I was thinking about skeptics recently, as I have just written a rather uncomplimentary article about CSICOP, and it struck me that they are a particularly interesting example of a phenomenon I have spent quite a bit of time pondering. In a number of posts*, I tried to figure out one of the aspects of liberalism I find most puzzling, that being the imperative so many liberals feel to force people to do what they think is best. Now, some would say this is nothing new, many political movements try to force others to behave in certain ways, and in a sense that is true, but in most cases, those behaviors are enforced because of some form of self interest. For example, the need to maintain order is behind many behavioral constraints, which is clearly beneficial to those enforcing the rules. Or, in the case of many religious rules, the people enforcing those rules believe that salvation depends upon universal observance. Or, in the case of many colonial powers, bringing good government and modernization to natives around the world, they also saw the action as beneficial in providing new sources of resources and labor, as well as a new market for goods**, and, in many cases, a boon to national prestige. In short, in every case I can imagine, there is a selfish motive to apparently benevolent actions.
Liberalism puzzles me in that regard. Oh, of course many people use liberal idealism as a mask for simple selfish power seeking, so that is explanation enough for some, but for those who truly believe, especially among the rank and file, the justification for liberalism simply makes little sense.
Allow me to explain. As I described it in many places***, liberalism is founded on three ideas. First, that there are right and wrong answers to all political problems. Second, that most are ignorant of those answers (and cannot learn from mistakes to eventually discover them). Finally, though it is rarely stated explicitly, that certain individuals do know those answers. From this, they conclude that those knowing the "right way" should use the power of government to protect the poor benighted masses from their own ignorance (or exploitation by others based on that ignorance), and force people to behave properly. What puzzles me is, unlike many more fully statist theories which see misbehavior as weakening the state, liberalism does not claim any justification other than preventing others from making mistaken decisions. And that is what puzzles me.
To be blunt, why does it matter if other people make mistakes? What is the reason for forcing others to do what we think is right, rather than what they want? For example, even if eating transfats is dangerous, what is the benefit form forcing others to avoid them? Or, if others knowingly fail to plan for retirement, what is the harm in letting them do so? In short, what is the justification for liberalism's missionary practices?
It is a hard question to ask, as having lived with it all our lives, many of think it natural we would want to "help" others by preventing them from making mistakes, but it becomes a little less clear when you think about it. After all, in many cases, "helping" others takes the form of forcibly preventing them from doing what they want, even imprisoning them if they persist (eg drug users), all in the name of making their lives better. Looked at in light of, say, preventing the religious from teaching creationism in school****, or stopping loans between willing lenders and borrowers because someone thinks the interest "too high", it becomes obvious that even the case for "helping" is a bit weak, and we are rather forcing one set of values upon everyone in the name of helping.
Which brings me back to my original subject, those who hold themselves forth as skeptics. They are of interest, in this context, because they are especially ardent about convincing people to hold only what they believe to be correct beliefs. And while they also repeat the more general, nominally altruistic arguments for forcing beliefs on others, they also sometimes make statements that reveal a second motive, one which I believe gives us insight into why the left is so strongly motivated to ensure everyone holds the right beliefs.
And what is this more revealing motive? We hear it when they say that if people hold unscientific views, they might force schools to teach them, or might force insurers to cover quack cures, or licensing bodies to license quack doctors, that they might oppose sound laws, or might force passage of laws that are harmful. In short, they want to force a single, uniform belief on everyone so everyone will support the right sort of government.
And that is the real purpose behind at least some, perhaps most, liberal dedication to uniformity of belief. Having dedicated themselves to big government, a government which touches every aspect of life (oddly, mostly justified by the fact so many hold the wrong ideas), they want to ensure everyone holds the "right" ideas, so that government they envision is not undermined.
Think about it. In a free market, with a minimal government, what does it matter what I think? I cannot force your children to attend a school matching my beliefs. I cannot force you to do anything. Granted, if I hold peculiar beliefs, it may inconvenience you slightly if I refuse you service, but no more than had I not been there at all. And there are countless others with many different beliefs offering their services.
It is only when government becomes all pervasive that majority beliefs, or even beliefs of a significant minority, can shape policy, creating conflict. (Cf "The War of All Against All", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Chaotic Government", "The Road to Violence", "Power and Disorder") And that is why so many who endorse big government are interested in ensuring others believe properly. Without proper beliefs, it is likely government will not take the form they intend.
In a way, it is a rather circular argument. They justify big government because people do not know what is best for them, and so, to ensure that big government takes the right form, they have to be certain people believe the right things. But, then again, these beliefs have been around a long time, so some take parts of the argument (eg the need for big government) as a given, and thus do not see how the argument seems to reference itself.
Of course, I am not naive enough to think this explains everything. Some may be motivated by the need to ensure proper government function, but not all. Some doubtless simply want others to believe the "right" things out of a strange benevolence, one that imagines it is best to prevent others from mistakes, even if that means jailing or fining them. And then there, as with any movement, a number of opportunists, who see this whole issue simply as a smoke screen to justify their lust for power. But, even taking all of those motives into account, I still find myself at a bit of a loss to explain this missionary desire. But, if I cannot explain it all, at least I have now helped explain a bit more of this desire.
* See "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "Some Thoughts on 'Summerhill'", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" , "Lawn Darts", "Social Issues and the Role of Government", "Hugging You to Death" and "The Right to Be Wrong -- An Uncomfortable Argument".
** This is largely a protectionist/mercantilist belief, but there were also a number of free market proponents who argued that closed markets were harmful to overall well being and thus needed to be forced open. The free market justification was different from the mercantilist in many particulars (and I believe it was a bit spurious), but in the end both led to the same outcome.
*** See "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", for the best examples. Also"The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Man's Nature and Government", "Appealing to Arrogance", "The Intellectual Elite", "The Citizen Dichotomy", "The Essence of Liberalism","Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions", "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights", "The Road to Violence", "The War of All Against All", "In Loco Parentis", Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions" and "Arbitrary Choices" .
**** I am not e creationist myself, I have even written some critical essays on intelligent design ("Some Thoughts on Arguments for Intelligent Design"), but it does seem peculiar to insist you are helping parents by forcing them to send their children to schools which deny things they believe to be true. If we forcibly sent Jewish children to Catholic schools to convert them, liberals would be up in arms, but forcing the children of creationists to learn evolution is seen as beneficial. It seems a peculiar double standard. (The true problem is public education in general, as I shall soon discuss. See also "Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "A Few Thoughts on Charter Schools", "Did Deregulation Fail?", "The Glory of Eisenhower?" and "Podiatrists, Dentists and Public Education".)