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Dear conservative friends,
My last open letter appears to have aroused the ire of quite a few of you. Not only did you take issue with my characterization of the ALS ice bucket challenge, some of you have suggested that my criticism is ultimately harmful to the conservative cause and humanity generally. So please allow me to expand on my original letter.
First, I think it is wonderful that the ALS Association has been able to raise substantial sums toward research. While I question whether those sums will ultimately come at the expense of other, equally worthy causes, I am inclined to be optimistic that this fundraising campaign has enlarged the pie of total donations. Perhaps it will lead to greater ongoing giving too, which would also be wonderful. And although some participants are spending more on bagged ice than they would have given to ALS research, it’s good to see greater awareness of the disease. I’m inclined to be optimistic here, too: Perhaps this awareness will touch some people more permanently, and be more than a passing fad.
I also salute the marketers who invented this remarkable campaign. If other charities now need to step up their game, that is not in any way a black mark on the ALS Association. The world is changing, and charities need to adapt. The Association’s marketers were quite insightful in their effective use of the socially coercive power of social media.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that such a campaign is, in fact, coercive. Some of you have scoffed at my use of the word, equating coercion with force, but the two concepts are not identical. It’s an understandable mistake; on Ricochet, we commonly discuss the government’s monopoly on force, and the coercive power of its threat. But while physical force is the most blunt and fundamental form of coercion, there are other forms too. Financial pressure, emotional pressure, and social pressure can be applied to get people to do things they don’t otherwise want to. Guilt, shame, the threat of ostracism, and inducements to belong are tools of coercion rather than reason.
Certainly there are worse things to be coerced into than dumping ice water on your head or donating to a charity. And it is certainly an improvement to have such coercion come from society rather than government. At the same time, to favor less government intervention in society and markets is not to automatically endorse the outcomes that they produce. You can favor removing government strictures on prostitution, drug use, gambling, tobacco, profanity on television, or anything else without necessarily endorsing the activities themselves. Mozilla’s decision to fire Brendan Eich was not government coercion—it was the legitimate working of free markets in society. But I would still contend that Mozilla’s decision was bad for society generally. Brendan Eich was ultimately the victim of a social media mob.
Which brings me to the question of whether the conservative cause should embrace these kinds of viral campaigns. Community is a strong element of conservatism; but these campaigns don’t reinforce shared values so much as create bonding through shared adversity (in a sanitized form). Going along with what’s normative is also, historically, a conservative approach; but that’s because conservative thinking has been guided by a preference for the tried and true, not for the conformity of the mob. Independent reasoning and personal autonomy have been central principles of conservative thinking from Aristotle to America’s Founders to Ayn Rand. In the case of the ice bucket challenge, you may agree with the ends, but the means—ill-informed social pressure applied through social media—are the same as what lost Brendan Eich his job. Even if conservatives want to turn viral campaigns to their advantage, I doubt that they can. Using viral conformity to advance conservatism is self-contradictory.
So by all means, have fun making videos, and be generous to the ALS Association. But while you do, be aware that you may be undermining some of the values you cherish. And know that my original offer still stands: If you’d like to persuade me, on the merits, that I should donate to ALS research, I’m all ears.
Son of Spengler