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Daily Journal

On Moral Superiority

Aug. 10th, 2012
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RALEIGH — In nearly three decades of writing a syndicated column on North Carolina politics and government, I’ve always received a steady stream of reader response. In the days before email, I’d get an occasional phone call or personal letter, but most of the response came in the form of letters to the editor. The reader would typically praise a point I made, or criticize it. Only rarely would there be an emotional outburst or personal attack.

As wonderful a tool as email can be, it did have some negative consequences for how we communicate. One of them was that email correspondents, freed from the need either to talk in person via the phone or in public via a letter to the editor, are more likely to explode in anger or hurl personal insults. They are less likely to offer reasoned criticism – a form of response that any columnist ought to welcome.

In recent months, a common theme has crept into much of my hate email: Moral superiority. Rather than argue a particular point of fact or opinion with me, liberal correspondents simply assert that anyone with good intentions and compassionate hearts would have to agree with them. Because I don’t agree, I must have bad intentions or a hardened heart, making me their moral inferior and thus worthy of contempt, not conversation.

These are not attempts at persuasion, of course. At best they are examples of blowing off steam. At worst they represent the kind of preening self-satisfaction that passes for political rhetoric these days. If meant for a few friends, no harm done. But when smug claims of moral superiority displace actual, rational argumentation, the public debate suffers.

To all my liberal readers: It may come as a shock to you, but conservatives and libertarians will never recognize your political philosophy as morally superior. You may persuade us to accept a particular claim of yours, or drop a particular claim of ours. But we will never see European-style social democracy as morally superior to American-style market democracy, because it most certainly is not.

You see, we don’t think all social institutions are interchangeable. We see families, businesses, churches, charities, and governments as very different things. Families are bound together by blood or marital ties. Businesses are bundles of contracts among producers and consumers of goods and services. Churches and charities are voluntary institutions through which people form and act on their spiritual or ethical convictions.

What distinguishes governments from these other institutions, and government action from other forms of social action, is the use of violent coercion. We choose how and with whom we worship or do business. These are voluntary transactions. Paying taxes and complying with government dictates are not. They are compulsory. If we disagree and refuse to comply, governments will confiscate our property, anyway. If we continue to resist, we will be arrested and jailed. If a tyrannical majority decides to deprive us of our liberty and property, our only recourse is to flee.

Unless you are an anarchist, you accept that some exercise of governmental power is inevitable and beneficial. But when government grows beyond its proper, limited scope, it becomes little more than a mechanism for stealing property from one group of people and transferring it to another group of people.

The recipients might be politically connected insiders or crony capitalists. They might be voters who desire income or services without exchanging the fruits of their own labor for them. But they are certainly not individuals who have a moral license to steal.

This is why conservatives and libertarians were so infuriated by President Obama’s recent “you didn’t build that” remarks. We’re not misunderstanding his words, or taking them out of context. As Mitt Romney later remarked, the context was worse than the quote. Even if Obama’s “you didn’t build that” clause was referring to roads and bridges rather than businesses, his broader point was that people who have built businesses or accumulated other forms of wealth should be compelled to surrender more of that wealth to government because they aren’t really entitled to it.

It wasn’t their hard work or innovative ideas that were responsible for their success, the president said. Rather, they were merely beneficiaries of public goods such as schools or roads for which they have not adequately paid taxes. Or they were just plain lucky.

These are uninformed and noxious ideas. And they reflect feelings of moral superiority that are manifestly unfounded – but, I’m sad to say, manifestly common.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.