the "bad guy" dilemma

“I have captured The Fair Maiden,” says the Evil Movie Villain, “She will die if you do not give me what I demand. It is your decision! If she dies, then her blood is on YOUR hands!” Do you buy his argument? Would the death of the Fair Maiden be “your fault” if you refuse to give in to the demands of the Evil Movie Villain?

This is a very common ploy that has been used by movie “bad guys” since the very beginning of movies and bad guys. It places the guilt and the blame of an innocent’s death on the good guy. The logic is: You know I will kill the innocent if you do not do X, Y, Z. Since her death is determined by your actions, it will be your fault if she (or he) dies.

Most people don’t buy it, when they see it in the movies. You know, instinctively, that it’s still the Evil Movie Villain that is committing the murder. You know, instinctively, that the Evil Movie Villain actually has a choice and is exercising his own free will when he kills the Fair Maiden. That free will makes the murder the Evil Movie Villain’s fault, and nobody else’s.

Yet, the very fact that this trope exists is evidence that there is psychological power behind it. It has been used throughout history in political settings.

The peasants “know” that making their feudal lord angry will only bring misery upon themselves. There is no incentive to rebellion or making demands, because they see the Lord’s actions as pre-determined: if you cause trouble, the Lord will punish you, and thus it will be as if you brought that punishment upon yourself. There is no question of the Lord’s free will entering into the logic: he is treated as a force of nature, with no will and therefore no responsibility for action. The peasants act, and anything that happens to them is their own fault.

Down the ages, feudalism has waned, but this same argument is still used today, and it still has some power.

“You can’t tax corporations!” we hear, “Because they will simply pass that price on to the consumers!”

This is exactly the same argument: do not make the Feudal Lords angry, lest you be punished! And it will be as if you brought the punishment on yourselves.

The flaw in this argument is the same as the flaw in the argument used by the Evil Movie Villain: it treats the corporations as forces of nature, with no free will and no culpability. But, of course, corporations are groups of people: they have freedom of choice, and they have culpability. If they choose to “pass on” the cost to the consumer, that is not an unavoidable “law of the universe”: it is a conscious and deliberate choice that the company makes. It is also a choice that they could have opted NOT to make. For example, they could have cut costs by cutting Executive Salaries by 1%, or they could have learned that they can save electricity by turning off their office computers at night. The idea that the only way a company can offset the expenses of higher taxes is by “passing on” the costs to the consumer is based on the assumption that there is no waste. That is always (and plainly) false.

So the next time someone says to you that a tax on companies is merely a tax on consumers, because the company will “pass on” the expense, please remember this: whoever is saying that is (without realizing it) painting the company into the role of the Evil Movie Villain: the character that chooses to do evil, while claiming that it is no choice at all.