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The Most Dangerous Drug

Drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and other vices feel good but sometimes have bad effects. Diatribes against these vices focus on the bad effects but rarely mention the good feeling. Also unmentioned is the virtue of temperance, as contrasted with abstinence. This is justified by the assumption that people can't resist temptation once they've experienced a thrill. Pretending that these vices are not pleasurable is puzzling however since it clearly detracts from the credibility of the speaker.

A clear statement that things that feel good may have bad effects might lead people to examine other sources of good feelings. I believe that many symbolic political actions that feel good have extremely bad effects. Politicians who inspire people with the thrill of battle against evil would like that thrill to remain unquestioned as a guide to action. Reminding people that thrills destroy judgment might lead them to judge the thrill of politics more objectively.

Years ago I attended a political dinner in Davenport Iowa; it was my first exposure to establishment politics on the grassroots level. As I ate and talked to the people around me I sensed a feeling of great conspiracy, like we were about to commit some incredible crime. Then came the speech; "This is what we have to do to get power. Once we've got power then we'll be able to make everybody do what we want and won't that be great!". The whole message was tactics and techniques for getting power so we could make everybody do what we wanted. I still cringe when I think back on it. The key feature, I realized later, was the conspiratorial thrill. It's us vs them. It's exciting. It's politics.

When our leaders urge us to all pull together they want the audience to feel that thrill. Skilled speakers can work large audiences into a frenzy of enthusiasm. Hitler and the Nazis were making history; they were on the winning team (at least for a while); they were thrilled. The lesson from Hitler, drugs, and alcohol is that the intensity of the thrill is not connected to the goodness of the acts. The thrill is just as real for genocide, generosity, or getting drunk. Just because a speaker or writer thrills you doesn't mean their ideas will work.

It's especially easy to get enthusiastic about benevolent goals such as feeding the hungry, saving the children, or making the streets safe, without questioning what impact your actions have in the real world. How could it do harm to feed the hungry, save the children, or make the streets safe? The thrill of involvement and the elevation of self esteem that come from "doing something" encourage symbolic gestures that often make the problems worse.

Massive shipments of food (to feed the hungry) to the governments of third world nations often reinforce the power of petty tyrants and destroy local agriculture. Intrusive social workers (to save the children) forcibly remove children from non conforming families and place them in foster homes with lower quality of life. Gun control laws (to make the streets safe) make peaceful honest people helpless in the face of violence.

These examples are all symbolic political acts designed to give people that thrill, the thrill the Nazis felt, the herd thrill. This is the most dangerous drug. Wars and dictatorships depend on this thrill to cloud the citizens' minds and to suspend their judgment.

There are harmless sources of the herd thrill; the most obvious is sports. You can root for your favorite team to your heart's content with social approval and no risk. You can close your mind completely to the idea that the other team might have merit. However when the other team is drug dealers, gun owners, bigots, capitalists, or communists that same enthusiasm and lack of thought leads to disaster time after time.

Remember temperance? Temperance is not abstinence. It is the ability to experience pleasure without being controlled by it. The things I enjoy; food, sex, coffee, politics, etc. do not control me. If I cease to enjoy these or believe they are starting to control me I am ready to give them up.

So what's the point? Be temperate in your enjoyment of the herd thrill for it is the most dangerous drug. Don't let it cloud your thinking or close your mind. Don't let your emotions overwhelm your judgment or your efforts to do good will likely wind up doing harm. If people thought about politics as much as they cared about politics the world would be libertarian today.