The Golden Rule and the State

To suggest, as I have in the preceding post and many others, that positive rights are inimical to liberty, is to imply that liberty is an entirely negative thing: the absence of interference in one’s life, except as one interferes in the lives of others. There’s a persistent and often persuasive counter-argument, which says that liberty is hollow if a person lacks the wherewithal to pursue its fruits. That argument for positive rights can be met with three counter-arguments:

  • The use of state power to grant positive rights diminishes the charitable impulse, along with the ability to indulge it.
  • Redistribution of income — which supports positive rights like welfare and results from positive rights like affirmative action — leads to a slower rate of economic growth because (a) it takes money from those most able to fund capital investments and gives it to those who simply consume it and (b) requires firms to employ less-productive workers in favor of more-productive ones. Two key results, which obtain in the  not-very-long run, are (a) fewer and less remunerative jobs for groups that positive rights are meant to help and (b), as noted above, less money for private acts of charity.
  • It’s presumptuous of a third party to decide who deserves more and who deserves less. Any claim that redistributive acts foster “social welfare” rests on the erroneous view that the well-being of individuals can be added, in some fashion, to derive an aggregate measure of well-being. In fact, the harm that’s done to A by giving some of his income to B cannot be undone by whatever enjoyment B derives from the additional income.

At which point, obdurate proponents of positive rights (i.e., left-statists, bleeding hearts, and do-gooders) will say something like this: “Well, it’s only fair/just to help those who are in need/born in poverty/born with the wrong skin color/unlucky in life/etc., etc.” The arguments against positive rights, no matter how well stated or supported, will simply roll off most proponents of such rights because it’s in their nature to want “fairness”/”justice” — and damn the consequences. It’s also in the nature of left-statists to relish the power of controlling others, against which there is no counter-argument but defeat at the polls, civil disobedience, or secession.

The argument about rights, in other words, is a futile one that ought to be abandoned in favor of one that might have more appeal to those who favor positive rights. The alternative — which, I admit, is a long shot — is a very old concept, about which I’ve written before (here and here, for example). The very old concept is the Golden Rule: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. It’s a truly natural law, for reasons I give below.

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed in the preceding post) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

I must qualify the term “convention,” to say that the Golden Rule will be widely observed within any group only if the members of that group are generally agreed about the definition of harm, value kindness and charity (in the main), and (perhaps most importantly) see that their acts have consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to admonition.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned, and many recognize it as an inevitable consequence of a health-care “system” that is government-controlled (even indirectly) and treats the delivery of medical services as a matter of rationing. (I am willing to bet that the affluent left-statists who strongly support nationalized medical care would find ways to avoid the verdicts of “death panels,” when it comes to them and their families.)  Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation and occasional acceptance. To be pro-homosexual — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that signal leftist “enlightenment,” along with being for abortion and against the consumption of fossil fuels (except for one’s SUV, of course).

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring certain behaviors. Those reasons range from purely utilitarian ones (agreeable or not) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons, which are sometimes related. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there lurks the danger that it will not be, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits or to severely restrict and monitor it. Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care), infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life), homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges), alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). A taste or tolerance for destructive behavior identifies a person as an untrustworthy social partner.

It seems to me that the exceptions listed above are just that. There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

Of course, the delicate balance would be upset if the Golden Rule were violated with impunity. For that reason, the it must be backed by sanctions. Non-physical sanctions would range from reprimands to ostracism. For violations of the negative sub-rule, imprisonment and corporal punishment would not be out of the question.

Now comes a dose of reality. Self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by voluntary adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.  More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms; the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).

In a future post, I will address the challenge of re-forming the state to reinvigorate the Golden Rule.