It is a topic I have addressed a few times, but it is one I think we get wrong often enough that it should be repeated regularly. And that topic is, for lack of a better description, the proper attitude toward government. There are clearly any number of ways one can look at government. Liberals tend to see government as a Swiss Army Knife, capable of solving almost any problem, endlessly versatile. Really far left liberals see government as a combination warden and therapist, saving us from all those evil exploiters and protecting us from ourselves at the same time. The authoritarians supposedly on the right (though I disagree -- "The Political Spectrum
") tend to share this view, though some go even farther and see government in some Hegelian sense, as an end in itself, bigger, better and more important than those individuals of which it consists. Communists have a similar perspective, though they substitute pseudo-scientific historical processes for mystical Hegelian weltgeister.
On the opposite end, conservatives tend to see government in negative terms. "Necessary evil" is the most common description, along with a host of other negative quotes, such as equating the power to tax with the power to destroy. They will sometimes admit to some grudging admiration, praise the Constitution as a brilliant creation, but usually only in terms of the way in which it restrains government. It is somewhat paradoxical, but conservatives seem only able to praise the state when it is designed in such a way as to trip over its own feet. Libertarians, both the traditional and the isolationist, near anarchic fringe types I dubbed the "libertarian left", tend to have a similar set of beliefs, only more so, with many dropping the "necessary" from "necessary evil" and suggesting we could somehow live without a state at all. ("The State of Nature and Man's Rights
") Often their plans involve some sort of collective agreements, some sort of communal standards, and, in the end, basically amount to sneaking in government through the back door, calling it by another name. Still, regardless of their inconsistencies, they are united in denouncing government as harmful and dangerous.
In the middle, among the average folks who don't spend much time thinking about the government, who don't read political essays, vote irregularly, and generally live apolitical lives, the attitude seems to be a combination of the two, inconsistent, incompatible, constantly shifting emphasis. When they think of the state abstractly, they tend to think well of it, seeing the state as police and armies and highways, the things the state provides that benefit them. And, because of this, they are sometimes prone to accepting a little bit of the Swiss Army Knife perspective. But only a little. And that is because of the flip side. When they actually have to deal with the government, and for some time afterward, they tend to think of the state in terms of bureaucracy, inefficiency and aggravation, and thus tend to move toward the "necessary evil" end of the spectrum. Which is why the moderates seem to swing back and forth between the two extremes. When times are good and people have few dealings with the state, they are willing to allow more government, to offer to help others, or to allow some regulation for the good of all (at least that is the supposed aim). But those very measures end up increasing the amount of government intrusion, and the number of times they have to deal with the state, which tends to push them in the opposite direction. There are other mechanisms working as well, but this simple shift of perspective explains a lot of what is inspires many to describe public opinion as a pendulum.
That is not my purpose today, however. I do not want to discuss public perceptions of the state, or even the perspectives of the various factions. Instead, I want to discuss, for lack of a better description, what is the proper perspective. I know that sounds a bit arrogant, but then again, all persuasive essays are. And in this case, there is a very good reason for arguing for a specific perspective. As I have shown many times before, it is their boundless faith in the state, and their lack of confidence in their fellow man, that explains everything about liberalism, and other authoritarian beliefs. ("The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism
", "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences
View of Our Fellow Citizens
People As Stupid
", "Arrogance and Gun Control
", "The Intellectual Elite
", "The Essence of Liberalism
", "Bad Arguments
", "So Very Special
") And, though I have discussed it less, there is a similar consequence to the belief that the government is evil, necessary or otherwise. ("War As Last Resort
", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom
", "Politics as a Suicide Pact
") With both of those perspectives having consequences, it stands to reason that other perspectives would as well, be they shadings of perspective between those two, or something else entirely, the way one views the state will influence how he acts, what powers he allows the state, what goals he assigns to the political system and the entire gamut of political decisions. And so, if we accept that there is a proper function for the state, that there is a proper way to arrange our government, and so on, then it follows that there is a proper way to view the state, the one which is consistent with our other beliefs.
Actually, in a way, the answer is simple, as the proper perspective is the one which sees a properly run state and recognizes it as such, or which recognizes the failings in a mismanaged state. However, that is a bit of a cop out, as there is more to one's perspective than simply the ability to see things as they are. We must also have a perspective which drives us to wish to make the state function in the proper way, or at least avoid the many harmful forms of improper government. So, though we might be able to start from this simple description, there is much more to it than there seems. As I shall show right now.
Those who describe the state as a necessary evil often believe this perspective is what I have described. They attribute the Constitution to a strong awareness of the many potential abuses of government, for example, they see the Bill of Rights as a means to avoid the worst abuses. Those who think about this more than most even argue that the view of the state as a necessary evil works as a counterbalance to the liberal perspective, seeing the state in this way prevents one form turning first to the state when trying to resolve problems, and certainly makes them less inclined to grant the state near limitless power as do many who believe in the benevolence and effectiveness of government.
And they are right, or partly so. Their perspective is certainly closer to the truth, and much closer to the proper point of view, than that on the other end of the spectrum. There is definite benefit in recognizing the potential for abuse, the ways in which state power tends to grow unless checked, and the many incentives for those in power to seek to expand their authority*. On the other hand, they err in making this recognition the whole of their philosophy. While they praise the drafters of the Constitution for their brilliance in crafting many ways to restrain state power, they overlook the other facet of the Constitution, that it also seeks to establish a functional, helpful government. It was drafted because its even more limited predecessor proved unworkable. And so, though many see the Constitution entirely in terms of limits on power, it actually represents an extension of power beyond that granted in the Articles of Confederation.
But the best argument against this position is not that it avoids some very important considerations (though that is significant, as I will show shortly), but the consequences of holding this view, especially when taken to its logical extreme.
Fortunately, we do not need to indulge in hypothetical cases or models in order to see the consequences of this belief, we can simply look at the aforementioned libertarians, especially their most extreme fringe. As you can see, the problem is, once you say government is evil, even necessary evil, you begin to fear the state. Granted, most begin by remembering the state is something essential, but with so much focus on the evil, on the potential harm the state can do, they begin to slowly forget that fact. If the state is evil, if it is inevitable it will be abused, do harm, grow out of control and so on, then what is our best plan? It is not only to give the state as little power as possible, but to pare back what we do give it until we have left it nothing but the essentials. However, when one begins down this road, it is very easy to argue that any power is not necessary, or that we get more harm than benefit. With this fear of the state foremost in one's mind, it is quite easy to make every judgment call fall on the side of less government.
To a degree, this is a good plan, but only to a point. And, unfortunately, when one sees the state as nothing but a necessary evil, there is no way to define where that point might be. As I have argued elsewhere ("Inescapable Logic
"), whoever holds a view most consistently will win out in the end, and, in this case, the most consistent application of the belief in the evil of government is that of the anarchists. So long as one sees the state as evil alone, then one must grant the anarchist arguments, or risk contradicting himself. Which means, over time, this belief leads one to either embrace anarchist beliefs, or else abandon the necessary evil perspective and take a different approach, often one even worse**.
What the necessary evil perspective misses is that government is not only "necessary", but that it can be positively beneficial. Government is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used to solve problems. When used properly, for a problem for which it is suited, it produces fine results. When used for problems for which it was not designed, or when used improperly, it produces bad results, or even does more harm than good. That is precisely what we need to bear in mind.
Why should we bother? What is the difference if we see government as a necessary evil or as a tool which can be abused? Perhaps a few examples will help.
The first concerns taxes. If we think of taxes only in terms of the power to tax being the power to destroy, or see them as something harmful which we should be loathe to assess, then we can produce dangerous results. The taking of taxes prevents them from being applied to the uses we had originally intended for that money. It is easy to see that and imagine it is harmful. Money taken in taxes cannot be spent on investment, or consumption, but is instead diverted tot he state. However, that is true of every use of money. Money we spend on food is not available for anything else, the same for money spent on our children. Yet we do not call eating or children evil or harmful. The problem is, because we fear government and are so used to seeing taxes only in terms of overspending, we cannot recognize that some uses of tax money can produce a benefit greater than that to which we would otherwise put the money. Money that provides police and military, protecting us from harm, can easily provide more benefit (though we may not always recognize it) than the consumption or investment to which that money would have gone. But to recognize this truth, we must abandon the perspective seeing the state as an evil, and taxes as always negative. We need to view the state as a means of obtain certain benefits, and taxes as the money necessary for that tool to function, then we can honestly perform cost-benefit analysis and decide whether or not taxes were beneficial for us.
Or let us look at the question of police. I have written many times about how at one time police were viewed as benevolent figures, and were the sole embodiment of government most people encountered in everyday life. Today, thanks to our rampant suspicion of government, both from the left wing fear of police and adoration of "outsiders", and from the right's fear of government power in general, we tend to see police in terms of opposition. The right might pay lip service to respecting police and supporting law and order, but they show a different attitude when it comes to specific cases, especially when dealing with federal law enforcement. Granted, the right tends to be less hostile, but that is because their beliefs are less consistent, which also means the left will win when it comes to debating matters relating to police.
What makes this interesting is that it causes endless problems that need not exist. By creating an atmosphere in which police are suspect, it tends to sap morale among police, it makes it harder to recruit good people, and to retain those we find. It tends to create an "us vs them" attitude among both police and the public which can actually result in more problems, and which encourages the police to be more secretive than necessary, as well as creating a siege mentality which encourages police to hide misdeeds among their ranks they otherwise would not tolerate. And finally, it creates a lack of respect for the law, and law enforcement, which actively encourages petty criminality.
What makes this all so troubling is that many of the problems with law enforcement come, not from police, but from the laws themselves. When the law becomes more arbitrary, and judgement calls more common, more and more corruption becomes possible. ("Transparency, Corruption and Reform
") When the laws are minimal and well defined, there is still room for corruption, but much less for the sort of systematic corruption which tends to be the largest problem. Thus, we create the bad situation through our misapplication of government, and then blame government for the failing, and allow our fear of government to turn us against the police officer, when the real problem is that we have applied government in the wrong way.
But, as we have convinced ourselves government is a necessary evil, and will always produce corruption, when we are certain power will always be abused, we do not expect any better, and imagine there is no cure, and so we do not look for a cure, instead taking a path that just makes things worse. Not is this true only of the police, our attitude toward politicians tends to have many similar features. ("The
Presumption of Dishonesty
", "Don't Blame the Politicians
", "Doing Something
Our Cultural Immaturity
") When we expect corruption, dishonesty and criminality from politicians, imagine it an inherent part of the system, then we tend to get what we want, and worse, and our attitudes tend to produce the apathy which allows those problems to continue***.
All of which is why I argued before, and continue to do so now, that we must view government, not as a necessary evil, and certainly not as a panacea, but instead as a tool, which can be applied improperly, and which, when applied properly or improperly, can sometimes experience unwarranted growth or extension of power. Which means we should not fear the state, but we should be wary. We should limit the state to protecting us from force, theft and fraud, and nothing more, and even then, whenever there is a proposal for a new measure,w e should be wary lest we grant the state excessive power, or power so ill defined that it can be abused. But we should not fear the state, or assume it will always abuse the power granted. That will lead us to making the wrong choices more often than not.
* It is not necessary to postulate bad or corrupt officials for this to be true. In fact, the emphasis on the quality of office holders as a means of making government work properly is a bit frightening, as eventually every state will elect someone not quite right. Any state which cannot withstand a bad office holder is doomed. ("The Right People, The Wrong People and "Just Plain Folks"
") But, as I said, power will expand, regardless of the morality of the office holder, if only because office holders believe they know the answers, and so, to help others with those answers, they seek ever more power, to reach more people. ("Grow or Die, The Inevitable Expansion of Everything
", "In The Most Favorable Light
", "With Good Intentions
", "Tyranny Without Tyrants
") It is akin to the tendency to seek laws favoring one's reelection. It does not necessarily mean one is corrupt. If I believe I am going to save the world, I would want to be reelected, not for my benefit, but to do the good I think I can. Many places in government, what we ascribe to base motives can also come about from the highest motives, which is why checking power is so important. Though, as I shall argue, not the only important goal.
** This is why so many conservatives end up abandoning this perspective for either simple traditionalism, embracing all that is old because it is old, or some variant on authoritarianism, some of which call themselves paleoconservatism or social conservatism. Of course, many others, balking at accepting the anarchist conclusions of this belief, simply abandon theoretical approaches entirely, embracing a variant of "whatever works", which is both a dangerous belief to hold and a weak position on which to base one's arguments when debating against the left. ( "The
of Anecdote is Not Data
", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism
Problem of the Small Picture
", "Keyhole Thinking
", "The Lunacy of "Common Sense"
", ""Seems About Right", Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility
", "A Look at Common Sense
", "Res Ipsa Loquitur
") Whatever else they might be, the left is replete with intellectual justifications for their theories, making anti-intellectual pragmatism sound even more hollow, which helps those on the left claim to carry the mantle of the educated, despite basing their beliefs on an arrogant, largely emotional theory -- albeit one concealed by a mountain of pseudo-intellectual theories.
*** I know I said some of the abuses of government are unavoidable, and that is true. Power tends to grow and people seek greater scope for their authority, but that is very different from corruption of this sort. Most of our worst problems arise from the fact that we gave too much power int he first place, or defined rules so loosely abuse was inevitable.
This explains why I favor a distributed, federalist system. ("The Benefits of Federalism
", "Concentrated and Diffuse Power
") When power is widely scattered, with many small units exercising control over a very few people and a very small area, abuses tend to be very difficult to create, and are easily spotted. And since moving a very short distance can put one beyond the reach of a given abuse, the abuses also tend to be easily remedied as well. It is not perfect, abuses can still take place, even severe abuses, but it does tend to help us keep the proper perspective on the state when we can see government working properly in so many cases, and failing in but a few.