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Tags: government | polite society | lesser evil | thomas hobbes

Civilized Society Absent Gov't Impossible

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Paul F. deLespinasse By Wednesday, 03 May 2023 01:53 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Government appears to be inevitable in today's world. But efforts to justify it have never been satisfactory.

Justification is particularly hard, given the unpleasant things that governments do: limiting people's freedom, taxing them, even executing them. Nobody likes having their freedom restricted, their wealth reduced, or being killed.

The most widely accepted argument thus far has been social contract theory, which claims that at some point people unanimously agreed to subject themselves to government. But before any governments existed, no one could have had any concept of what they were agreeing to create. And unanimity never has been found in human affairs.

In any event, even unanimous agreement by our ancestors, for which there is absolutely no evidence, could not bind the world's current people.

Involuntary associations are created by unilaterally imposing sanctions — deprivations of life, liberty, or property — on people. Since sanctions reduce people's satisfaction, no one would consent to become part of such an association, which further undermines social contract theory's claim of unanimous consent to establish government.

Clearly, our basic relationship with government is an involuntary association. And I believe it is a correct generalization that all involuntary associations are bad.

Still, despite all its drawbacks, government can be justified. Like all involuntary associations, government is bad. But it is better than the multiplicity of private involuntary associations that would exist in the absence of government. Unchecked murder, theft, air pollution, and the like would be even worse than government.

A principal function of government is to punish, and hopefully deter, people from imposing these involuntary associations on each other.

Without government, we would literally have the awful scenario depicted as "the state of nature" by philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): "No arts; no letters; no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

To avoid this "war of all against all" requires government, and governing requires power.

Power, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it, is "morally ambiguous." It can be used to do good things, or to do bad things. Government's ability to deprive people of "life, liberty, or property" can be very unfortunate when officials exercise that power arbitrarily.

If officials can just haul off and kill people, jail them, or confiscate their property, this is just as intolerable as when these nasty things are done by private people or groups. We can call this possible aspect of government "government-as-bandit."

But we can eliminate government-as-bandit if we combine democracy with the rule of law. Democracy prevents government from abusing a majority of the people, and the rule of law prevents government from abusing selected individuals or a minority of the people.

The rule of law requires that government can inflict sanctions (deprivations of life, liberty, or property)only on people duly convicted of violating a general rule of action laid down in advance. A rule is general only if it applies to all people without any exceptions — no nonsense like "minorities have to ride in the back of the bus," "Jews have to wear a yellow star," and the like.

If we have the rule of law, we can protect ourselves from governmental sanctions by abiding by its laws, which, since they apply to the actions of everybody, are not likely to be intolerable.

Anarchists, squarely facing government's unpleasant characteristics, conclude that an ideal society would have no government. Taking the old saying that "that government is best which governs least," they argue that the best possible one governs not at all.

But anarchists run afoul of the fact that a society without any involuntary associations is impossible, and that government is the least intolerable form of involuntary association as long as government-as-bandit is prevented from acting.

Government, in other words, is a lesser evil and only in that sense is a good thing.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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Like all involuntary associations, government is bad. But it is better than the multiplicity of private involuntary associations that would exist in the absence of government.
government, polite society, lesser evil, thomas hobbes
Wednesday, 03 May 2023 01:53 PM
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