We're From The Government. We Know What's Best For You.

Irksome, Politics & Current Events

We've said it many times, but it bears repeating: one of the chief frustrations of being libertarian-leaning is the feeling that mainstream politics offers us a choice between one party's socially conservative totalitarianism and the other party's social engineering totalitarianism. Each party constantly rails against the other party's excesses, but indulges in its own, utterly failing to grasp this: giving the government power to do things you like naturally tends to give it power to do things you don't like. So liberals cheerfully advocate heavy regulation of our economic lives, not grasping that it tends to empower the government to control our moral lives, and conservatives eagerly advocate increased morals laws and law enforcement power, not grasping that these tend to empower the government to regulate the living shit out of their businesses. And then there are the intrusions and abuses of power that both parties support, like the moronic and destructive War on Drugs.

This has been going on for a long time, and I've been writing about it for a long time, so I should be well beyond getting agitated about it. But I'm not. The government-as-God-Emperor crowd still has the power to get under my skin.

Take San Francisco.

San Francisco is a beautiful and fascinating city, full of friendly and interesting people, and I've always loved it. But as a political entity, it's completely batshit crazy. In the last month alone, various bureaucratic entities within the city's baroque and querulous power structure have attempted to ban bottled water at all events on city property (to save the planet), ban soda from vending machines on city property in favor of water, juice, milk, and "soy milk, rice milk and other similar dairy or non dairy milk" (to protect us from becoming fatties), and ban stores from selling any pets [pardon me, "animal companions"] other than fish (to save the abandoned hamsters, mostly). City employees are instructed on how small to cut bagel pieces to ensure good nutrition.

San Franciscans are, in many respects, an incredibly tolerant bunch. They'd never tolerate their government trying to protect their good morals by telling them they can't buy, sell, and use sex toys. They'd make awful, awful jurors for the government in cases brought by the Bush (and now Obama) administration's Obscenity Task Force, and would probably hold marches or vigils or organic hemp brownie bake sales against it or something. They are vigilant about police brutality against traditionally disfavored minority groups.

But it seems they have no clue whatsoever about the inexorable connection between those types of tyranny and the sort of "progressive" tyranny they gleefully inflict.

When you encourage the government to regulate what you can drink to keep you (or your kids) from getting fat, you encourage that government's minions to imagine what else you might be doing — or reading, or watching, or saying — that's not good for you, and how they might increase the power of their little fiefdoms by regulating it. When you tell the government it can forbid you from buying pets or drinking bottled water, because you can't be trusted to do those things responsibly on your own, you encourage them to dream of all the other things that it would be better for you, really, if you didn't do. Just ask Amanda Marcotte, cheering the pet sale ban:

This would probably mean that people couldn’t get exotic pets, and that isn’t really the sort of thing that would keep me up at night, either. I understand the urge to have something like a pet ferret, but like with smoking, it’s an understandable urge that probably is best not indulged.

The tyrant asks not "should the government have the power to stop a free man from doing that," but "would it be better, from our point of view, if you didn't indulge your desire to do that." As a society, we lurch drunkenly from one sort of tyranny to the other, from the nanny-state control fetishes of the Amanda Marcottes to the censorious dreams of the book banners. Far, far too few of us recognize that those urges are just different signs of the same ill-minted coin. Often we hold our nose and decide that the particular totalitarianism urged by our party is tolerable and unlikely to impact us. "I don't buy ferrets or fetish porn," we say. "So the nanny staters/moral scolds are not likely to impact my life."

So you say for now, my friend. But sooner or later, the nanny-staters or the morals police will get you. You think you are safe, sitting there reading this on your computer? Not so. You're probably using air conditioning, with the government ought to stop or at least regulate. Your surfing is creating a huge carbon footprint; they'll be talking to you about that. And is that wi-fi you are using? Progressive locales recognize that's hazardous to druids and other living things. And on the other side of the coin, make sure you're not visiting banned sites, or for that matter even mentioning banned sites by name. Or ordering videos the government thinks are bad for society. Or treating your glaucoma. Or writing anything to offend a teacher.

We get, and deserve, the tyranny we tolerate. We get it because we teach officious government officials that regulating our life is their birthright. More frighteningly, we get it because we teach our children that the role of the government is to regulate our life — thus dashing their chances to be free people.

Last 5 posts by Ken White



  1. W. Ian Blanton  •  Jul 13, 2010 @11:16 am

    You go, Ken!

  2. Joe  •  Jul 13, 2010 @11:24 am

    I would so vote for you to hold a seat in any office.

  3. Richard Brackett  •  Jul 13, 2010 @11:54 am

    We're just screwed…

    All this control infrastructure being setup and our recognized political parties are just fighting over who gets to drive it.

    I frequently argue with nanny types that once you permit those controls you are at the whim of the powers that be, and sooner or later YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BE THAT POWER and then you'll get to reap the whirlwind.

  4. MadRocketScientist  •  Jul 13, 2010 @1:34 pm

    Hear Hear!

  5. Chris Berez  •  Jul 13, 2010 @6:29 pm

    Well said, Ken. Well said.

  6. wilhelm2451  •  Jul 13, 2010 @9:16 pm

    Different "sides" of the same ill-minted coin, but here, here! I've not seen the two extremes pulled together and painted with the same brush so well in a long time.

  7. Jeffrey Ellis  •  Jul 14, 2010 @6:39 am

    Ken, this was brilliant. You've stated very eloquently what I've been struggling to put into words for quite a while.

  8. Grandy  •  Jul 14, 2010 @12:09 pm

    I understand the urge to have something like a pet ferret, but like with smoking, it’s an understandable urge that probably is best not indulged.

    Kodo and Podo would have to have a word with Ms. Marcotte.

  9. mojo  •  Jul 14, 2010 @1:21 pm

    Send not, therefore, to as for whom the bell tolls.

  10. mojo  •  Jul 14, 2010 @1:21 pm


  11. Charles  •  Jul 14, 2010 @3:31 pm

    The best thing to come out of all of this is that we now know that Amanda Marcotte shares Rudy Giuliani's anti-ferret bias.

  12. Jonathan C. Hansen  •  Jul 14, 2010 @6:55 pm

    Hey – very well put. It astonishes me that many, if not most, people cannot deduce this tautology about big government themselves. Maybe people today are too distracted with the plethora of amazing toys and pastimes provided by the advance of science and technology to even think about this issue. But clearly those that wrote the Constitution had this foremost in mind. Pointing this out can only be good, but it would be far better if the average citizen could figure it out him/herself.

  13. Imaginary Lawyer  •  Jul 15, 2010 @10:31 am

    Ken, nobody could argue with a straight face that SF isn't batshit crazy in so many ways, but your article is a bit disingenuous. You make it sound as though the SF city government was of one unified, crystal-hugging, hippie-dippy mind and everybody happily agreed to all those proposals, when in fact there's a huge amount of contention in city politics, and "proposal" doesn't mean "had a snowball's chance of actually happening".

    Not to mention that rules about what the city can and cannot do are very different than rules that apply to private citizens. Nobody is trying to keep your convenience store from selling Pepsi or bottled water.

  14. Ken  •  Jul 15, 2010 @10:37 am

    IL, no doubt there's a difference between banning a practice on city property and banning it outright. But the difference is an incremental one, and regulating things on city property is a first step, one fraught with an attitude about the respective roles of government and citizens. That's my point.

    As to the snowball's chance — it's my understanding that the pet store proposal (which, after all, would directly impact a few business owners and their customers) was considered at a contentious hearing and not yet rejected, but continued to the next hearing. I don't know the status of the one banning bottled water (and the news reports aren't completely clear if that just means banning the sales of it, or what).

3 Trackbacks