Viewpoint: The Art of Scapegoating


When a subject such as my present one needs treatment in a brief comment, lots of things cannot be said that would be needed to make points conclusively. This is the general problem of all kinds of writing, including punditry and editorialization.

But bringing matters to attention needn't always involve full-proof arguments. Just observe advertising. So the problem I wish to point out may just deserve attention, from which fruitful inquiry can begin.

I have heard so many scapegoat approaches to coping with current problems that it nearly makes me sick. The trend is evident enough when we view current political conduct and hear political commentary. An instance of it is evident in the rhetoric of some people friendly to the ideas of liberty. For example, many American conservatives are now jumping on the anti-union bandwagon long in the wings of conservative strategy. Most readers will know of the famous "right-to-work" efforts which such folks as Bill Buckley have supported for years. The idea has been that unions should not be permitted by law to write contracts with businesses which will restrict hiring to union members. "Union shop contract" is the name for this voluntary practice, although admittedly it is often less voluntary than one might suppose. (NLRB rulings help labor in many instances in such matters.)

No less severe a case of picking some legitimate group of people as the villains is the trust-bust effort exerted by governments and supported by many. The people John Chancellor uninhibitedly calls the "fat cats" have their share of blame in many doings, but they too are frequently picked as somehow inherently responsible for the ill state of affairs of the culture. Here some libertarians are giving the matter support by embracing certain left-wing "revisionist" doctrines which purport to identify corporations as most responsible for things that have gone wrong, especially in foreign affairs. The conservatives go after labor, the liberals after big business (unless labor is conservative and business liberal, respectively).

But there are many other examples. Intellectuals, the media, blacks, whites, males, females, the youth, the middle class, the foggy old folks who keep things uptight, and so on. Professional groups, racial groups, groups, groups and more groups—they did it, are doing it!

Well, I think this bears careful consideration. I am aware of those libertarians who hold bureaucrats responsible—their "self-interest" is what keeps the state growing! Yes, it is seriously advanced.

Now what kind of individualists are those who engage in such scapegoating? Where is the recognition of individual responsibility, where is the acknowledgment that being a laborer, corporate executive, property owner, black, woman, or whatever has nothing to do with whether what one does is right or wrong, except in some very unimportant sense, namely that one's success or failure as an individual will emerge partly in one's work or in how one makes one's inessential characteristics serve some purpose.

The fact is that when cultures are corrupt, lots of types of folks have made it so, not some one or two or five. It would make good sense, if the above is right, to abandon the scapegoating routine and attend to dealing with human problems by going to basics, to what it is about the many folks who did wrong that could be changed peacefully, in such a way that no injustice is done. For scapegoating is unjust, it is the imputation of collective guilt, it is evading the requirement of proof where due process—morally due, that is—requires it.

I have not defended unions, corporations, blacks, etc. That would be silly—like defending the existence of labor, business, or my height. That is just the point worth reflecting on in connection with attacking the same sorts of elements of our culture. We are all in it and some are better, some worse, as human beings. That is the only thing that counts fundamentally. The rest are unfortunate, at times, malicious, diversions.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month.