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Don't Vote For the Lesser of Two Evils

On individual responsibility and human solidarity.

by James Leroy Wilson
September 18, 2003

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Don't Vote For the Lesser of Two Evils_James Leroy Wilson-On Individual Responsibility and Human Solidarity In 1873, the year he left church ministry to join the Yale faculty, William Graham Sumner revised, you could say secularized, a sermon he composed two years before, on the "Solidarity of the Human Race." (Bannister, Robert C., editor, On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992).

I had never given much thought about the word "solidarity." I always associated it since my childhood with unity and commitment, obviously because of Lech Walesa's labor movement of that name in communist Poland in the 1980's.

What Sumner means, however, is somewhat different. Solidarity is the idea that a change in one part effects a change in the whole. The American Civil War is his example: even though it was fought entirely within one country, it "entered the homes of European operatives, it diverted the course of some of the most important branches of international traffic, it altered the industries of India and South America, it affected the movements of population during a whole series of years, and it has permanently influenced the distribution of capital." In its duration, it might not have meant much to Siberian villagers or other isolated peoples, but its consequences over time have certainly touched every person on earth today.

The consequences of an individual's action are not contained by time or by national borders. A person's novel, or invention, or crime, or unkind remark, are going to have consequences far into the future for other people. You could say that the condition of the human race as it is now, is the result of all of the actions of every human being who ever lived. Any different action taken by anyone, would have changed the outcome today, because it would have changed the actions of others.

Sumner writes:

"Good never produces evil nor evil good. A falsehood spoken now becomes a contribution to human sin and human woe. It comes back to you again and again in strange echoes, in distorted proportions, in ghastly colors, with a whole train of weird offspring, bad passions, bitter memories, and endless strife and confusion."

The consequences are profound. As Rose Wilder Lane wrote, no government, nor anything else, can control our own energy, our choices, and our actions, except our own individual selves. Combine this with Sumner's concept of human solidarity, and we come to this conclusion: each one of us is personally responsible for the general condition of mankind, since each of our actions are going to affect other people's actions in a never-ending chain of events lasting until the end of the age.

Does this imply a moral obligation on each one's part to do what is good for others? Sumner believes so, but he also believes the concept of solidarity suggests that it is in one's own self-interest to do what one believes is good. As Sumner put it:

"You do a good action and its fruits follow on in a series which you cannot follow or compute. They are reaped by those whom you do not know or have never seen. Or an evil action draws a train of consequences reaching on forever. As the action is good or evil so will its consequences be eternally ... for the misery which falls upon my brother is the fruit of my sin, and the woe that I endure is the fruit of his [italics added]. ... [But] when we exert ourselves to reclaim the erring, or rescue the fallen, we only try to pluck up one of the causes which sooner or later will produce a harvest of misery to mankind of which we shall have to bear our share."

The latter statement explains remarks after a tragedy like, "well, at least some good came out of this." It is because some people decided to combat the consequences of the evil with good, that such remarks are ever made. But they certainly don't excuse the evil, for evil acts are always destructive, and good is always productive. In the face of evil, we can only do what is best for ourselves and for others by countering evil with good.

For just as I have been the victim of the evils of others, and others the victims of my sins, so it is that I have benefited from the good deeds of others, and they from mine. And just as I myself have suffered from my own evil deeds, so it is I can only stand to benefit from my own good works, even though it is impossible to foresee or control exactly how I will benefit. What we do know, is that such consequences, whatever they might be, will be good.

Sumner's conception of the "solidarity of the human race," that everything I do has an impact on the rest of society whether I want it to or not, doesn't imply that everything I do is other people's "business" or that what other people do is my business. But this does expand my own understanding of "personal responsibility." That, while there is a difference between freedom and force, there is no real distinction between "private" and "public." Everything a person does in "private" - what he eats, drinks, how he entertains himself, the neglect of relationships, how he behaves in intimate relationships - is eventually going to impact "public" life, the life of all of mankind.

Perhaps Jesus Christ has the best statement on human solidarity. He didn't say, "Love yourself as you love your neighbor," but rather, "love your neighbor as yourself." You can only know how to do right for your neighbor if you know how to do right for yourself.

But what are the political ramifications of human solidarity? Sumner's theme in that regard was free trade, that the so-called advanced civilizations can not afford to cut off the backward societies: "There might be a front and a rear to the army of progress, but disaster follows if they become separated." We can't pretend that American civilization should just cut itself off from the rest of the world, but that trade, not the coercive powers of government and its military, should dictate the relations of Americans with other peoples. The Roman Empire cut itself off from the barbarians north of its borders and, guess what? Rome was conquered by those same barbarians. A far smarter approach would be if the "civilized" nations of the earth believed in human solidarity. Perhaps then we'd treat the "backward" peoples in a civilized manner - i.e., open ourselves to trade with them.

But since I already believe in free trade, Sumner's preaching to the choir. Where Sumner knocks me to my senses comes at his statement, "Good never produces evil, nor evil good [italics added]."

That's a wake-up call. Sumner is correct. The Bush II administration has been a singular disaster. It's a catastrophe. Of course, in some ways the USA has been dying a slow death since its inception, just as all who are born are bound to die. But this President seems intent on speeding up that process, putting us on the fast track to an Argentinian dystopia. Many libertarians voted for Bush in 2000 as the "lesser of two evils." Now, many libertarians are wondering whether they should vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate in 2004 as the "lesser of two evils."

We must remember, however, that no good can come from evil. That's the key. Anger at Bush for the unnecessary War in Iraq doesn't justify voting for a Democrat who is no less likely to plunge us into a useless war, and just as likely to impoverish Americans and the world through insane fiscal and monetary policies, whose impact will be felt for generations to come.

I think many of us view the "lesser of two evils" through the eyes of a comfortable, relatively well-off American, perhaps thinking that whatever mischief politicians of either party does will be offset by the progress of technology, the standard of living, and the economy.

We should, instead, view our politics through the reality of human solidarity, that the evil we Americans commit affects not just us, but the entire world, and will eventually boomerang on us in ways we can't foresee. This may be through our foreign aggressive wars, our fiat money, our excessive and unconstitutional government programs, our disastrous spending and tax policies, or the government's violations of our natural rights and civil liberties.

Looking at the recent historical record, then, it doesn't matter if the party is Democrat or Republican. Both are implicated in all of these evils.

This isn't the place to suggest voting for a third party, and if so, which one, or to recommend not voting at all. There are honest disagreements about all of that. This is just to say that, what you do or don't do, who you vote for or don't vote for, does make a difference. Why, then would anyone content himself with inflicting the so-called "lesser" of two evils upon the earth, when he had the option of not choosing any evil at all, but only freedom? To the libertarian who voted for Bush as the "lesser of two evils" in 2000, who's to say that the 2004 Democrat will be the "lesser" evil than Bush? That's voting on only a hope and a dream, when the option of a far friendlier third party, or the option of not voting at all, is staring us right in the face.

For the sake of human solidarity, we should never choose the "lesser of two evils." For one thing, they're both evil, and for another, we have no mechanism to discern which evil thing will harvest greater evil than would the other evil; we don't know which evil is really "greater," and which is "lesser." We should, instead counter evil with good. The fate of civilization is in our hands, and all of us are personally responsible for how we act.

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