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.