There is a lot of talk these days about the need for enlightened and educated people to help guide—nudgeif you will—people’s choices. Academics especially have a penchant for believing it their right, perhaps even their humanitarian duty, to protect others from their own bad decisions.
Albert Jay Nock called this a “monstrous itch” to run other people’s lives, and he argued that, although adorned with benevolent language and intentions, this itch can lead to enforcement with totalitarian ferocity. There seems no end to what people will do, no moral lines or boundaries or principles they will not cross, if they believe they are doing it “for your own good.” Hence “monstrous.”
As an academic I encounter this impulse regularly, but it was not until I came to live and work in the New York City area that I fully appreciated it. Here is how the conversation often goes:
Enlightened Person: “We know that [fill in the blank—activity x, y, z] is bad [good] for people, so we have to help people who aren’t educated to make the right choices.”
Me: “What do you mean by ‘help’ them?”
EP: “We have to educate them to make good choices.”
Me: “What if they still make the ‘wrong’ choices after you’ve ‘educated’ them?”
EP: “We owe it to them to help them.”
Me: “Do you include yourself in that?”
EP: “What do you mean?”
Me: “Do you think people should ‘help’ you make the right choices, out of fear you might make the wrong ones?”
EP: “Oh, no, I’m already educated. I mean the uneducated people.”
Me: “Who do you have in mind?”
EP: “Like people in the South.”
The discussion then usually continues with a tale of horror at what the Enlightened Person has read about or seen on TV happens in the South: the things they’d teach in school if left to their own devices, the things they teach in their churches, the food they eat, the guns they own, and so on. This is a Backward People, the EP is sure, and they are sorely in need of the benevolent guidance.
I am in an unusual position to appreciate this attitude. I grew up in the Chicago area, where the attitude is far less common, and I spent ten years living in Alabama—which is really the belly of the beast, the lowest of the low, for New Yorkers. Indeed, it is for some people in Alabama too: the University of Alabama, where I used to teach, had—and I presume still has—a fair number of faculty who came to UA specifically to bring, as they saw it, enlightenment to these backward, benighted bigots. The people in the state of Alabama, who pay a large portion of the budget of the university, usually had no idea in what contempt many of the faculty hold them.
So I have been struck at how much elitism there is in the New York area, and how much condecension there is toward—well, toward just about all non-New Yorkers—but especially toward the South. The South occupies its own special plane of low in the eyes of New Yorkers, filled, as they are sure it is, with all the worst dregs of humankind, a veritable cess pool of racism, ignorance, troglodytic tastes, barbaric impulses, and destructive vice.
Yet for all that I think the New Englanders need the Southerners—and especially those New Englanders who have that “monstrous itch” that Nock talked about. The reason: the South is always the ready-to-hand example of why enlightened people need to rule. One look at the South will show you that the EPs are obviously, and desperately, needed.
I call this argument form the reductio ad Nascaram: Individual liberty is fine and excellent, but only for those fit to enjoy it properly; just as parents must limit the choices of their children, so too must the enlightened limit the choices of the benighted. So individual freedom should be respected until we get to the point on the human continuum where intellectual development is so lacking that it compromises personhood. Locke said that point was when the people we are talking about are children, madmen, or “ideots”; for contemporary enlightened persons, it is when the people we are talking about are Southerners.
As long, then, as there are people, like those in the South, who continue to make such horrendously bad choices, there will be a need for others, like us, to guide, nudge, even require or restrict, them to make good choices—for their own good.
What would so many of the enlightened people do if it were not for the South? There is so much work still to be done, so many nudges yet to be made, so much work for the philosopher kings. Thank God for the South!