Popular Sentiment, and Men Behaving Badly

You hear it many times in a debate centered on liberty - the idea that without government something bad would persist (slavery, pollution, etc.) or that because of government something good happens (charity, safety nets, etc.). It's usually used as a last resort. It begins with something that sounds like:

"You may have trumped all my arguments, but..."

and ends with something like:

"...without the civil rights laws, segregation would still exist."


"...without the federal government, unfortunate people might starve in their old

What's seldom realized is that in most of the cases, a defender of government sites, government acted because many people felt strongly about something - not the other way around. And in the absence of government action, these ideas and strong convictions would still exist and influence the actions of individuals - without coercion, and without violating property rights.

Civil rights laws weren't the result of the altruistic ideas of a politician that forced people to behave. They were the culmination of massive popular sentiment that forced politicians to act. Many people had come to realize that others were being treated very badly. Many were won-over, many were shamed into it, but no one was persuaded by the wording of a law. It wasn't a law that brought enlightenment.

It was this popular sentiment that forced politicians to jump on the bandwagon and propose or support legislation. The Civil War ended in 1865. What had the federal government been waiting for, all of those years? Why had it finally occured to legislators in 1964 that discrimination on the basis of "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments is a bad thing? Why weren't these issues dealt with following the end of the Civil War?

It's because the idea had finally caught on. Popular opinion was finally able to garner political support for legislative action. No well-intentioned politician would have stood a chance without the moving words and orations of a Martin Luther King Jr. to awaken the spirit of the oppressed, and win the hearts and minds of those who could help.


It is this same popular (though, not universal) sentiment that can serve to solve similar problems without the need for a law that violates property rights. A law is a blunt instrument enforced by the guns of government.

You don't club someone who curses in public. You give him a dirty look, and avoid him. You don't slap someone who holds beliefs antithetical to your own. You try to convince him of his error, decide to avoid him, or agree to disagree. You don't jail a restauranteur who treats your neighbor like a second class citizen - you give him a piece of your mind, and tell your friends not to patronize his restaurant.

In short, you don't pass a law because someone is behaving badly. You raise the price of anti-social behavior. You demand better behaviour from anyone you associate with, and distance yourself from those whose actions you can't condone.

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Although, in the case of US

Although, in the case of US Civil Rights, it was necessary for there to be government action, since it was government action that segregated folks by force, and was oppressing black folk in the US.

Generally speaking, though, I totally agree. THe fact that it took almost 100 years for government to live up to its promises after the Civil War shows that one cannot expect good/moral/well-intentioned behavior from government- government, at best, only does what most people want it to do, and if people want Evil Done, then by gosh they'll do it.

Kirkpatrick Sale pointed out

Kirkpatrick Sale pointed out that segregation was ended mainly by grass-roots activism by people like Rosa Parks and the freedom riders. The government just codified it after the fact, and said "Look what I've done for you!"

And government solutions usually crowd out (or even deliberately suppress) self-organized solutions already in existence. Colin Ward pointed this out in regard to the welfare state in "The Welfare Road We Failed to Take." The British and American working classes had a massive network of mutualist institutions for providing sickness and death benefits, strike funds, etc. (accounts can be found in Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid" and E.P. Thompson's "Making of the English Working Class").

But the New Class of social engineers and "professionals" that controlled the new welfare state saw such working class self-organization as atavistic, even a threat to order. Much better that people should get in the habit of relying on the experts and proper authorities, and assume the role of passive consumers. David Beito did a great study of this phenomenon in "From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State."

Governments do not grant rights. Rights are won by popular resistance from below.

Precisely! Much of the Great

Precisely! Much of the Great Society has destroyed old community support networks that kept poor folk from destitution- which is why civil society is so dysfunctional now in "inner cities" where the government concentrates its welfare class.

Much of the current welfare "safety net" existed prior to its codification in government programs; the answer to ridding ourselves of the welfare state is to go back and restore & strengthen non-state welfare apparati.

And a great deal of the

And a great deal of the disintegration of stable community and the extended family is also a result of government policy. Government subsidies to transportation made the society much more economically centralized and demographically mobile than it would otherwise be. Without such intervention, a much larger portion of the public would probably live near where they were born, and be in regular contact with extended families.

It is the atomization of society and destruction of such intermediate institutions that has led to many of the current social pathologies. And, with the snowballing irrationality that always results from any coercive intervention in civil society, the government is further strengthened to deal (very badly) with these pathologies.