April 4, 2013 columns

Recognizing the State for What It Is

We should never forget that the state is an institution for compelling people to act against their will.

Though I shouldn’t, I still find it surprising that so many people claim to be motivated by love and beneficence and then express enthusiasm for the federal government. I don’t mean enthusiasm for the daily workings of Washington—its corruption, infighting, and general incompetence—but rather enthusiasm for the concept of the federal government as the solution to America’s problems, if only it could be made to work properly.

This love affair with the idea of the state is what baffles me most about non-libertarians. Arguments about data I understand. Disputes about whether free markets or heavy regulations produce better results I can get. But at some deep level, I simply don’t see how someone can look at one group of people telling another group of people what to do—and backing it up with threats of force—and say, “Therein lies utopia.”

Libertarians draw on a wealth of arguments for liberty or against state action. We have moral arguments grounded in natural rights, consequentialism, and virtue. We have economic arguments about the efficiency of markets. But for me, prior to those is an attitude about government. I mean “prior to” not in the sense of “having higher value.” The moral arguments in favor of libertarianism are both crucial and compelling. No, what I mean by attitude being prior to philosophy is that my general disposition—finding something in my gut wrong with the claim by some of a right to rule—informs and influences my thinking. It would be dishonest of me to claim otherwise. To borrow a phrase from critical theory, my distaste for exercises of power is “always already” present in my philosophy.

That’s why I’m deeply troubled by the willingness I see from so many on both the left and the right to embrace the state as an agent for social change. Like them, I believe strongly that beneficence is a virtue, one we ought to behave in accord with. Yet from that antecedent, libertarians and non-libertarians arrive at rather different views of the state’s proper role.

In my experience, the non-libertarian’s thinking process goes something like this: “I am a person motivated by beneficence to improve the lives of my fellow human beings. While this means I ought to behave kindly to those I know in my day to day life and help them when I am able, such personal acts remain terribly limited in scope. Doing good means doing good not just for my family and friends, but for humanity. As but one person, I’m incapable of such grand effect. Therefore, I should work with others in order to amplify my efforts. And if we really want to make large scale positive changes, and have those changes stick, we need to work through the government. The private sector simply isn’t up to the task.”

I can get behind all of that, but for the last two sentences. Large-scale, long-term positive change happens all the time without guidance by states. Markets enormously improve the lives of those with access to them, and especially improve the lives of the poorest and least powerful.

Those last two sentences also reflect the disturbing belief that government is the apotheosis of “people working together.” In reality, governments are precisely the opposite. Rather than working together through the state, we work against each other. If everyone agrees we ought to pay for support of the arts, for example, then there will be no need for a government program paying for the arts. Private actors—who, after all, agree the arts need support—will provide that support themselves, and do so voluntarily. (And, as my colleague David Boaz points out, we do voluntarily support the arts to an enormous degree.) We only “need” the when not everyone agrees, and when some people feel they have a right to force compliance from those who disagree.

One reason the state looks like such an appealing avenue for such action—as opposed to, say, one-on-one intimidation—is that using the state to coerce others costs the voters so little. If you don’t do what I want you to do, and I vote for a law to make you, enforcement of that law gets done by someone else. I don’t have to risk my own safety or take up my own time compelling you.

But perhaps more important, using the state as the means of coercing others removes moral costs. We don’t see the coercion our votes lead to, and so the weight of moral responsibility for the state’s actions feels less. There’s safety in numbers and safety in distance. It’s not me breaking up families over immigration rules or locking people away for minor offenses. No, it’s the state—it’s us—and I’m just going along with it.

At The Atlantic yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf told the story of John Horner, a 46-year old father of three who, with no history of criminal behavior, is now spending 25 years in prison for selling $1,800 worth of prescription pain pills. Reading about Horner and thinking about his children breaks your heart. No virtuous person would ever do what the state of Florida did to John Horner.

To put it more bluntly, what’s been done to Horner and his kids by the state is evil. Claims about just obeying the letter of the law don’t make it any less evil. There’s no excuse for this monstrous behavior, and yet people—including those who could directly make a difference—go along with it because that’s what the state does.

The libertarian attitude—seeing the state not as some special kind of institution outside of the normal moral framework but as just another group of people—exposes the error in thinking acts become less immoral the further we are from their consequences. By reframing the state, libertarians can do considerable good, even if our particular policy preferences are rarely or never adopted.

The state is not “us.” Rather, it’s a group of us, acting (sometimes) on the orders of a larger group of us, and using force to compel another group of us to do things they don’t want to do. We need a state because there are some people who would do awful things if given the opportunity, and because when awful things are done, the perpetrators need to be coerced into compensating the victims. But we should never lose sight of what the state is, and never let utopian thinking about “government as ‘us’” cloud our moral standards to such a degree that we shrug at—or, worse, encourage—outright evils.

Beneficence means we should strive, individually and together, to make the world a better place. But beneficence does its best work—and is, in fact, only truly beneficence—when it happens outside of a framework of coercion, violence, and force.