John Stuart Mill—The Great Temptation: Telling Others What to Do

In the 15th paragraph of the “Introductory” chapter of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill writes:

Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.

Here is Robin Hanson on the same theme:

Humans clearly attend closely to status, an important part of status is dominance, and a key way we show dominance is to tell others what to do.  Whoever gets to tell someone else what to do is dominating, and affirming their own status.  But we are also clearly built to not notice most of our status moves, and so we attribute them to other motives.  And as long as we are making up motives, we might as well make up the most admired of motives, altruism.

So we tend to think we tell others what to do in order to help them, and not to dominate them.  In particular we tend to think we tell fat folks what to do, and control their behavior, because this will help those fat folks.  For example, many support taxing soda or fast food in order to help fat folks.

You can see me wrestling with the desire to tax soda in my post “John Stuart Mill on Running Other People’s Lives.” The temptation to run other people’s lives throught public policy should not be underestimated. And without at least recognizing the temptation, there is little hope that we can fight it. 

In these examples, the concern is with telling people what to do, ostensibly for their own good. But it is also pleasant to tell people what to do even without any pretense it is for their own good. One of the great pleasures of being a bureaucrat is getting to tell people what to do. And I suspect that getting to tell people what to do is part of the attraction of being one of the police. To keep bureaucracies and the police democratically legitimate, bureaucrats and police must treat everyone they deal with professionally with dignity. Maybe many people should be stopped by the police in order to keep crime down. But it is a disgrace if those interactions are not made absolutely as pleasant as possible for those being stopped. 

Given my demographic category, my experience in being stopped by the police is limited, but I have noticed dramatic variations from place to place in how nice officials at airport screening are and dramatic variations from place to place in how nice officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles are. So I know it is not impossible to be nice. I am saying it is not just nice to be nice, but a moral requirement for the state–which makes people deal with these officials at the point of a gun (or on pain of the loss of great boons such as driving or flying)–not to train such folks to be nice. The necessity of such training follows from the great fun there is in bossing people around and telling them what to do, which is guaranteed to come out without very particular training to combat it. 

Postscript: It is not lost on me that even in a blog post like this, I am telling people what to do. What fun! I hope in this particular case I am not doing any harm by giving in to the temptation.