TCS Daily

Fight Socienics

By Arnold Kling - July 7, 2005 12:00 AM

"What is wrong with eugenics is not the science, but the coercion. Eugenics is like any other programme that puts the social benefit before individual rights...Karl Pearson once said...'What is social is right, and there is no definition of right beyond that.' That dreadful statement should be the epitaph of eugenics."
-- Matt Ridley, Genome


We have a healthy inclination to reject government-imposed eugenics. We need to develop an equivalent inclination to reject government regulation and spending of all kinds.


In its recent Kelo decision (see Professor Bainbridge's essay), the U.S. Supreme Court gave its approval to what might be called "Socienics," in that it put the social benefit before individual rights. When the government of the city of New London claimed that it had a higher social purpose for Mrs. Kelo's property, the majority believed that the opinion of the government officials was beyond question. In effect, the Court ruled that "there is no definition of right beyond that."


Popularity of Eugenics


The idea that reproductive decisions are an individual right, rather than something that ought to be regulated by the state for the "social good," seems well entrenched in the West today. But it was not always thus.


The science writer Matt Ridley reminds us that eugenics was a popular intellectual fad a hundred years ago. It appealed very strongly to socialists, because it put the interest of the state ahead of the individual. In the United States, eugenics appealed to conservatives, who were concerned about demographic changes due to immigrants from the "wrong" countries. It appealed to liberals, because it promised to help achieve their goal of improving well-being in the society.


Ridley recounts that England very nearly passed a pro-eugenics law in 1913. Only principled libertarian opposition served to defeat it. Decades letter, the adoption of eugenics by the Nazis served to solidify its bad reputation, although as late as 1934 eugenicists in England were holding up Nazi sterilization policies as a positive role model.


Practicing Socienics


In a sense, government taking of land from Mrs. Kelo is little different from most other forms of government policy. Elected officials and/or bureaucrats decide that they know better than individuals what is good for them. Whether they take your property by levying taxes or limit your property rights by telling you that you cannot grow marijuana for medicinal purposes, the officials are doing the same thing. They are claiming to know the social good. And they are claiming that their interpretation of the social good is more important than your individual rights. They are practicing socienics.


As with eugenics, socienics represents the exercise of awesome state power. As economist Don Boudreaux points out, it is odd that we would give the state a right which we would never give to any individual. He writes,


"Suppose that a majority of this very same group of nine black-robed worthies were to declare that I, a private citizen, can poke a gun in my neighbors nose and demand that he sell his house to me so that I can give or sell it to someone else. The only condition demanded of this court is that I proclaim with as much sincerity as I can muster that my seizure of this house will improve the neighborhood and generate more income for me -- more income that I promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, to spend wisely on further efforts to improve the neighborhood.


Would you would anyone respect such a ruling of this court?


Presumed Corrupt


Government needs to be strong enough to protect property rights from organized criminals. However, government's ability to engage in the same sorts of activities as organized criminals -- theft, protection rackets, etc. -- is what makes the original principles of our Constitution so important. We need checks and balances, individual rights, and citizen vigilance against government encroachment. Otherwise, we will be subject to socienics.


Our Constitution presumed that government officials would be corrupt. Our founders feared the abuse of power.


In the Kelo case, the Court presumed that the local officials would use their eminent domain power in the public interest. This is the exact opposite of the assumption that I believe lies behind many of the provisions of the Constitution.


In our criminal process, we hope that the police do their work well. We hope that they bring the guilty to justice. But we do not give the police the benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, the accused is presumed innocent.


Similarly, we are entitled to hope that our legislators and appointed officials mean well. We hope that they act in the public interest. However, our attitudes as voters, and the interpretation of the Constitution by our judges, should not give government officials the benefit of the doubt. They should be presumed corrupt. While we can always desire that government will make the best use of powers, we should still prepare for the worst.


Before any power is given to government, we should question what would happen if someone with whom we disagreed were able to exercise that power. What if the public school curriculum were controlled by your ideological adversaries? What if health care regulation were dominated by the interests of suppliers rather than consumers? What if "public" lands were allocated for the benefit of political campaign contributors? What if broadcast regulation were used to favor political allies? Such concerns are far from purely hypothetical.


Instead, too many people are blinded by the fantasy that "we" know what is socially good, and that all "we" need to do is overpower "they." It is tempting to believe that public policy that differs from what "we" would like represents an accident, due to the temporary dominance of a special-interest "they." Instead, we should anticipate that misuse of power is an inherent problem of imperfect human nature.


Vigilance Against Socienics


Socienics is seductive today, just as eugenics was seductive to the "enlightened classes" a hundred years ago. But we need to fight socienics. The presumption should be that our individual liberty is foremost.


Taxes and regulation that infringe on individual rights should have to climb difficult hurdles of Constitutional review, not be granted easy deference. The standard for sanctioning the taking of our property in the name of social good should be something far stronger than a city council's majority vote supported by a thin policy rationale. Instead, the standard needs to approach "beyond a reasonable doubt."


What I am advocating is a dramatic change in our political culture. Just as eugenics came to be viewed with revulsion, I am suggesting that all of the socienics projects that attempt to use government to achieve social improvement need to be questioned and challenged.


As citizens we ought to develop an aversion, or at least strong doubts, concerning all forms of government intervention "for the social good." We can express this aversion to legislators. We can argue for the appointment to courts of judges who share our aversion. Collectivists in the West have retreated from eugenics, but socienics is well entrenched. With more awareness and better vigilance, we can fight socienics.


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