On the Basic Human Desire to Control Other People
Today, I watched a television interview on a news program. The interviewee was asked what I think to be an absolutely stupid question: should there be a law mandating salary caps on company executives? (to which the interviewee smartly answered in the negative.) Why do I say this is an idiotic question? Because the question is asked as if the answerer’s opinion is at all relevant to whether other people should be allowed to conduct affairs in the way they please.
The question is, in other words, a brilliant illustration of an unfortunate human tendency: the desire to control the actions of others.
Let’s look at the question again: should there be a law mandating salary caps on company executives? The question can be generalized this way: should there be a law mandating that x behavior (that some find appalling) not be allowed? So, we are asking whether the fact that some people feel that an act is wrong, offensive, or outlandish is sufficient to force others not to engage in it. And those who answer “yes” to the above questions are literally saying that their objection to a particular act is enough to warrant exactly this forcible restraint.
In some cases, of course, this may well be justified. If a person is doing something that actively harms someone who did not asked to be harmed, then we have a matter of coercion offsetting coercion. We are coercing one person to refrain from coercing another. This is similar in kind to to teacher breaking up the schoolyard bullying, or the police arresting and imprisoning the arsenist. We can, if we want, argue that the coercive restraint is more coercive than the action it tries to prevent (the police arresting someone gently pricking a person with a pin) or that stopping coercion with coercion is contradictory (it is, but often there is no other good alternative). But mostly, these are easy cases where it is assumed that individuals shall not coerce each other and the penalty for such action is coercion in defense of this idea.
Then, there are cases like that above: should legislation be enacted to prevent companies from paying huge sums to top executives (or athletes)? Should Peter be prevented from smoking crack cocaine or injecting heroin? Should James be prevented from being from finding willing clergy to marry him and his partner, Steve?
Should Walmart be prevented from employing people at lower wages than many people are just?
There is one thing absent from every one of these above examples: coercion. Walmart cannot force people to work for them. James cannot force Steve to marry him or clergy into performing the ceremony. Peter is not harming anyone but himself in buying and doing drugs. And companies paying certain of its members sums we may find ridiculous is not harming anyone but, possibly, the company itself.
Prohibiting any of these actors from doing any of these things is one person or group deciding that their own disagreement with the action in question – and that alone – is enough to make such actions prohibited: coercion against non-coercion. To repeat something I’ve said above, all of these above things are brilliant illustrations of our human desire to control other people based on our own preferences.
One of the biggest reasons for proposing economic legislation of the type proposing minimum and maximum pay boils down to the idea that one party knows better than the others (employer and employee) what is financially just. This supposes that (a) there is a single right answer about what is economically just, and (b) that the party least affected by the situation is the one most competent to judge it.
But in both of the above financial cases (some making “too much” and others making “too little”), the agreements in question were reached by voluntary contract rather than by coercion. The company is using its own money to pay people in the company what they think is justified. The job offer from Walmart is is acceptable as it is rejectable and it is up to the prospective employee to make a choice based on her own situation. In both cases, the parties in question made decisions about their own lives and decisions, we must presume, are best made by the persons affected by them (rather than by those removed from them).
But here’s the rub! Another tacit assumption in the human desire to control others via legislation do not think that others are to be trusted. Corporate executives are self-interested and put their own personal well-being above that of the company they represent. Walmart is a bully who can force those with little other alternative to accept jobs they would not otherwise accept. Drug addicts’ decision making power about what is good for them is tainted by an addiction more powerful than their own judgment. Therefore, it is best that we make decisions for them.
Now, to some this is just; to me, it is pompous and disrespecting of persons. To suggest that I should have veto power over your behavior because you may not use it wisely is to say that teachers should do their students work for them lest they get some answers wrong by themselves, or that no one should be trusted to drive cars because some people get into accidents, or that the freedoms of speech and press should be limited because some people use them for purposes of seditious libel. In other words, it is suggesting that since some people do not exercise responsibility in ways that others feel are wise (and mistakes happen, as we humans are fallible), that we should save people from themselves by protecting them from their own potential stupidities in advance.
The urge to control other humans through legislation is not only arrogant in that it assumes that the group not making the decisions knows better how to make decisions than the groups making decisions, but it hopes for the impossible: a day when accidents and missteps will be avoided if only we prohibit folks from doing things they cannot be trusted to do. Asking whether companies should be legally aloud to pay executives certain amounts is trying to supplant the businesses economic judgment (which may be wrong, of course) with politicians’ political judgment, all because we dislike seeing things happen that we find objectionable. (And aren’t those businesses fortunate to have us protecting them from the possible error of paying executives too much?! After all, such decisions could mean that they might go out of business, and we wouldn’t want that!
The moral of the story is this: if we value the freedom of people to exercise their own judgment and control their own lives, let’s do that and stop asking whether we should disallow group x from doing act y (which affects only group x) because group z finds it objectionable. And if you want to prohibit groups from doing things because we find ourselves to be in a morally superior position to judge what is good for them, then admit to it. Instead of asking “should companies be allowed to pay executives ridiculous sums?” ask instead, “Is the fact that I find the sums these executives are paid to be obscene enough to prohibit companies from making their own financial choices? Yes, the impulse to control others lives is a tough one to get over; yes, even us libertarians cringe when we see people make bad choices. But we can stop ourselves from giving into it.