Us and them
By Scott Sumner
I’m increasingly of the view that most of the great evils of human history result from the tendency of people to think in terms of “us and them”, instead of “all 7.3 billion of us.” That includes the past mistreatment of indigenous peoples, slaves, Jews, Roma, gays, landlords, capitalists, immigrants and many other groups. It’s the flaw in imperialism, racism, nationalism, theocracy, fascism, feudalism, communism and lots of other isms. Except utilitarianism, which treats everyone’s well being as having equal worth.
Consider the following intro to a recent Atlantic story:
Kevin Simmers is a former police sergeant in Hagerstown, Maryland. During his tenure as a narcotics officer, he aggressively pursued drug arrests—especially those related to heroin. “I believed my entire life that incarceration was the answer to this drug war,” Simmers says in a new documentary from The Atlantic.
Then his 18-year-old daughter, Brooke, became addicted to opioids.
In the short film, Simmers shares the personal tragedy that led to a radical transformation in his ideology. “I did everything wrong here,” he admits. “I now think the whole drug war is total bull****.”
Could you imagine this anecdote with “bank robberies” replacing drug crimes? Me neither. So this is not just about a cop’s views being biased by personal considerations. Policemen don’t suddenly favor legalizing bank robbery just because their daughter gets caught up in the activity.
This is just another example of the “us and them” problem. As long as the drug addicts were seen as “them”, Kevin Simmers had no reservations about locking them up. As soon as it was his daughter, he could see that these were real people, with real feelings.
When considering whom to vote for, the first thing I do is to consider the candidate’s stance toward utilitarianism, not their views on specific issues. Do they think in terms of “we”, or do they divide society up into good guys and enemies. Well-intentioned policy mistakes by “we-focused” people can be fixed; bad intentions by “us and them” people are much more dangerous.