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The Authoritarian Personality

Shocking! Outrageous!

Here are excerpts from two stories that both appeared, coincidentally, on the CNN homepage on Tuesday:

In an e-mail sent last Tuesday to about 170 members of Gamma Phi Beta, sophomore Christie Key, the chapter's blood donation coordinator, wrote: "I dont (sic) care if you got a tattoo last week LIE. I dont (sic) care if you have a cold. Suck it up. We all do. LIE. Recent peircings (sic)? LIE."

In her e-mail, Key wrote: "We're not messing around. Punishment for not giving blood is going to be quite severe." [source]

Most people would be seething with indignation after reading that. The Red Cross doesn't want blood from people who were recently sick or recently got a tattoo or piercing — it's a safety matter. Christie Key didn't care about safety. She only cared about upholding her sorority's history of blood donation, and she was willing to advocate dishonesty and make direct threats to achieve that goal.

A California state senator on Monday said she was drafting legislation to block Google Inc.'s free e-mail service "Gmail" because it would place advertising in personal messages after searching them for key words.

"We think it's an absolute invasion of privacy. It's like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home," Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from Fremont, California, said in a telephone interview. [source]

Most people would be much less upset at this. "Oh," they think, "it's a politician trying to protect our privacy. Good for them. Shame on Google."

The minority of people who take individual rights seriously will criticize this politician, explaining to the few willing to listen that Google's e-mail service is completely voluntary and that people should be free to choose for themselves whether they think the privacy intrusion and advertisements are acceptable in exchange for the free e-mail service and storage space. Adults are capable of making decisions and should not be infantalized.

A tiny minority, of which I am a member, feel a greater sense of moral outrage at the politician than at the sorority girl.

"What? Why?"

Both of these people clearly show an authoritarian personality. They want to impose their values and desires on others. They want to control them and make them conform. Key is blatant: Do it my way or else, by any means necessary, even if it could harm people. Figueroa is more subtle: Trust me, it's bad, you don't want it, and I'll make it illegal because I'm worried you'll make the wrong decision (but I'm sure I haven't.)

Why am I more angry at Figueroa than at Key? Because Key is a piker. She's inexperienced and ineffective. Her advocation of dishonesty, use of intimidation, and callousness toward fellow human beings manifested brightly and caused her strategy to backfire in an embarrassingly public way. She failed. In contrast, Figueroa wears the mantle of benevolence and concern for the public. She's fighting against an Evil Business™ who wants to inflict advertising (the horror!) on people. Due to the way she has framed her action, she is much more likely to succeed, and her success would further restrict the freedom of people to form voluntary associations and contracts. That is a freedom I cherish.

Key's direct intimidation makes her targets immediately suspicious. Figueroa's intimidation is no less real — she intends to make Google's voluntary service illegal, meaning fines or incarceration — but it takes significantly more mental effort to unmask it and to realize that it would affect millions of people and would be effectively permanent. Key's case affects merely hundreds and will cease to matter in time. If Figueroa succeeds, most people affected won't even realize they're victims, because they'll never learn of the choice Google was forbidden to offer them!

Figueroa's authoritarianism is a much more significant danger to freedom and a much more serious undermining of ethics than Key's. Of course, both should be fought — the Keys of today may become the Figueroas of tomorrow — but do not lose sight of which is the greater problem. I hope that thinking about these issues will help to retrain your emotional reactions to identify the more serious danger.

Tiny Island