Milgram was troubled with the excuses provided by Nazis in the wake of World War II for the atrocities they had committed. Obviously, they engaged in overly heinous acts toward their fellow man, so horrid in nature it makes one wonder how Hitler got his followers to do them. Yet their responses to the question of why were often the same; they were just following orders.
Milgram was skeptical that people would do something at the direction of an authority figure that they would not in good conscience do on their own. He devised an experiment whereby he would instruct participants to shock other participants they would never meet who were located behind a wall. The shocker was real but was unaware that the shockee was an actor. This actor would fain pain by screaming in agony, and the intent was to see if the shocker would continue to shock the shockee solely because an authority figure told them to, regardless of how dangerous or painful it seemed to be for the person on the other side.
The video below shows what happened. If you’ve never heard of this experiment before, check it out. It is certainly a fascinating study into the human psyche with very surprising results. His experiment showed people were willing to do horrific things to one another if an authority figure told them it was OK to do so, confirming the idea that many Nazis were indeed telling the truth about their motives.
As I think about this experiment, I can’t help but draw what I believe is a very exact parallel to modern-day tax policies.
There were potentially a number of reasons Obama and many Democrats scored victories in the last election, but there can be no doubt that class envy was one of the common motivating factors. The “tax the rich” mantra was a winning campaign strategy, but let’s think about it deeper.
Imagine I put a random democrat-voter currently receiving or requesting government assistance in front of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and asked them to perform one simple task: look Bill or Warren in the eye and explain fairly and logically why you think they owe you something. I suspect most of them would be speechless and embarrassed, I know I would. But then again, I have a conscience and I am a libertarian.
Some may be brazen enough to look Gates and Buffett in the eye and argue that they’re simply too rich and have no right to all that money, but most would know there’s no rational argument to present and would simply accept that any effort to make such an argument would show that they were the ones being greedy by demanding what someone else had worked for, Bill and Warren are merely wanting to control what they’ve earned after all.
I specify “control” versus “keep” because they often donate a lot of their earnings to charities. But, when they give their money away, they choose instead of government choosing for them, who gets what they worked so hard for, and risked so much to obtain.
However, if voters can hide behind the wall of government just like Milgram’s participants hid behind a wall, and an authority figure like a politician tells them it’s OK to harm the wealthiest among us, the Milgram Experiment mentality takes over and people who wouldn’t have the gumption to demand the earnings of someone else in person all of a sudden wave the “tax the rich” banner like it’s part of their religion. If Obama says it’s OK, it must be, right?
What’s the solution? I don’t rightly know. But the first step in fixing a problem is understanding it. I don’t know that too many people have applied Milgram’s findings to politics, but there is no doubt in my mind that this an “apples to apples” comparison. The answer to how we get people to begin to grasp the concept that they are cowardly asking government to do something they would likely never have the hubris to ask for themselves is elusive, and likely always will be.