In Praise of Shame

Human beings are flawed creatures. All of us are afflicted, to some degree, by laziness, greed, selfishness, dishonesty and every other distasteful characteristic that haunts our species. Living in civilized society requires us to suppress that side of our nature, and so we’ve developed all kinds of mechanisms to keep those impulses at bay. One of the more important ones, no doubt, is shame: the idea that there are certain things that one simply does not say or do in public, no matter how much one may want to, out of fear that those around us will disapprove.

I was recently reminded of the great value of shame, as I read an interview with Montreal restaurateur David McMillan. McMillan’s flagship restaurant, Joe Beef, needs no introduction to Montreal foodies. Consistently rated as one of the best in the country – if not the world – Joe Beef has flourished in one of the toughest dining markets around.

Success might lead some to conclude that anyone can – and should – succeed through talent, hard work and determination. Others might credit their accomplishments to a series of lucky breaks: something that anyone who’s in the right place at the right time can – and should – be able to replicate. To McMillan, though, the zenith of professional achievement leads to an entirely different conclusion altogether: the government should kick the ladder that he climbed out from under him, banning competition to help him remain on his perch indefinitely. In so many words, he says the government should not allow just anyone to open a restaurant, on the curious grounds that there is a risk to public health in having too many of them.

If anything, McMillan is a moderate compared to one of his competitors, who calls for quotas, stating, “I don’t believe in the free market anymore. We have to protect the good restaurants.” While an industry spokesman disavows those positions, he does put his foot down when it comes to food trucks, which recently returned to Montreal after a 66-year ban – subject to crushing restrictions. After all, he points out, “If we allowed anyone to do it we would have 500 hot dog trucks. And it wasn’t what the citizens wanted, it wasn’t what the city wanted.” One wonders how it was determined that “the citizens” did not, in fact, want 500 hot dog trucks – not to mention why those trucks would exist if they were not, in fact, wanted by willing consumers.

In truth, of course, one wonders no such thing: we are simply witnessing a real-life example of Bastiat’s satirical candle-makers’ petition, in which they called upon the state to block unfair competition from the sun. After all, why work hard when you can lobby smart?

And that brings us back to the notion of shame. There is undoubtedly some part of all of us, however deep down, that wants something for nothing; that thinks that we should get not what we deserve, but rather whatever we want. There is, thankfully, social pressure against expressing those desires out loud: after all, people who think like that are generally not well-regarded. Indeed, for most of us it is shameful even to think such thoughts. But the recent wave of protectionist fervour and the resurgence of calls for state intervention in the economy have surely undermined that norm. Many people – probably including McMillan and his colleagues – appear to increasingly view barriers to competition not as shameful cronyism, but as common-sense restrictions that protect us all. That position is completely untenable from an economic perspective, but also from an ethical one.

If we’re to beat back the tide of rising economic interventionism that is impoverishing us all, we need to argue not only that such policies are logically and empirically incorrect, but that they are morally wrong. Reason and evidence are useful allies, but strong social norms are the best friends we could ever have.

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