Persuasion Not Petitions

Recently, I read a BBC article about the kind of online petitions that get rejected by the government. Although it’s meant to be a lighthearted piece, it unintentionally illustrates a disturbing public mentality.

We can’t be sure how many of the rejected petitions are serious, but I suspect that, generally, they do give a glimpse into what some people genuinely think the government should be responsible for in society and their own lives. They reveal how powerful some people believe the government is or should be.

This sample of petitions and the sheer volume of petitions received by government show the total, but totally misplaced faith many people have in government action (i.e. force) as a means to solving any real or perceived social problem or to raise their standard of living.

The petitions highlighted in the article struck me as being rather like prayers to God. They request all manner of outcomes, such as: having the government control soap opera story lines, special legal rights for police dogs and horses, having the government force railway companies to enforce ‘quiet coach’ rules as if they were common laws, requesting that Barack Obama is appointed the next Prime Minister (without being elected!), and forcing airlines to offer direct flights from Birmingham to Romania.

Through petitions, many people seem to be almost praying to the government to fix society or else remove inconveniences from their lives. It’s as if Britons, of whom around 40 to 50% say they have no religious beliefs, believe the government can make virtually anything happen. Just like God, you might say. Apparently, some people believe all good comes from government action and nowhere else. Or else that government action is a handy shortcut to improvement and a substitute for acting yourself.

If the British public correctly understood what government action can and cannot achieve and had a healthy regard for individual liberty, then the government wouldn’t be receiving constant demands for it to make new laws to take even more of the wealth they produce and to expand state power even further into their lives.

Almost all petitions created on the government’s website, essentially, demand one thing: a transfer of power from individuals to government. That’s all can laws can do, after all. Not a transfer away from the author of the petition, for he or she wishes to be the dictator and not the dictated to, naturally, but away from everyone else – and to the government. The government’s petitioning website makes it even easier for anyone and everyone to act upon their illiberal urges; to express their inner dictator.

On very rare occasions, someone requests a transfer of power back to individuals by demanding some law or other be abolished, but these rarely, if ever, receive enough signatures to be considered for debate by parliament. And even if they did, they would almost certainly be ignored because creating laws is what gets politicians elected and re-elected. Not removing them. This is why positive laws are like a red wine stain in a white carpet: once they happen they never go away.

Praying to God can do no social harm, but praying to the government via petitions can and does because the government sometimes answers people’s prayers. The most recent example is Jamie Oliver’s petition for a tax on sugary drinks. Oliver’s celebrity status and public popularity incentivized politicians to make sure it went all the way to becoming law.

Jamie Oliver and his supporters will be happy, but the outcome of the law will not. Apart from putting more money in government coffers and making certain politicians more popular, this law will do nothing to improve the health of children from poorer families. The tax will make consuming sugary drinks more expensive and thus reduce demand for them, this is true.

But no law can remove a kid’s desire to consume sugary drinks or make his or her parents want better for their child. Parents and children will merely resort to cheaper alternatives to get the same pleasure they got from sugary drinks. In other words, they will resort to alternative means to the same end, which may be even less healthy.

Like all government action aimed at improving people’s behaviour for their own benefit, it ignores the reality that you can make consuming X more expensive, or you can even remove the freedom to consume it, but you cannot simply remove the psychological benefit from consuming it and thus the incentive to do so from a person’s mind.

This is the wisdom expressed in the old saying: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. However, zealous types with a seemingly insatiable urge to think of themselves as social heroes either refuse to accept or are blind to this limitation to their powers. Believing government action can solve any social problem leads such people to believe there is no limit to their powers. And that’s dangerous.

Their extreme motivation coupled with their mistaken faith in government action leads them to act as if you can make horses drink and as if laws can magically reach into people’s minds and rearrange their value scales. As if laws can re-program people from the inside and make them act in the desired way.

As they see it, you just need the right type and amount of government action. But, given that government action always fails and will always fail to achieve its intended aims, this means always believing more government action is needed. The result, inevitably, is that freedoms are lost and innocent people are harmed.

The only effective and ethical way (i.e. in a way that doesn’t require restricting the freedoms of peaceful people) to get someone to want anything is through persuasion – not petitions. Capitalism is persuasion. Free markets are persuasion. Awareness campaigns, blogging, leafleting, education and argument are all persuasion.

In fact, everything but the use of force, i.e. government action, is persuasion. All these various means to social improvement are available and yet every person who creates a petition chooses the one course of action that not only cannot work, but also cannot avoid harming innocent people.

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