This column by David Mitchell1 isn’t wrong per se. Yes, people are hypocritical about their stated wants versus their expressed political desires, and they always have been. (Granted, sentiment of this sort is much more a form of liberal-bashing than it is a free-ranging slam against people of all ideological backgrounds, not least because somewhere over the last fifty or so years a lot of conservatives decided to different degrees that selfishness, brutality and amorality were actually virtues on their own merits. But even so.)
But what I don’t get is how he thinks this is somehow new, or that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with it. This is not the case. We know how to deal with it: laws and regulation.
Everybody knows, for example, that simple morality on its own isn’t enough to keep you from committing theft. Whether it was candy bars as a kid or jewelry as a teenager or songs you pirated last week, your moral compass is usually insufficient to keep you from stealing – particularly when who you’re stealing from is a faceless entity (be it the convenience store chain, the department store chain or the RIAA). The power of guilt only works sporadically to prevent theft, and usually only on a personal basis. What motivates us not to steal, ultimately, is fear and lack of necessity. We don’t steal because we fear the shame and/or consequences if we get caught, and we don’t steal because we decide that we don’t need to steal it. Over time, the fear and lack of need and occasionally guilt morphs into a moral code as we combine the disincentives against committing theft with our own recognition that stealing is kind of a jerkhole thing to do to people.
But the shame and consequences didn’t arise out of a vacuum: it arose because as a society we decided to make sure there would be shame and consequences for anyone who ventured into thievery. Institutions stigmatized and criminalized the act so that we would not have to rely on personal condemnation to deter would-be thieves. And this is where Mitchell makes his mistake: he places the brunt of his condemnation on the supposedly hypocritical public, rather than the political class which has grown more and more craven with each passing year.2
Look: I want to get the chance to travel at some point. There is plenty of the world I haven’t seen, and which has not been exposed to the awesomeness that is me. That’s an entirely rational desire for me to have. But I also recognize that doing so would probably generate a lot of carbon, far more than my fair share (even given that I don’t drive a car and I cycle everywhere and eat a lot of local food and a lot of other things that would probably make people think I am a hippie3 ). Given the choice, though, I’d have to admit that if I get the chance to travel, I will probably say “well, fuck it” and go on the trips.
That’s why it’s the job of government to make it harder for me to do something we know is bad for me to do. Plane taxes. Economic disincentives. At the harder end of things, hell, criminal laws. (Which probably wouldn’t be needed in this case, but you get the idea as it applies more widely.) Human beings are at heart selfish actors when it comes to personal gratification; it’s the job of government to make sure the drive for personal gratification doesn’t result in harm to the citizenry as a whole.
Which is why Mitchell’s ire is ultimately misdirected: he’s getting angry at people for being, well, people. This seems like a waste of time.4 You can’t stop people from being people. But you can feasibly stop political servants from being cowardly hypocrites. We elect political leaders to lead: if they don’t know in advance that people will punish them for hard truths then they’re stupid, and if they think they can avoid it it’s because we’ve allowed systems to fester where they can do so, which is why we’ve all generally concluded that only sociopaths and assholes want to be politicians. (That, and a bit of projection.)
- Which, incidentally, is also noteworthy for Mitchell disclosing the fact that he has a roommate. The guy is a pretty successful comedian and television star, and he has a roommate. Ah, London rental costs! The next time I am irked about rent in Toronto I shall remember this and feel better. [↩]
- I don’t feel the need to condemn any given country’s political class. They’re all pretty bad. Can anybody think of a good one? [↩]
- People who know me personally know that I am not a fucking hippie. [↩]
- Although the Catholic Church has not given up on it yet. [↩]