It Is Forbidden for You to Interfere in Human History

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Don Boudreaux reads a libertarian message into a deleted scene from Superman now available on the DVD. According to Marlon "Jor-El" Brando:

The reasons [to keep your Clark Kent identity] are two. First, even you cannot serve humanity twenty-four hours a day. Your help would be called for endlessly, even for those tasks which human beings could solve for themselves. It is their habit to abuse their resources in such a way.

This point—or rather a parallel one—will be familiar to readers of Mill's On Liberty, where he notes that someone who allows himself to be guided unreflectively by custom (or statute), even when it yields the right answer,

gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it.

Even when government can effectively solve our problems for us, its worth bearing in mind the risk of individual and communal moral atrophy. Sometimes it's worth doing a thing yourself even when another—whether the government or some private expert—can do it better. I should note, though, that arguably that also that cuts against the desirability of specialization and division of labor that might, in a strict economic sense, be (or anyway seem, in the short-term) efficient.

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  1. –Sometimes it’s worth doing a thing yourself even when another?whether the government or some private expert?can do it better.

    Okay, but I’m not raising my own potatoes or slaughtering my own meat.

  2. Earned achievement is better than delegation? What will they think of next?!!!

    Seriously though, my operating mantra is ‘do it yourself.’ Most of my beef with taxes is not that they are demanding payment illegally, but that they want to know my business at all! The delegation and intrusion of tasks are not the power of the government, that affects my time on a real basis immediately…….. and I’m already at work on alternatives, which is why I don’t want to be an open book to my competition!

  3. First government can’t do anything better, and, in fact, always makes things worse.
    But I think part of the point being attempted here–not in a Super way–is the paralysis caused by the Alphonse and Gastone routine. (Where two men waste a lot of comic time determining who should go through a doorway first.)
    Society atrophies in so many ways and for such long periods of time as it tries to allow government (Alphonse or Gastone, whichever) to go first.
    Now add that harm to society onto the harm government does by going first.
    It’s a wonder we do as well as we do.

  4. It has been some years since I read ‘On Liberty’ and clicked on the link to refresh my memory. I do believe that Mills may have been the first Libertarian. And, could there be a possibility that Rand got a lot of her ideas from him?

  5. I do recall reading (on the TCS site if I recall) that Superman’s power’s were the product of the mentality of the New Deal…the idea that that government could do and solve anything unlike later heros who had more real flaws and limits produced by more disbelieving times.

  6. I didn’t know that! Superman patterned after some weak dick in a wheelchair? Was Lois Lane supposed to have been Ellenor? I bet the Shadow was patterned after Elliot Ness and the g-men.

  7. Mill wasn’t a libertarian in the strict sense, but he was certainly a friendly, so to speak–at least some of the time. His views shifted a fair amount over time. I think the Rand connection’s mostly superficial, though. For one, Mill emphasizes the extent to which the development and flourishing of the robustly “individual” personality is a function of social circumstances, which is anathema to Rand’s portrait of the self-created hero, and their ways of arriving at some similar conclusions are quite different. A tighter link (speaking of “Supermen”) is to Nietzsche, who Rand read and initially admired: When she was sketching The Fountainhead, she considered opening each section with a Nietzsche quotation. She eventually rejected his general approach for a variety of reasons, but the mark is still there.

  8. No, I don’t think so…

    The Mill quotation seems to be about personal moral responsibility. The Superman quotation seems to reflect the tragedy of the commons, which is quite different than division of labor.

  9. Even more telling should be that Kal-El/Clark/Superman can’t help but interfere anyway, rewinding time to save Lois Lane.

    If he’d known what was ahead for Margot Kidder, he should have left her in that chasm.

  10. Does a day last 24 hours on Krypton too?

  11. Yes, but when Marlon Brando is your father, it just seems like an eternity…

  12. OK. I think Mills’ quote only refers to decisions involving the “mental and moral” faculties, not division of labor in general. Depending on how highly you value self-sufficiency and efficient use of your own time (one of those “mental and moral” decisions), I don’t see any problem with hiring others to make your clothing, growing and preparing your food, etc.

    Mills, however, warns against letting others do too much of your thinking for you, or deciding what’s wrong or what’s right. In that realm, a higher level of self-reliance seems to make sense. These are more closely connected to what makes you you. It’s less likely you’ll gain efficiency in deciding what’s wrong and what’s right by delegating that decision to others, considering that you are more likely to be intimately affected by a wrong decision. (The love of your life is taking a job in another town. Should you follow her, or stay in your home town with your own great job, family and friends? This probably is not the kind of decision you want to delegate to someone else.)

    Even so, however, you don’t want to be 100% self-reliant even when exercising your mental faculites and making moral decisions. I think it was Edmund Burke who said that one of the benefits of following custom is that it saved you the time and effort of sitting down and rationally thinking through every situation anew, as if you were the first person to ever encounter it.

    If I have a prosperous year, should I share my abundance or just keep it to myself? Should I drive on the left or right side of the road? Should I treat a person of another race differently just because she’s a member of another race? Should I steal this thing I found in the store or pay for it? Should I go to church on Sunday? Should I love my family? If you sat and rationally weighed the pros and cons of each of all decisions like these, it would seriously detract from the time you had left to do other things in life. Fortunately, these are areas where you can rely on custom, statute, habit, conformity, etc. to guide you.

    I think it’s all a matter of degree. In the mental and moral realm, you should tend to rely more on your self. In other matters, you can gain more efficiency by hiring others to do things better than you could.

    But everyone has his or her own personal hierarchy of values. That individual hierarchy will influence, not only how you make your own decisions, but also how whether you want to invest a lot of time and effort in making certain decisions in the first place.

  13. Addendum: Circumstances sometimes change, however, and sometimes the old rules, customs, laws are no longer good guides for the current environment. (Example: It’s generally considered rude to have long, involved conversations with people, developing into an ongoing relationship, without telling them your real name. But not on the Internet. There may be good reasons for keeping your full identity a secret.)

    This argues for generally fostering a higher degree of self-reliance in mental and moral matters, and minimizing hard-to-change government rules that can straitjacket you and reduce your mental and moral agility.

  14. The version of Superman Siegel and Shuster produced in 1938 did not know what planet, other than Earth, he arrived from. Years after he first appeared Kal managed to observe the light from Krypton’s explosion, and only then did he figure out his origins. The interactive Jor-El AI was an innovation of the 1978 movie. Jor’s “prime directive” was probably influenced by Elliot S! Maggin’s script for Must There Be A Superman?, from SUPERMAN #247, Jan. 1972.

    …I had a plotting session with Julie Schwartz in which I threw out maybe half-a-dozen ideas the last of which was about Superman screwing up human social norms, a story which became ‘Must There Be a Superman?’ That was the idea Julie flipped over.

    Maggin recounts how he “borrowed” the idea from fellow fan and current Superman-scribe Jeph Loeb.

    http://superman.ws/Maggin/must.php

    In Maggin’s tale, the Guardians of the Galaxy, immortal blue munchkins who supplied the members of their Green Lantern Corps, DC Comics’ interstellar lawmen, with their power rings and batteries, put a bug in Supes’ ear about not screwing up Earth’s development.

    This is all post-Mort Weisinger and pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths, and not necessarily canon any longer. It’s Hypertime, Jake.

    BTW, a Kryptonian “hour”, consisted of 100 dendaro or 10,000 thribo (about a second). Ten Woluo made one day (Zetyar in Kryptonese).* Since the planet was ruled by a Science Council, it makes sense that the Kryptonians told metric time.

    I met Margot Kidder back in `02, when she was touring the country doing The Vagina Monologues. Besides the fact that she now looks like Somebody’s Mom, she was a lovely lady, walking around under her own power and everything.

    Kevin
    (ageing fanboy)

    * http://theages.superman.ws/Krypton/glossary.php

  15. “I don’t see any problem with hiring others to make your clothing, growing and preparing your food, etc.”

    Yeah, I didn’t mean that. I was thinking of stuff like, to pick a slightly (though, as Chuck Freund would quickly add, not by any means wholly) frivolous example, hiring a style consultant to pick the best decor and wardrobe for you. I don’t want to take it too far, obviously, since we all rightly rely on advice (cognitive division of labor) on all sorts of things from others all the time.

  16. But Julian, I like that show “What Not To Wear”. And some of those ol’ biddies need the advice, son.

  17. There are only two types of social organization:

    1. Government coercion (force)

    2. Voluntary interaction, where it’s: “from each as they choose, to each as they are chosen”

    Julian:

    Even when government can effectively solve our problems for us, its worth bearing in mind the risk of individual and communal moral atrophy.

    Ruthless:

    …government can’t do anything better, and, in fact, always makes things worse.

    Why is the record of government so abysmal compared to voluntary interaction in solving problems? Because, voluntary interaction permits a multiplicity of solutions, as well as a much quicker and more reliable feedback mechanism. The complement of this moral atrophy is impossibility of as full a fruition of moral considerations in scenarios where government (force) holds sway. This is because of the relative absence of interplay of the “personal hierarchy of values” (Stevo Darkly at 12:20 AM) in these scenarios.

    Also, just how much of a problem any one problem *really* is and just what represents a solution is often subjective and the only way that these differences may be effectively expressed is via voluntary interaction. Often government is involved in suppressing alternative assessments.

    Julian:

    Sometimes it’s worth doing a thing yourself even when the government or some private expert can do it better.

    …arguably…that cuts against the desirability of specialization and division of labor…

    Julian’s consideration of specialization and division of labor as a possible objection to his main point seems like it could only apply to private experts but not to government since government itself thwarts division of labor and specialization.

  18. I think it was Edmund Burke who said that one of the benefits of following custom is that it saved you the time and effort of sitting down and rationally thinking through every situation anew, as if you were the first person to ever encounter it.

    That still sounds a mite dangerous to me. I guess I’ll stick with thinking through rationally.

  19. The Superman quotation seems to reflect the tragedy of the commons

    Sounds about right. Instead of wasting his precious commodity by spending time as Clark Kent, Superman ought to privatize. He could still do pro bono work when the need is great enough, to keep his Super-reputation intact.

  20. This argues strongly for my long-held contention that there is no such thing as coerced ethics. Any code of behavior enforced from without, no matter how extrinsically “positive” or useful it may be, can rightly be termed a moral or ethical code because it is not chosen. One can behave in a “moral” manner because one has no choice. This does not make him a “moral” person.

    I am purposely interchanging morals and ethics here because the principle is the same: In order to be a moral or an ethical person, one must develop and live by one’s own code.

  21. …Should have been: “The complement of this moral atrophy is *the* impossibility of as full a fruition of moral considerations in scenarios where government (force) holds sway”.

    Excuse me

  22. Does that mean he can’t vote?

  23. From the Tao Te Ching:

    The more prohibitions you make,
    the poorer people will be.
    The more weapons you posses,
    the greater the chaos in your country.
    The more knowledge that is acquired,
    the stranger the world will become.
    The more laws that you make,
    the greater the number of criminals.

    Therefore the Master says:
    I do nothing,
    and people become good by themselves.
    I seek peace,
    and people take care of their own problems.
    I do not meddle in their personal lives,
    and the people become prosperous.
    I let go of all my desires,
    and the people return to the Uncarved Block.

  24. Lao-Tzu for president!

  25. Joe: Does that mean he [Superman] can’t vote?

    Well, I believe he is an undocumented alien anyway…

  26. “I think it was Edmund Burke who said that one of the benefits of following custom is that it saved you the time and effort of sitting down and rationally thinking through every situation anew, as if you were the first person to ever encounter it.”

    That still sounds a mite dangerous to me. I guess I’ll stick with thinking through rationally.

    Burke, or whoever, didn’t mean you ought to delegate every decision to custom. But if, every time you approach a red traffic light, you stop to rationally weigh the cost/benefits and morality of whether you should stop or just drive right through — maybe make a little list of “pros” vs. “cons” — then I don’t want to be anywhere around when you’re on the road. 🙂

  27. I figured that’s what Burke had meant, but I notice a disquieting tendency among many people to allow tradition to dictate their actions far more often than I would.

    You’re right about one thing, Stevo – I’m not a very good driver.

  28. Well, I believe he is an undocumented alien anyway… – Stevo D.

    Nope. From 1938-1986, baby Kal was a foundling legally adopted by the Kents. That makes him a U.S. citizen. The mid-80s reboot turned his escape-ship into a gestation chamber, and L’il Clarkie was “born” after it landed here, so, again, a citizen. The Kents pretend that CK is their natural-born son, which might cause legal difficulties if his rights as next-of-kin were ever challengged by a member of the Kent or Clark extended families.

    Kevin

  29. Didn’t Superman thwart a US nuclear test in Superman IV. That makes him a traitor!

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