In previous posts (for example, here), I have discussed what seems to me an extremely worrisome form of legal moralism wherein people essentially invoke “community” as a moral good in order to instantiate what they want regardless of what others in their supposed communities prefer. Put differently, they think interference with your activities is warranted simply to maintain or promote the existence of a community they value, whether or not you or anyone else values the sort of community they do. They might want a neighborhood community where all of the houses are painted the same color or that have the same flowers in front, for examples. Should you want a different color paint or different type of flower, it’s too bad for you. These are examples you might hear of in a Homeowners or Condo Association, and are fairly insignificant. Indeed, in an HOA or a COA, where the rules are in the legal documents, I’d suggest there is no problem at all—because living in an HOA or a COA entails voluntary agreement to the terms of those documents.
These sorts of rules, though, might exist in neighborhoods lacking such an agreement. Sometimes neighbors simply pressure each other to not use some paint colors, for example, in order to prevent reductions in property values. While annoying, even these aren’t the sorts of problems I really worry about—perhaps because the claims involved aren’t—and aren’t meant to be—moral claims. When the same dynamics involve moral claims, the intensity of demands and thus disagreements are often worse.
The general problem is what we euphemistically call “busy bodies.”* These are people who think they should not only pay attention to your life, but also think they should tell you what to do. Often, such people mean well. They are simply trying to help. Some busybodies cross a line, however, by not merely offering advise but demanding your compliance. They might demand you not paint your house a certain way, for example, explaining that it will hurt property values and then adding that if you did it anyway, you would be failing in your obligations to your neighbors (see this for a related amusing story). In what such obligations are grounded, though, they don’t say.
This is still a minor issue—it’s just painting your house. But busybodies might also come and tell you how to discipline your child—and again, while this can be done in a friendly “here’s some advice, take it or leave it” way, it can also be done as a demand based in some unstated moral view. They might insist, for example, that your child not be allowed to play in the woods, be left alone, climb a wall, or ride a specific type of bike. They might say “if you do allow those things, you are a bad parent; good parents don’t behave that way.” (Of course, about some things they may well be right.)
Make no mistake, some people have no problem interfering with the lives of others; some are naturally interventionist. They think they know how other people should live. They think they know how you and I should live. And, very importantly, they believe the government should make us do what they think we should do and disallow us doing what they think we should not. Here’s where we get the biggest problems—problems that arise from further steps along a path to authoritarianism. From encouraging people to maintain their homes for simple practical reasons or offering (even undesired) parenting advise, to claiming we have duties to follow such advice, to seeking governmental power to force compliance, we have a spectrum of activities that are worrisome.
To make the point clear, consider that some people believe smoking tobacco cigarettes—perhaps especially menthol flavored—is not only bad for you, but also (perhaps for that reason) immoral. And that some people (President Biden) are perfectly happy to use government power to enforce your compliance—all for your own good. The U.S. FDA’s stance on this is clear:
“Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives … With these actions, the FDA will help … address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner J. Woodcock, M.D.
Should any of us, including people in communities of color, low-income populations, or amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, think the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs for us, its too bad for us. The busybodies are perfectly willing to use their power to bully the rest of us. Such people do not mind sending police to arrest you should you try to sell single cigarettes, sell any without a license you’ve paid them for, or even for smoking one in your own home. They will also not mind putting you in prison for failing to comply—or killing you on a street corner. (See this, if the story does not sound familiar.)
We should not think, though, that this is just about government. Busybodies are often willing to use any sort of organization to make others comply with their desires. They are more than willing to vote to limit your ability to do what you want, of course. But they are also quite willing to work to impose such restrictions in the workplace or neighborhood. They have no compunction against encouraging the boss to set policies that limit your ability to do what you want. They don’t mind petitioning a business to stop performing a service you enjoy or to stop selling a product you like. They certainly don’t mind having the government make activities you enjoy illegal or limited. What they seek is a society they like, regardless of what you or anyone else likes. If some people must be imprisoned or killed for the cause, they seem to think that is simply a cost of attaining a good community or society.
*See Antony Davies and James Harrigan’s Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics for more on the general problem.