Niceness and the State
July 23, 2002

by Joe Sobran

     Bulletin from the world of science: People are nice! 
The NEW YORK TIMES reports: "We're Wired to Cooperate."

     Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta have 
found, through experiments monitored by magnetic 
resonance imaging, that people get intense emotional 
satisfaction from cooperating with others. The brain 
lights up discernibly during acts of niceness, just as it 
lights up at yummy desserts, money, pretty faces, and 
other delights.

     And you thought it was just you! Nope. It's pretty 
much the whole human race. There are presumably 
exceptions, of course.

     Reading a story like that just makes you feel good 
all over. Isn't it nice that we're so nice?

     I have no trouble believing it. The older I get, the 
more I notice how many little kindnesses people 
gratuitously perform for each other. Of course there are 
some selfish slobs too; but we notice them because 
they're exceptional.

     The implications are anarchic. We don't need the 
state to force us to cooperate; we would do it 
spontaneously, without coercion. The force-system we call 
the state is worse than superfluous. It interferes with 
and frustrates the natural urge to cooperate; at worst, 
it embitters human relations. The paradigm of state-
behavior -- massive organized force -- is war.

     You might say that the state is parasitic on our 
innate need to cooperate. It makes us confuse obedience 
to force with social harmony. In fact, its greatest 
fiction is that it is itself the key to social harmony, 
as if we would all be shooting each other if the state 
weren't there to force us to behave.

     During the last century, this idea was pressed all 
the way. Since the state can produce social order, many 
reasoned, the ideal state would be a socialist or 
communist one. The state would be a total concentration 
of power; formerly free cooperative acts would become 
"economic crimes." In communist countries people would 
actually be put to death for buying and selling things 
you and I can get at the store every day from a smiling 

     In reality, such states turned out to be disastrous, 
not only economically ruinous but socially destructive, 
fostering far more predatory behavior than freer 
societies did. The Soviet Union lasted as long as it did 
only because of its bribery and black markets, the vast 
"underground economy" -- or what might be called illicit 

     Yet many intellectuals, including people as bright 
as Albert Einstein, were enamored of the giant new force-
systems and thought they held the hope of the future. 
Sometimes I think an intellectual might almost be defined 
as one who insists on learning the hard way.

     States do try to enlist our cooperative instincts, 
even for their most nefarious enterprises. Stalin is now 
credited with at least 20 million murders; he needed a 
lot of help to achieve that record -- not just a quota of 
thugs, but ordinary people doing the paperwork without 
feeling they were abetting evil. Franklin Roosevelt 
needed a lot of very brainy cooperation, in the Manhattan 
Project, to create an inconceivably murderous weapon, the 
atomic bomb. Some of the best scientists in the world 
flocked to serve his cause.

     The "good German" who obeyed Hitler is now a by-word 
for immoral obedience, but the truth is that refusing to 
cooperate goes much against the grain for most people. 
Few of us can bear to disrupt society, and defying the 
state can seem unbearably disruptive, even when a bit of 
disruption is very much in order. The state always takes 
advantage of this fact of human nature.

     Anarchism -- statelessness -- is recommended not 
only by our individuality, but by our sociability. We are 
individuals who enjoy cooperating with other individuals. 
We enjoy using our minds, but mostly in social 
enterprises. We enjoy making money, but chiefly so we can 
spend it on people we love. We love to possess in large 
part because we love to share. If you can't own anything, 
you can't share.

     Maybe the nuttiest of all socialist ideas was the 
notion that abolishing private property would conduce to 
happy sharing. In reality, it meant only that everything 
was effectively owned by those who ruled the force-
system, the state. Stalin owned everything in eleven time 
zones, yet his Western admirers never thought of him as 
rich. After all, he didn't dress like a rich man.

     Once a barking dog awakened Stalin from his 
afternoon nap. Annoyed, he ordered the dog's owner shot. 
There's a lesson for nice people here.


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