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Niceness and the State

July 23, 2002

Bulletin from the world of science: People are nice! The New York Times reports: “We’re Wired to Cooperate.”

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta have found, through experiments monitored by magnetic resonance imaging, that people get intense emotional satisfaction from cooperating with others. The brain lights up discernibly during acts of niceness, just as it lights up at yummy desserts, money, pretty faces, and other delights.

And you thought it was just you! Nope. It’s pretty much the whole human race. There are presumably exceptions, of course.

Reading a story like that just makes you feel good all over. Isn’t it nice that we’re so nice?

I have no trouble believing it. The older I get, the more I notice how many little kindnesses people gratuitously perform for each other. Of course there are some selfish slobs too; but we notice them because they’re exceptional.

The implications are anarchic. We don’t need the state to force us to cooperate; we would do it spontaneously, without coercion. The force-system we call the state is worse than superfluous. It interferes with and frustrates the natural urge to cooperate; at worst, it embitters human relations. The paradigm of state-behavior — massive organized force — is war.

[Breaker quote: Why force-systems are bad]You might say that the state is parasitic on our innate need to cooperate. It makes us confuse obedience to force with social harmony. In fact, its greatest fiction is that it is itself the key to social harmony, as if we would all be shooting each other if the state weren’t there to force us to behave.

During the last century, this idea was pressed all the way. Since the state can produce social order, many reasoned, the ideal state would be a socialist or communist one. The state would be a total concentration of power; formerly free cooperative acts would become “economic crimes.” In communist countries people would actually be put to death for buying and selling things you and I can get at the store every day from a smiling clerk.

In reality, such states turned out to be disastrous, not only economically ruinous but socially destructive, fostering far more predatory behavior than freer societies did. The Soviet Union lasted as long as it did only because of its bribery and black markets, the vast “underground economy” — or what might be called illicit cooperation.

Yet many intellectuals, including people as bright as Albert Einstein, were enamored of the giant new force-systems and thought they held the hope of the future. Sometimes I think an intellectual might almost be defined as one who insists on learning the hard way.

States do try to enlist our cooperative instincts, even for their most nefarious enterprises. Stalin is now credited with at least 20 million murders; he needed a lot of help to achieve that record — not just a quota of thugs, but ordinary people doing the paperwork without feeling they were abetting evil. Franklin Roosevelt needed a lot of very brainy cooperation, in the Manhattan Project, to create an inconceivably murderous weapon, the atomic bomb. Some of the best scientists in the world flocked to serve his cause.

The “good German” who obeyed Hitler is now a by-word for immoral obedience, but the truth is that refusing to cooperate goes much against the grain for most people. Few of us can bear to disrupt society, and defying the state can seem unbearably disruptive, even when a bit of disruption is very much in order. The state always takes advantage of this fact of human nature.

Anarchism — statelessness — is recommended not only by our individuality, but by our sociability. We are individuals who enjoy cooperating with other individuals. We enjoy using our minds, but mostly in social enterprises. We enjoy making money, but chiefly so we can spend it on people we love. We love to possess in large part because we love to share. If you can’t own anything, you can’t share.

Maybe the nuttiest of all socialist ideas was the notion that abolishing private property would conduce to happy sharing. In reality, it meant only that everything was effectively owned by those who ruled the force-system, the state. Stalin owned everything in eleven time zones, yet his Western admirers never thought of him as rich. After all, he didn’t dress like a rich man.

Once a barking dog awakened Stalin from his afternoon nap. Annoyed, he ordered the dog’s owner shot. There’s a lesson for nice people here.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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of Griffin Internet Syndicate

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