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Moral claims don’t persuade

RALEIGH — In nearly three decades of writing a syndicated column on North Carolina politics and government, I’ve always received reader response. Back in the day, I’d get an occasional phone call or personal letter, but most of the response came in the form of letters to the editor. The reader would typically praise a point I made, or criticize it. Only rarely would there be an emotional outburst or personal attack.

As wonderful as the Internet is, it has had some negative consequences for how we communicate. Online commentators and email correspondents have proven more likely to explode in anger or hurl personal insults. They are less likely to offer reasoned criticism.

Over time, a common theme has presented itself: Moral superiority. Rather than argue a particular point of fact or opinion, liberal correspondents simply assert that anyone with good intentions and compassionate hearts would have to agree with them. Because I don’t agree, I must have bad intentions or a hardened heart, making me their moral inferior and thus worthy of contempt.

These are not attempts at persuasion. At best they are examples of blowing off steam. At worst they represent the kind of obnoxious self-satisfaction that passes for political rhetoric these days. If meant for a few friends, no harm done. But when claims of moral superiority displace actual, rational argumentation, the public debate suffers.

To all my left-of-center readers: Conservatives and libertarians will never recognize your political philosophy as morally superior. You may persuade us to accept a particular claim of yours, or drop a particular claim of ours. But we will never see European-style social democracy as morally superior to American-style market democracy, because it most certainly is not.

You see, we don’t think all social institutions are interchangeable. We see families, businesses, churches, charities and governments as very different things. Families are bound together by blood or marital ties. Businesses are bundles of contracts among producers and consumers of goods and services. Churches and charities are voluntary institutions through which people form and act on their spiritual or ethical convictions.

What distinguishes governments from these other institutions, and government action from other forms of social action, is the use of violent coercion. We choose how and with whom we worship or do business. These are voluntary transactions. Paying taxes and complying with government dictates are not. They are compulsory. If we disagree and refuse to comply, governments will confiscate our property, anyway. If we continue to resist, we will be arrested and jailed. If a tyrannical majority decides to deprive us of our liberty and property, our only recourse is to flee.

Unless you are an anarchist, you accept that some exercise of governmental power is inevitable and beneficial. But when government grows beyond its proper, limited scope, it becomes little more than a mechanism for stealing property from one group of people and transferring it to another group of people.

The recipients might be politically connected insiders or crony capitalists. They might be voters who desire income or services without exchanging the fruits of their own labor for them. But they are certainly not individuals who have a moral license to steal.

This is why many of us were so infuriated by President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark from a few years back. We weren’t misunderstanding his words, or taking them out of context. Even if Obama’s “you didn’t build that” clause was referring to roads and bridges rather than private firms, his broader point was that people who have built businesses or accumulated other forms of wealth should be compelled to surrender more of that wealth to government because they aren’t really entitled to it — because they are the beneficiaries of public goods such as schools or roads for which they have not adequately paid taxes. Or because they were just plain lucky.

These are uninformed and noxious ideas. And they reflect feelings of moral superiority that are manifestly unfounded — but, I’m sad to say, manifestly common.

Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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