Blogs > Liberty and Power > Invalid Corollary

May 29, 2005 2:01 am

Invalid Corollary

On Thursday, a reply I sent to one of my state delegates in response to an e-mail from her appeared in this space. The second to last line read as follows, "You and your ilk are busily creating a society where every question is decided by the coercive force of the state and people have no more control over their own lives than slaves did in the Antebellum South."

This post provoked a comment by Steve Johnson in which he suggested a libertarian corollary to Godwin's law. He wrote "As a discussion about liberty grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving antebellum slavery approaches one . And, once such a comparison is made, the discussion is over, and whoever mentioned slavery has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress."

First off, I fail to see how my mentioning slavery makes the government's current war on obesity and adding another highly compensated bureaucrat to the Maryland State Department of Education’s already bloated payroll good public policy. In the definition of Godwin's law that Johnson links to we discover that "it is considered poor form to invoke the law explicitly” and that “there is also a widely recognized codicil that any intentional invocation of Godwin's law for its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.” Now, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I am going to choose to believe that Mr. Johnson intended further discussion.

Two questions about the proposed corollary come to mind. First, is the argument lost because contending that the 19th century pro-slavery philosophy and the modern day collectivist mindset which supports a government run war on obesity have the same paternalistic roots inaccurate?

Some years ago I wrote a paper for a seminar which I titled “Planters and Philosophers: Southern Writing on Slavery 1832 to 1860.” The piece compared the period’s literature defending the institution of slavery with articles on plantation, specifically slave, management. These were found in such journals as The Southern Planter and The Southern Cultivator. Also, there is an excellent collection of this type of writing, Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South edited by James O. Breeden. The research that I did for this paper taught me a very valuable lesson, the stated reason justifying controlling someone else is not usually the real reason.

The pro-slavery philosophers were all about helping the child like slaves lead better lives on the paradise that was the plantation. In 1854 Virginian George Fitzhugh wrote Sociology for the South in which he described a southern farm as “a sort of joint stock concern or social phalanstery, in which the master furnishes the capital and skill and the slaves the labor, and divides the profits, not according to each one’s in-put, but according to each one’s wants and necessities.”

On the other hand the planters were all about getting the greatest return on their investments. The desires of the slaves played a part in the masters’ practical discussions only in so far as how their property’s wants could be used to maximize profit.

The obesity warriors are all about health but their tactics are all about money, suing MacDonalds, government jobs, or junk food taxes. When the new health related food tariffs arrive it will not matter how much you weigh or how old you are, you will still have to pay them.

No, the comparison, citing great similarity, between the way slavery was justified and how it operated with the way more and more government is justified and how it increasingly operates is valid. Just as the slaves were condemned to a life of perpetual childhood so too are we being relentlessly put into the same condition.

Secondly, concerning the corollary, is the argument lost because the point is so obvious that it detracts from any discussion? When reading the agricultural journal articles you notice an astoundingly wide range of topics dealt with. Food, clothing, shelter, recreation, travel, health, work, marriage, religion, virtually every aspect of a slave’s life was open to manipulation by the master for the master’s benefit. The pro-slavery philosophy, however, argued that all of this interference was beneficial to the slaves.

Anyone paying attention can see how each and every day government seeks to extend its control into new areas of our lives, always for our own good. Sadly, I do not think that many people are paying attention and that is why the growing similarity between the way the slaves lived and the way we now live needs to be brought up more not less often. At the end of the day if you are constantly being told what to do, what not to do, and how to think it matters not if it is a single master or a totalitarian state that is giving the orders, you will still be profoundly unhappy.

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More Comments:

Keith Halderman - 6/1/2005

Because I knew that there would not be a thousand e-mails, I was not trying to influence. However, I do not believe you are very interested in change. Speaking softly and nicely to the Delegate Stern's of the world just allows them to more easily dismiss you. For the most part people in the libertarian movement have been following your advice ever since I have been involved. How is that working out? Is the society becoming more libertarian or more totalitarian? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Who is the kook?

Steve Johnson - 6/1/2005

Hmmm. You tell somebody off, then trumpet it on the web. You say you didn't want to influence Stern, then you say that if she got 1000 similar emails, it would influence her. Well, which is it? I can't speak for others, but your letter certainly doesn't encourage me to join in the jeering from the peanut gallery.

It seems to me that too many libertarians would rather be a voice crying in the wilderness than a voice effecting real change. And I'm frustrated that often when I propose a libertarian point of view to others, I have to overcome the general assumption that all libertarians are kooks. Do me a favor, and quit pouring gasoline on the fire.

Keith Halderman - 5/29/2005

I did not write that reply to influence delegate Stern, the deed is already done. I wrote it to tell her off, she is the problem. In the battle between the people and the government she is, and always has been, on the side of government. Nothing I ever say to her will change that. When we talk about reducing the power and control of the state we are talking about reducing her power and control. She is always going to be against that.

So the best I can do is try to wake people up to what is going on and if occasionaly I get a chance to make someone like her uncomfortable that is a bonus. You will note I did not just send the reply to her, I posted it.

For a long time now I have seen libertarians and other activists kissing the behind of the media, legislators, and bureaucrats and to my mind it is not working. Maybe if libertarians got angry and demonstrated that anger the rest of the people might realize there is really something to be angry about, because right now they do not seem very motivated to change things.

Lastly, I hope the e-mail did upset her and if she got a thousand similar e-mails, saying hey you jerk why are you wasting our money like that, maybe she would not be so eager to do it the next time. The problem is not with what I did. The problem comes from the fact that it was only me who did it.

Steve Johnson - 5/29/2005

Your letter starts out well:" Delegate Stern, How is another overpaid, paper shuffling, red tape creating bureaucrat going help to fight obesity? The money would be much better spent on basketballs. And, why is how much people weigh the government's business anyways? The purpose of government is to protect us from the force and fraud of others, not ourselves."

Powerful. Concise. Delegate Stern might be moved to reconsider. But, then you go on: "You and your ilk are busily creating a society where every question is decided by the coercive force of the state and people have no more control over their own lives than slaves did in the Antebellum South."

Stern sighs, "another kook." Into the trash goes the letter.

The problem isn't that slavery isn't relevant. As your lengthy post above shows, it is quite relevant. The problem is that as a persuasive technique, a reference to slavery is needlessly inflammatory. It is especially destructive when the reference is personal ("you and your ilk"). It is guaranteed to be counterproductive in the context of a first communication with a legislator.

One of the reasons that libertarianism fails to get traction is that knowledgeable and well-meaning promotors, in the name of reason and principle, make allusions that the uninitiated don't get and that evoke an emotional response that is entirely the opposite of what's intended. By now, most listeners have learned that references to slavery, like references to the Nazis, generally signal a retreat from reason to emotion. And, once the listener turns off, you don't get a second chance to explain.