Saturday, 27 August 2016

If Men Were Angels

"If Men Were Angels", wrote the contributor to the American constitution James Madison in 1788, "no government would be needed". Indeed, if men were angels, any government would be flawlessly run. But as long as men are not angels, the standard interpretation has been that a government violently keeping us all in check is required for life not to be unimaginably terrible.

Most famous social contract theorists, such as Locke & Hobbes, visualized a State of Nature (the philosophical and conceptual predecessor to states) as a terrible society, of war of all against all, infamously caught by Hobbes' phrase "Poor, nasty, brutish and short". In the absence of a state, life would truly be miserable, they argued. Hence, these philosophers found justifications for a state, versions of which are still prevalent today among scholars and political pundits to defend any and every state action.

Robert Higgs, the great historian and economist, Senior Fellow with the Independent Institute as well as writer of great academic works such as Crisis and Leviathan and Depression, War and Cold War, offered a serious challenge to all such justifications in a talk at the Mises Institute back in 2013 (based on a journal article from 2007): How bad can a state of nature really be?

Higgs eerily lists some of the state's hall of fame; intentionally starve Ukrainians; genocide on Armenians or Indonesians; gas Jews and those deemed inferior, as well as compulsory sterilized anybody you didn't like; exterminate learned Cambodians and Chinese in a 'Great Leaps Forward':
in the past century alone, states caused hundreds of millions of deaths – not to the combatants on both sides of the many wars they launched, whose casualties loom very large – but to their ‘own’ populations whom they have chosen to shoot, bomb, shell, hack, stab, beat, gas, starve, work to death and otherwise obliterate in ways too grotesque to contemplate calmly. - Robert Higgs 2013 Lecture
But it's not really a thing of the past. We can look at states' impressive record of death and destruction in the last decade alone: "securing" Fort Europa by drowning thousands; starving millions of African farmers; killed and imprisoned millions of blacks for victimless crimes; ban or delay life-saving medicines; not to mention the various "anti-terrorist" wars launched on Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan... and the list goes on. Note that we haven't even begun on their terrible economic record, where tariffs, business cycles, inflations and taxation have added endless burdens on the world.

Apparently, this is the price we must pay for a civilized society. Looking to some of the state's great achievements, Higgs' correct conclusion becomes this:
Defending the continued existence of the state, despite having absolute certainty of a corresponding continuation of its intrinsic engagement in extortion, robbery, willful destruction of wealth, assault, kidnapping, murder and countless other crimes, requires that one imagines non-state chaos, disorder, and death on a scale that non-state actors seem incapable of causing. (my emphasis) - Robert Higgs 2013 Lecture
In his 2007 article, Higgs has an equally stunning section, worthy of recounting in full:
Although I admit that the outcome in a stateless society will be bad, because not only are people not angels, but many of them are irredeemably vicious in the extreme, I conjecture that the outcome in a society under a state will be worse, indeed much worse, because, first, the most vicious people in society will tend to gain control of the state (Hayek 1944; Baily 1988; Higgs 2004), and second, by virtue of this control over the state’s powerful engines of death and destruction, they will wreak vastly more harm than they ever could have caused outside the state. It is unfortunate that some individuals commit crimes, but it is stunningly worse when such criminally-inclined individuals wield state powers. (p. 58) - If Men Were Angels
Can't someone reasonably object that sure, Joakim, states have done some terrible things, but so have markets or "capitalism", however defined? Isn't a system that spends its abundance on yachts and holiday trips, while the poor starve, equivalent to the horrors of states? Hasn't Capitalism killed countless Indians, Native Americans, Africans as depicted by, say, Amartya Sen or Noam Chomsky?

Generally, no. Individual actions such as refraining from feeding a starving or homeless person are not responsible for consequences of their inactions to the same extent as somebody actively intervening to change certain outcomes, as the philosopher Michael Huemer demonstrated in his breathtaking 2012 article In Praise of PassivityBesides, a yacht-sailing fatcat neither created nor caused the predicament under which the poor suffers, and - more importantly - has very limited abilities of actually solving them, mostly since states (through corruption, immigration/employment laws and trade embargoes) actively prevent him from doing so.

As for the other accusations, Chomsky, Sen & co are pretty good at the leftie trait of re-branding and re-characterising everything they abhor as 'capitalism'; incompetent states, colonial rulers, state imperialist wars are all blamed on this thing called 'capitalism'. Those with the least grasp of, and least ability to correctly define capitalism, often most indignantly object to it. To add another defence against Chomsky's and Sen's objections: governments did it. As P.J. Hill & Terry Anderson convincingly showed in their blockbuster The Not So Wild Wild West, the violence against Native Americans, the wars against their tribes and the land-grabs following their exterminations began once the U.S. federal army moved into those areas - not while individual families co-existed in a kind of anarchy.

Finally, as mentioned in Ben Powell's impressive research on Anarchy and Somalia, it's not always a question of "state" or "no state"; nobody, not even the most ardent statist, would claim that life under a state in say Pol Pot Cambodia would have been even worse under anarchy. With respect to the most terrifying atrocities of states, we are all anarchists; the challenge is to push the conclusion all the way home.

No comments:

Post a Comment