, it won’t make any difference because, as I said, so long as people can go about their daily lives more or less as they always have, they’re not going to demand anything close to a revolution (even a quiet, bloodless one). Psychologically, this makes some sense. “My life isn’t THAT bad. Things aren’t THAT bad. So we shouldn’t question policies and ideas that have been held true for decades.” But as more time goes by, and as things fail to get better or even get noticeably worse — then education will have more of an impact. More people will be willing and able to think, “Wow, things are seriously off course. They’re not getting better. We have to change more radically than I ever thought.” That’s a dangerous point, and I don’t wish for it. It’s a context where Hitlers and Lenins and other monsters can rise to power just as easily as Thomas Jeffersons or Ben Franklins. When people get scared, they sometimes do stupid things. Americans are no more immune to that than any other society in history, most of which have gone down a dark road when their evasions and stupidity made them worse and worse off.
But the United States was, at its peak, a nation without precedent, and it just might yet become a society that makes a complete course reversal once things really start to go wrong. First, people have to acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong. Even though the numbers are showing this in the daily news — case in point: the latest unemployment data — it’s still going to take more time for more people to face the fact we have a serious problem on our hands. And that problem’s name isn’t merely Obama. We can get rid of Obama, but we can’t get rid of the ideas that made him possible without being willing to think.
Education? Sure, I’m all for it. But thinking precedes education. Anyone out there still willing to think? Right now: Not so much. A few more years of what we’re going through, and we might actually have something of a revolution on our hands. That’s when the good ideas can and must win.