The reasons people support power and coercion can be easy to understand. They want something somebody else has. They’re looking for the favor of the powerful. They can pursue their violent inclinations. They feel safer from real or imagined dangers. But when they feel virtuous about it, it can be harder for libertarians to understand. Why do some people want to kill those who disagree with their notion of God? Why do others want to take away people’s freedom to decide whom they’ll do business with? And why do they feel they’re better people for pushing these things?
There are lots of contributing factors. One which comes to my mind right now is the belief that you can force people to be virtuous. If you can make people be good, that’s a good thing, right? It’s possible, of course, to make people do things, if the alternative is going to jail or worse. But can doing this really them better? (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, what “better” really means.) Can force and threats make people believe in somebody’s ideal and live by it? The answer isn’t a clear “no.”
There’s something in many minds that equates power with moral authority. Signs in stores say “It’s not just wrong, it’s illegal,” presenting penalties as a higher standard than mere rightness. Punishment can induce a sense of guilt, not just fear. It’s as if people equate the humiliation of being overpowered with the humiliation of wrongdoing. In the extreme case there’s “Stockholm syndrome,” in which people take the side of those who hold power over them.
This has to be related to social pressure and tribalism. In an earlier post, I wrote about social pressure as a substitute for argument. Being afraid of disapproval, people pretend to themselves to accept what they think is the dominant view. Fear of punishment works much the same way, and if people imagine they believe something, then eventually they’ll start really believing it.
It makes a difference whether people see authority as part of their own group or not. Prisoners of war don’t often feel guilty of being on the wrong side, unless their captors are expert at brainwashing. Clever authorities play the good cop-bad cop game, acting as if they could be friends instead of punishing you. These tricks let authority seem less like an enemy and more like a “big brother.”
The exercise of power really can change people’s standards. The problem is that it can promote any standard, whether it’s good or horrible. Boko Haram uses brutal power to spread the idea that education is evil and rape is good. In a “debate” based on force, it’s the side with better armaments, not better arguments, that wins.
But when people decide they’re right anyway and don’t need reasons, force looks like an attractive option. They forget that the only way they can know they’re right is to use the best reasoning possible, or perhaps they never knew it. If a bludgeon can beat sense into people, they think, why not use it?