L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 37, June 12, 1998
For the Good of Society (Part II)
By George L. O'Brien
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
In the collectivist approach, differences over exactly what
constitutes the "public good" are far more important than in
individualist society. In an individualist society, people can form
an extraordinary array of communities, subcultures, and associations
which can co-exist so long as they do not use force and intimidation
against their neighbors. In a collectivist society, every minority is
a potential victim of people who claim to know for sure what is best
The individualist approach is inherently circumspect when dealing
with claims that someone possesses such certainty about exactly what
the public good really is. By contrast the collectivist has so much a
certainty as to be willing to use force.
"If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my
house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should
run for my life."
-- Henry David Thoreau
It is very hard to determine exactly what the "public good" is.
Generally, it is simply efforts to achieve private gain through the
instrument of government. Frederic Bastiat said, "Government is the
great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the
expense of everybody else."
This is not helped by the belief that the collectivist's
intentions are sincere. Some of the greatest horrors of history were
perpetrated by people were quite sincere. As Oscar Wilde noted, "A
little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is
What is not a delusion is that many people attracted to government
power. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, "Next to enjoying ourselves,
the greatest pleasure consists in preventing others from enjoying
themselves, or more generally, in the acquisition of power." H.L.
Mencken observed, "The urge to save humanity is almost always a
false-face for the urge to rule it."
The danger is that even when genuinely motivated by the pursuit of
the public good, the initial idealism is frequently lost. As Lord
Acton put it, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely. Great men are almost always bad man."
According to William Hazlitt, "The love of fame is consistent with
the steadiest attachment to principle and indeed strengthens and
supports it; whereas the love of power, where this is the ruling
passion, requires the sacrifice of principle at every turn, and is
inconsistent even in the shadow of it." Daniel Defoe was even more
blunt: "All men would be tyrants if they could."
John Randolph of Roanoke saw that the collection and spending of
taxes is a key to every collectivist scheme, "That most delicious of
all privilages -- spending other people's money." Benjamin Disraeli
noted, "To tax the community for the advantage of a class is not
protection: it is plunder."
Inevitably, government officials claim their actions are just and
necessary. As William Pitt the Younger put it, "Necessity is the
pleas for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of
tyrants, it is the creed of slaves."
Somehow the interests of the targets of government power are never
a part of "public good." According to class warfare-motivated radical
collectivist William Morris, "It is enough political economy for me to
know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor,
and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor," and that "The
most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared to the inequality of
the classes." He really didn't like people with money any more than
Pierre Proudhon, who believed that "Property is theft."
Their ideas led to "experiments" in radical collectivism in Soviet
Russia, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Castro's Cuba,
etc., with uniformly dismal results. To the end, the leaders insisted
that all the suffering, the secret police, the concentration camps,
and so on, represented steps taken for the "good of society." As
Susanne LaFollette noted about the Soviet Union in 1926, "The
revolutionists did not succeed in establishing human freedom; they
poured the new wine of belief in equal rights for all men into the old
bottle of privilage for some; it soured."
Inevitably, steps taken in the name of the collectivist vision of
the public good involve attempts to control the lives of others. It
makes one reflect on the words of Frederick Douglass, "I didn't know I
was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I want."
From the perspective of collectivists, the complaint of Frederick
Douglass is irrelevant. They reject John Stuart Mill, who declared
that "Liberty consists in doing what one desires." Perhaps Frederick
Douglas was just being selfish in not wanting to be a slave.
John Stuart Mill saw the conflict between the individualist vision
of the public good versus that of the collectivists: "A person should
be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be
free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that
the affairs of the other are his own affairs ... The spirit of
improvement is not always the spirit of liberty, for it may aim at
forcing improvements on an unwilling people."
To the individualist, the public good is not some disembodied
abstraction, but real live human beings whose lives are harmed through
the use of government power. To the individualist, the good of
society can only be achieved through the struggle to achieve freedom.
As James Russell Lowell put it:
True freedom is to share
All the chains our brothers wear
And, with heart and hand to be
Earnest to make others free!
George L. O'Brien, longtime political strategist and veteran of the
Libertarian movement is a spokesman for the anti-civil forfeiture
organization, F.E.A.R. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.
"When we got organized as a country, we wrote a fairly radical
Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of
individual freedom to Americans ... There's too much personal freedom.
When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it."
-- Bill Clinton, on MTV's "Enough is Enough", March 22, 1994
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