June 6, 2013 columns

Why the Government is So Often Vicious and Foolish

Government’s very nature attracts the vicious, corrupts the virtuous, and encourages foolish decisions—so we should limit its power as much as possible.

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under,” H. L. Mencken said. He was right, of course. Good people don’t do the things government does. Good people don’t behave the way governments behave. In fact, if we want to be good people, we ought dramatically limit the state. We ought to be libertarian.

My goal here is not to offer a formal argument for libertarianism. Rather, I want to show how a sort of moral thinking the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle gave us—today called virtue ethics—illuminates the “libertarian attitude” of skepticism, distrust of power, and an attraction to freedom of choice about how we live our lives. It also provides us with a way to think about the state that makes clearer the reasons our government functions so poorly.

Virtue ethics is particularly well-suited to this task because, I believe, virtue ethics is how most of us already think about morality. When we encounter moral problems in our lives, we don’t say, “What deontic rules apply to this situation?” Nor do we ask ourselves, “What amount of utility will be gained from each choice?” Instead, we say, “What would be the honest thing to do?” Or, “How can I be nice or kind or charitable?” We think more often of virtues than we do of rules or utility. And we find motivation not in explicit considerations of the right or the maximal, but in the desire to be good people.

My libertarianism, then, is an attitude about state power, but it’s an attitude grounded in the idea that the sort of life I ought to live—the sort of person I ought to be—means that I should reject the state in all but its most minimal form.

There’s something morally distasteful about both exercising state power and wanting the state to exercise power, about the desire to use the state’s monopoly on violent force to get your way. If we anthropomorphize the state, treating it as a moral agent and ask, in virtue ethical terms, whether it’s “good,” the only reasonable answer is no. Because “being good” means two things. First, the agent must possess and be motivated by the virtues. Second, the agent must be wise enough to act well.

Too much of what the state does fails this test. Instead of virtue, the state often displays its opposite, vice. Instead of wisdom, the state acts with foolishness. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. The state’s power makes it attractive to the unvirtuous. If you enjoy the use of force, there’s no better spot to do it than within government. If you want to rig the rules in your favor, the state’s where you turn. If you have an urge to rule, the best place for that is obvious. And it’s not just that the state attracts the already unvirtuous (i.e., the vicious). The reins of power also corrupt the virtuous, turning them toward vice. That was the lesson in Lord Acton’s famous line.

We witness this every day. There’s nothing virtuous about the war on drugs, as it destroys the lives of countless Americans, with no gain. The war on drugs represents one kind of vicious government action, where the harms are so enormous and the benefits so small that anyone who continues to support the policy must simply not care about the damage it does. To put it bluntly, drug warriors are of poor moral character.

Other policies are even worse, not just in harm they cause, but also in their motivation. These are policies whose proponents don’t just not care about the hurt they cause but actually see the hurt as part of the policy’s goal. Think Jim Crow or slavery.

While most vicious policies lack the staggering human costs of slavery or the war on drugs, they still represent a retreat from virtue. Instituting taxicab medallions in order to pay off groups who supported your campaign demonstrates corruption. So does banning food trucks to prop up restaurants. And so on through countless pages of regulations, countless bills, countless executive orders and under-the-table deals. Poor moral character finds fertile ground in the halls of power.

It’s always been that way. Viciousness is, after all, how the state began. We speak of social contracts, of people deciding to leave the state of nature by creating the civilizing force of government. But that’s not how it happened in real life. Instead, real states had their genesis in violence. Marauders settled down and set themselves up as kings.

Still, while the modern state has its share of viciousness, most voters, politicians, and bureaucrats actually care about helping, about doing good. They possess virtue as well as most people. But even if we can maintain our virtue while operating within the sphere of politics, the structure of state decisionmaking means we’ll face enormous difficulties in marshalling our wisdom in order to decide well.

Socrates was puzzled with the Oracle of Delphi told him he was the wisest among the Greeks. After all, he claimed not to know anything. But the Oracle was right. The foolish man displays what Will Durant called “the ready omniscience of the uninformed.” F. A. Hayek called it “the fatal conceit.” It’s the mistake of thinking that we have the knowledge to shape society for the better, to direct the economy, to forcibly order people’s lives. And that we have the knowledge not just to do those things, but to do them well

Yet the nature of politics—both for voters and for state agents—encourages just this sort of thinking. Too many seek to realize their virtues through the state. Thus while the state grew initially from viciousness—criminals wanting more power—it continues to grow via foolishness—good people doing a bad job of doing good.

Hayek showed us how planners will always lack the knowledge to plan well. For example, economic planners can’t aggregate the vast knowledge dispersed throughout society in order to draw upon it to make good decisions. But by turning away from the state and toward freedom, we can let the market and prices help us in making wise choices.

But it goes further than that. Rational ignorance means voters have no incentive to vote well. Public choice economics teaches us that lawmakers are often swayed by concerns unrelated to doing good. And the distance all this decisionmaking takes from the effects of those decisions means bad policies continue for far too long, and get worse as they’re taken over by groups with interest unrelated to the policy’s original goals.

A wise person would recognize these limits. He’d say, “I want to do good. I want to help people. But the chances of me helping through coercive state action are much smaller than the chances of me helping through other, voluntary means.” He’d also recognize that it’s unwise to give the state too much power, because that risks handing control over such awesome force to the vicious.

As we strive to be genuinely good people (i.e., people of good moral character, both virtuous and wise), we ought to develop the libertarian attitude. Skepticism finds its source in thinking that a person must not be very wise if he thinks he can run other people’s lives better than they can. Distaste for power grows from watching the imperiousness of politicians and the officious meddling of bureaucrats. And a deep caring for others as beings worthy of respect leads us to reject calls to override their judgements with the opinions of majorities or elites.

A virtuous agent of the state will possess beneficence, and so not use his power to harm others for personal gain, flex the state’s might to steal for the benefit of his friends, drop bombs on innocents, or lock people in cages for harmless acts. A virtuous agent of the state will possess integrity, and so apply the same standards to everyone, treating everyone equally, and not play favorites with the law.

A wise agent of the state will make sure the virtues that motivate him are actually reflected in the outcomes of the policies he enacts. He’ll be conscious of evidence and sensitive to results. He’ll abandon programs that don’t work in favor of those that do. He’ll set aside state action when private forces can do better. A wise agent will make the effort to see the unseen.

Very nearly everything the state does is either vicious or foolish, which is why the state so often appears as a cudgel wielded by clowns. So we have good reason to be skeptical of its claims to virtue and wisdom and its pleas for more power. A libertarian attitude finds itself on firm ground.