Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Stupid Quote of the Day (January 27, 2012)

NOTE: I am finally reproducing my "Stupid Quote of the Day" series that ran in my previous blog, the now defunct "Random Notes", from December 28, 2011 to January 27, 2012. Please note that there are no entries for January 4 and January 12 through January 14 due to illness.

As with a few previous quotes, this quote is not so much "stupid" as "misguided". However, I don't have two columns, one for stupid and one for misguided quotes, so, as with my earlier posts (eg "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 24, 2012)"), I am just going have to call a misguided quote stupid for the moment.

This quote comes from another writer for whom I have a degree of respect, though probably not as much as I have for, say, Jefferson, Madison or Jackson. That man is Thomas Paine. While Paine did write quite a bit on freedom, I tend to think of him more as an agitator and popularizer than a deep thinker. From time to time he did print something a bit more profound, but for the most part, his writing strikes me as the colonial equivalent of sound bites. Still, his writing is quite easy to read and remains enjoyable, so I have a fairly high opinion of him. However, there is a quote from his writing, one of the best known, with which I have issues:
Government at its best is a necessary evil, and at its worst, an intolerant one.
I realize this quote is likely to make this post a repeat of the debate in "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 23, 2012)" and "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 24, 2012)", but as the topic continues to arise, I think it is worth visiting again, especially as I have had time to give it more thought, and have some more ideas to offer my readers.

The first thing I realized when considering this recently is that the argument about government being a necessary evil resembles nothing so much as the arguments for gun control. Guns and government are both tools, both can be used in a variety of ways, and both have outcomes that depend upon who controls them and how he uses them. Guns can be used for good or ill, but those advocating gun control see guns being used almost entirely for ill and so suggest guns are themselves the problem, and must be regulated. Similarly, government can ensure freedom, or destroy it ("The State of Nature and Man's Rights"), but as most small government advocates have only seen government being used improperly, they decide that government is inherently evil. However, just as guns are not evil just because criminals use them, government is not evil simply because it has yet to be run properly.

Allow me to illustrate. Imagine for a moment a government which is run as pr my ideals. The laws are established by a state legislature, supplemented with a handful of local legislation passed by counties or cities. The law enforcement is done primarily by county or city law enforcement, either supplemented by a state force, or else by compacts allowing intercounty cooperation. the federal government would be concerned entirely with foreign relations and the military defense of the nation, as well as ensuring free passage between states and the elimination of trade barriers between states. Interstate crimes would be handled entirely by compacts between the states. There would be federal civil courts, but they would use federal law only to establish procedure, the substantive law would be defined by the states involved in the dispute. (Supposedly this is how many cases should work in our federal courts, but more and more federal procedure is used to smuggle in substantive law.)

As far as laws are concerned, they would be the minimum required for peaceful coexistence. Individuals would be prohibited from violating the rights of another to life, liberty or property. Taxes will be levied by individual states, with each state using its own method, with the states then providing funding to the federal government. Thus, it will be ensured that the state legislatures will try to limit federal spending, as each federal dollar spent is a dollar they will not have to spend. 

I could probably continue to write something the length of Plato's Republic about this ideal state, but I am sure you get the picture. 

Such a state would present quite a few restrictions upon individuals, only those which I described as rational limitations in "A Rational Approach to Punishment".  So long as the state operated on the basis I have described, most individuals would have little or no contact with the state at all. It would be as if there were no state. On the other hand, it would be superior to actual anarchy (as described in "The State of Nature and Man's Rights") as the state would be available to defend his rights should the need arise, as well as providing a deterrent to those who might be tempted to commit crime.

The reason I bring this up is that such a state is in no way evil. Yes, with time and effort it could be corrupted into a totalitarian state, but that is akin to condemning the institution of the family as it could always be corrupted by introducing a molester or abuser. A state can be turned into something bad, a gun can be misused, medicine in the wrong dose is poison, none of those make guns, medicine or states evil. And I think my description of a minimal, distributed state shows that a state can be imagined that is in no way evil. ("Consolidation and Diffusion")

I talked elsewhere of the negative consequences of seeing the state as evil, so I won't go into that here. I will just ask that those tempted to imagine the state truly is a necessary evil, ask themselves whether a state is inherently evil, or whether they are simply drawing that conclusion from their experience of bad states. Finally, I would also ask, since anarchy is obviously harmful, and they imagine a state is evil, then what could possibly be good? Or are they condemned to perpetual pessimism, as every alternative is evil?


I mentioned earlier that I would be posting belated quotes for January 20th, 21st and 22nd. I have posted the 20th, but the other two are still waiting. I just wanted to mention that, though I am running a bit late, I will still post those two over this weekend. I actually have both quotes already, unless, of course, I change my mind. But for now, it appears one will be on communism, and the other on labor, wages and exploitation. (I admit the second quote comes from an article by a relative unknown, but I really wanted to write about labor, world trade and the claims of exploitation, especially after "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 26, 2011)", so I took what I could find.)

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/01/27.


  1. Well first I was inclined to agree with the quote, then after reading your argument I was inclined to agree with you, then after giving it a bit more thought I went back to agreeing with the quote.

    You are right that in theory gov’t can be used for good when it is used in its ideal form (which of course it never is), but if we’re going to invoke ideals, then ideally we wouldn’t need gov’t at all because people would automatically agree on what each other’s basic rights are and would respect them. Gov’t only exists, even in its ideal form, because the ideal world doesn’t exist but human nature does. Instead of everyone being happy, gov’t imposes compromises that leave some satisfied and others unsatisfied, so even in its most ideal form it is more of a necessary evil, particularly since its existence requires that we spend our lives watching it like a hawk.

    Now I'm going to be embarrassed if that response differs from what I said at TH (assuming I commented, and knowing me I probably did); but I find that the more I live in this world the more certain thoughts are evolving while others are hardening into stone.

    1. Unfortunately, I can't get to the TH quotes (or perhaps fortunately) and I don't have perfect recall, so no risk of discovering you contradicted yourself.

      I suppose whether or not I would accept your answer depends on whether you find oil changes evil. Or emetics. Or hand lotion. All of those are compromises intended to solve problems because things aren't perfect. You get an oil change because oil breaks down. You would prefer not to have to waste time and money on it, but not doing so harms your engine. Emetics are needed because sometimes we consume things we shouldn't. We don't like the consequence of the emetic, but the alternative is even worse. And hand lotion is kind of greasy, and costs money, but without it, our skin gets rough and sometimes painful.

      Basically, my argument is, yes many things exist only because the universe is not perfect, but do you call the solution "evil" because it too is short of perfection? A government which serves to do nothing but protect individual rights is far from evil in my mind. It is a necessary tool, something positively good, as it preserves us from the ills of anarchy. That this tool can be turned to evil ends doe snot make it evil any more than the fact that sometimes mechanics order unnecessary oil changes, or that bulemics can harm themselves by abusing emetics.

      But I suppose it could be argued that is a matter of semantics. Still, I think a needed tool that provides a necessary service is not evil, even if it can be corrupted and turned into something evil. The fact that food eventually rots, or can be poisoned does not make food an evil, and similarly the fact that government can be abused, and mostly has been, does not make it evil

      I guess the best example may be this: For believers, their faith is the one true one, and the only good religion. The rest are to some degree misled. However, because that means the vast majority of religions are wrong, that most believers have been misled, does that make all religion evil? Or doe sit just mean a good thing is easy to corrupt to evil ends?

      That is how I view government.

    2. I think we basically share the same view of government, that if it’s designed and used properly it can be a useful tool; however, with respect to the quote itself MO you’re taking the word “evil” too literally given the context. Yes, on some theoretical level government is inanimate, but Paine was clearly referring to government as it exists in reality, i.e. a reflection of the people who are able to exert influence over it. Oil changes and hand lotion do not possess the means to wreak the kind of havoc that government can, and a quick look at some of your blog topics would suggest that Paine is not alone in recognizing the human element in government:

      “government coercion,” “government debt,” “government extortion,” “ government spending” and “government waste. “

  2. Obviously my topics reflect my recognition that government can be used improperly. I don't deny that. That government can become a source of evil is beyond doubt. My objection is to seeing government as inherent and necessarily evil. I think in doing that, we end up playing into the hands of the neo-anarchist types who would reduce government even beyond the necessary, and that is why I argue government, properly constructed and run, is not a "necessary evil" but a good and proper tool. It is only evil when abused.

    You see, if you take "necessary evil" literally, it would suggest, as do the neo-anarchists, and before them Rousseau and a bunch of other fuzzy headed romantics, that absolute liberty, anarchy, a state without any government, is the ideal, and government, by reducing that total freedom, is evil. I would argue that anarchy is not a good, that it is the evil, and by correcting it, a proper government is good. granted, government can be abused, we can give it too much control, allow it to intrude in the wrong matters, and then it too becomes evil, but that does not make goverment evil.

    Two more analogies.

    First, to make a comparison to my last statement. If you re drowning, water is an evil, but, if dying of thirst, some water is a good. I think of the state the same. Absolute lack of water is not good, nor is too much, but a proper amount is essential, that is the same with the state.

    Another example of the bad logic. Guns can be used to commit crimes, to kill innocents and so on. On the basis of this gun control advocates call guns evil. But, is it not the misuse of guns that is evil? Cannot guns be a good in many cases? The state is the same. it is not a "necessary evil" nor are guns. Both are good tools that can be abused.

  3. Well as you know, that last thing I want to do is to lend credibility to the neo-anarchists. The trouble I find with them isn’t so much that we disagree that gov’t is evil (we disagree that it even has the PROPENSITY for good, that’s true), but that we disagree on whether or not gov’t is necessary. I actually think “inevitable” would be a more accurate term.

    Look, in theory I totally see your point. You make your case very well. But I understand Paine’s point as well.

    Now I have to spend 2 hours on the phone with Verizon to see if I can get Outlook to stop insisting that I give it my password so I can use my email, especially I can't remember the frigging password!

    1. I suppose I was ruined by growing up under Reagan, and actually listening to him too often. it's funny, I was such a leftie back then in my teen years, but I still couldn't help but listen to all of Reagan's speeches, even as I did the obligatory mocking of him.

      The one thing that made Reagan so different from ever conservative we have had since him was his optimism. We constantly get beat up for being "the party of no" being against everything, being so negative, faulting government all the time, dismissing every project and so on. Well, Reagan was opposed to big government as well, but he managed to do it in a really positive, upbeat, optimistic way. He didn't bash government so much as he played up the potential of individuals, the benefits of liberty, the positives of freeing people from regulation and bureaucracy.

      I kind of see government that way. Rather than look at the minimal government I envision and grumble about it being a necessary evil, an inevitable infringement on rights, or something that could go wrong and enslave us, I choose to see it as the framework within which we can achieve what we should. I look at the many bad government as the aberration, not the rule, and imagine that once we truly achieve the proper level of government, mankind will see the benefit and the mistakes of the past will become ever less likely to be repeated. (I suppose in that way I differ from a lot of those on the right and left, assuming man can recognize a good thing and learn from mistakes. Sadly, the right has often followed the left in assuming an arrogant disdain for the common man. But, as I argued in many places, such arrogance is the preliminary step to imposing authoritarian government. As, if man cannot learn from his mistakes, and cannot make the right decisions, many believe this justifies forcing him to do the right thing. Which is why I shudder to hear supposed conservatives talk of "sheep" or see mankind's mistakes as inevitable and destined to be repeated...)

      But, I suppose that is a different argument. I just think, though it is a rather small difference in some ways, that it is worth considering how we view government, not just our current excessive and overly intrusive government, but all government, even when it is working properly, as it tells us something about how we view a lot of other matters. (Not that all, or even most, of those who adopt the "necessary evil" view are destined to become commissars or anything, just that, as one piece among many, it helps us to see how we view all manner of political, social and economic issues.)