education philosopher

On the Basic Human Desire to Control Other People

Posted in Philosophy, political philosophy by KevinCK on October 21, 2009

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 authoritymandating 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.

Tno smokinghe 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.


7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. David said, on October 22, 2009 at 3:19 am

    I like something Ayn Rand said about coercion, that the only two options are money or a gun. Her villains “don’t see it that way” and want some third option considering the “human element”, and I think that’s actually a pretty common stance in real life. It’s okay for people to speculate about what others should be allowed to do because it’s not about compulsion, it’s about a collective decision of how we should live.

    On another note, I’d just like to mention that putting drugs in the same list as the other “objectionable” practices distracts from the point a little, because it’s not as much of a clear-cut case.

  2. KevinCK said, on October 22, 2009 at 12:38 pm


    Are you saying that the ‘third way’ – the ‘human element’ – is okay becuase “it’s not about compulsion” but about “a collective decision of how we should live?”

    That collective decision is some designing laws and rules to restrict others based on what this group’s preferences are for others. When I create a law telling people that they may not smoke marijuana, I am telling them that my preference for them to avoid marijuana is sufficient justification for restricting otheres’ actions to do something they want to do and harms no one in and of itself. It is literally forcing others to do or not do something simply becuase one group of people thinks its preferences are wiser than another groups.

    And I am not sure why the drug case above is not quite clear cut. Most people who want to see drugs remain illegai either do it because they believe drugs are harmful to the doier (which means that they are willing to see the government in the parental role, taking care that no one makes bad choices) or has a problem with many criminal acts that are associated with the use of drugs (ironically, crimes that are generally the result of drugs illegality!). They have a problem with drugs causing violence, etc. Were drugs legal, and assuming that they would still lead to crime (doubtful) all of those crimes would still be illegal (just as it is legal to drink but illegal to get into a car accident).

    So, I am not sure how drugs are more of a problematic situation, unless we simply mean that there is a stronger impulse in the drug case to save people from themselves. That is precisely what I am writing against.

  3. David said, on October 23, 2009 at 3:00 am

    No, guess I didn’t use enough quotes there, but I was saying that people seem to resist calling it compulsion, and instead think of it as a mutual agreement sort of thing. In other words, the real challenge is convincing “progressive” types to speak and think of compulsion as compulsion.

    Regarding drug laws (which I’m against for the most part), I don’t think the “criminal” side-effects are the real danger. With both drugs and gambling, it’s an issue of someone being so controlled by an urge they put strain on everyone around them, in legal but extremely hurtful ways (lying, rationalizing, borrowing money). It’s debatable whether the law has any jurisdiction there, especially within the nuclear family relationships, but the offense to other people is a lot more direct than with gay marriage, or people spending their own money in “selfish” ways.

  4. KevinCK said, on October 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm


    My problem is that ‘putting a strain on everyone around them’ does not seem like a great criterion for making the action leading to strain illegal. If it were, many things would be very illegal that currently aren’t: having an unduly negative attitude, lying, and being a neglectful significant other would also be illegal. As you say, it is doubtful that there is any compelling legal case for making something illegal because it makes one hard to be around.

    The other thing at issue is that the people around the drug addict (or the liar, pessimist, or bad significant other) are free to not associate with the addict. Yes, it may be hard, but our society operates partly on the assumption that we are free to associate and dissociate with whomever we choose (unless dealing with the IRS.)

    You rightly point out that people do not hurt others when they spend their own money in bad ways. But this is DIRECTLY analogous to the drug addiction case. The drug addict is harming her own body. The spendthrift is harming their own financial well-being. At some point, overdoing drugs forces one into a bad situation where the addict may ask to be bailed out. This is the same as overspending. Those around both the addict and spender may have to sit by and watch the person destroy themselves. Both make it difficult on others.

    But as seen on shows like Intervention, one is always free to walk away from the addict and, after a certain point, it may even be in the addicts best interest not to have enablers.

    So, the central assumption I’m operating on is that if the addict harms others emotionally, it is a willful choice by the others to stay in that position. They are free to leave.

  5. David said, on October 27, 2009 at 2:31 am

    Yeah, all I’m saying is that the “dangers” of drug addiction are significantly more immediate, so I’d hesitate to lump drugs together with gay marriage, for example. I’d turn down any proposed laws concerning any of your other examples without a second thought, but with drug laws it depends, and it would usually be worth some deliberation for me.

  6. KevinCK said, on October 27, 2009 at 11:18 am


    I just didn’t want to throw in all easy cases. I think that the hardest two cases up there are the corporation spending carelessly (for its potential to harm employees) and the drug case, for the reasons you mention.

  7. Philip said, on October 11, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    When I was 12, my father told me he thought all drugs should be legalized, and I couldn’t get my head around how this could possibly be a good idea. Wouldn’t everyone just go out and start doing heroin? Especially because a drug like heroin would be sold for really cheap compared to the price of illegal heroin. Basic supply and demand, right? Lower the price, quantity demanded goes up!!! And heroin is really easy to make! Legalizing something like this just seemed like a bad idea when I was contemplating the matter with my pre-teen brain. I mean really, anyone could go out and buy heroin! omg!!!! DISASTER!!! Right? And what about the children? Will someone please think of the children?

    In the years since, my powers of reason have developed, and I now realize that the forest is the trees. Studying economics and familiarizing myself with the concept of elasticity has also provided a great deal of insight into exactly why everyone would not suddenly become “addicted” to heroin should this substance ever become legal and easily available.

    As it happens, price has very little to do with a persons decision to use drugs, heroin included! Even if that price includes the risk of incarceration, in the event a drug someone is after happens to have been prohibited by government, or the extra hassle one has to go through to acquire some drugs in the face of prohibition!

    The demand for drugs is relatively inelastic.. That means that when prohibition drives up the price of drugs 1000-fold, the amount of drugs which are demanded doesn’t go down very much in comparison, certainly not anywhere near 1000-fold. Even when part of that price could include incarceration, a “criminal record”, and all that comes with these things, the amount of drugs which are demanded decreases very little.

    What does that tell you about the logic of prohibition? What exactly is a jail sentence, if you are caught with “drugs”, if not a huge price increase on drugs? All prohibition does is increase the price of using drugs, but as already established, this does little to curb drug use… In other words, prohibition is a harmful method of dealing with drug use, when you consider the enormous cost that taxpayers are forced to incur to keep this farce going, and the even more enormous cost all of the people who are imprisoned are forced to incur for trying to make their situation better. What is 20 years locked in a cell worth to that person in dollars?

    Put another way, if every convenience store started giving heroin away for free, heroin use would not increase very much. That’s the reality that’s been hidden from the masses.

    The fact of the matter is that people like to do drugs. Jacking up the price isn’t going to change that, and neither will lowering the price to nothing. It’s about time we stop trying to interfere in the market for drugs. The results so far have been atrociously bad. Millions of people with ruined lives, billions, if not trillions of taxpayer dollars wasted, and for what? So that private prisons and pharmaceutical companies can get rich at the expense of everyone else! lol! Let’s not even start on cartel violence, the affect of prohibition on developing countries, etc..etc..

    The point here being that drug prohibition is a pretty clear cut issue. It’s a great example of the disaster that can ensue when people attempt to control others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: