10 December 2012

More On Good Government

There are really only two ideologies that are completely consistent in their internal logic regarding the state: anarchism and collectivism (the former assumes that government is evil and must be completely abolished and the latter assumes that government is good and should control everything). Both are utopic, and neither has that much in common with the real world.

Both, ideologies fail because the logic and assumptions that are applied to the state are not applied to the operants of the state: individuals. Basically, anarchists have to assume that humans are intrinsically good while the government is systemically evil, while collectivists have to assume that humans are inherently bad while the state is systemically remedial. To put it in programming jargon, anarchists assume good in, garbage out; collectivists assume garbage in, good out. The state, though, is merely a mechanism and is neither intrinsically corrupting nor intrinsically remedial. If the effects of the state are remedial or corrupting, it is only because the people within (and in administration of) the state are remedial or corrupting.

Furthermore, both ideologies fail because the logic and assumptions that are applied to the state are not applied to other collective entities. Most anarchists (those coming from the right, in my experience) will defend a number of collective entities, like businesses and religious or social organizations using the logic that these collective entities are not inherently, generally because they have no coercive power (which is nonsense because businesses usually have some form of coercive power in the form of controlling wages while religious and social organizations have some coercive power in the form of social pressure). In contrast, collectivists (especially those on the left, in my experience) will rail against most collective entities because said entities abuse their power.

Essentially, both anarchists and collectivists—or at least the purists among both respective groups, are completely consistent in their horizontal logic regarding the state, but are generally inconsistent in their vertical logic. The rules that apply to individuals and non-state entities do not apply to states.

One example of this can generally be seen when an anarchist defends gun rights. Recall that anarchists oppose the state because of its coercive power, but somehow think it’s perfectly acceptable for an individual to possess coercive power. (In fact, one common metaphor that anarchists use to decry state action is to compare state action to someone putting a gun to one’s head.) Somehow, this evil only manifests itself in collective form, but not in individual. Or, if it does present itself in individual form, one need only redress the problem individually through non-coercive means.

The inverse example is the collectivist opposition to gun ownership. Somehow, the government can be trusted with coercive power—to make sure everyone obeys the law and does the right thing, of course—but individuals cannot. In this case, coercive power is good on a macro level but not on a micro level. Somehow, only deranged bible-thumpers go about randomly killing people, while the government never kills anyone unless absolutely necessary.

Again, collectivist logic and anarchist logic are consistent horizontally, but not vertically, which brings us back to Foseti’s post on good government:
One thing that’s sort of fun to do, is to apply basic economic concepts to states.

For whatever reason, economists will apply lots of concepts to individuals and companies but not to states.

For example, the invisible hand is the theory that: “individuals’ efforts to maximize their own gains in a free market benefits society.”

Applied to states instead of individuals, the invisible hand argues for citizenism.

Libertarians, instead, tend to be global utilitarians. Frustratingly, they refuse to explain why they believe it’s positively good for individuals and companies to pursue their own interests but bad for states to do so.
The lack of vertical logic is what makes anarchism and collectivism extremely frustrating and most likely wrong. The analysis is simply too shallow, because it is only focused on government, and does not relate micro-level organization to macro-level organizations. Both collectivists and anarchists ignore Adam Smith’s insight that, “what is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom,” and in so doing advocate policies that simply do not make sense to anyone who is able to focus on entities other than the state in relation to the state.

The second failure of both collectivism and anarchism is misunderstanding, or possibly even ignoring the truth about evil. Evil is an organic entity that starts in the hearts of men and permeates outward. If man is evil, the state will be evil. If the state is evil, it is only because man is evil. If one is going to attempt to ameliorate the problems of evil, one must first recognize that the problem is man, and no human organization is insusceptible to the problems and consequences thereof.

In keeping with this, neither collectivism nor anarchism can bring itself to admit that evil can be useful. Evil can be used to combat evil. Evil men of the state can be used to combat evil individuals. This is the central insight of classical liberalism, which proscribed a limited state whose function was to ensure liberty through the mechanism of property rights. Since evil often takes the form of depriving another of his rights (generally through theft, murder, rape, and such like), having the government focus on fighting this causes one form of evil to combat another form of evil, leaving the good men relatively free to pursue their own ends. This system is not perfect, as it allows for certain kinds of evil (drug use, porn, and such like), and so must take a live-and-let-live approach to these problems. If one’s destructive impulses are confined to oneself, why should anyone care about what one does?

Thus, just because the government is generally evil and corrupt doesn’t make it useless, nor does it call for its abolition. Drugs are generally evil, and free speech can often be evil as well, but no anarchist will call for abolishing drugs and free speech.

Likewise, just because some men are evil, it doesn’t follow that the government must concern itself with the details of the day-to-day affairs of all men. If some men can be trusted to manage the affairs of others, as would be the case in a collectivist state, it must follow that some men can be trusted to manage their own affairs. How can one who is faithful in much not also be faithful in little?

Thus, the answer to the question of what makes for good government will not be found at the opposing extremes of anarchism and collectivism. Rather, the correct answer is somewhere between those two extremes, and likely favors a setup where the evil men in the government are too busy dealing with evil men outside of the government (and vice versa) to harass and oppress the good men who are busy being productive.


  1. If man is evil, the state will be evil. If the state is evil, it is only because man is evil.

    Evil is not binary. Treating it as binary results in serious errors. In this case, although indeed no human organization is impervious to evil, organizations can be pervious to a different degree. Depending on the form of government, a little evil in men may add up to a very evil government (cf. various prison experiments). Thus the form of organization matters.

  2. @candide3- I know evil is not binary. However my extreme collectivism and anarchism are binary, at least for the purpose of this post (in the real world, there is generally a balance between the two), in order to demonstrate the fallacies inherent to the anarchist and collectivist worldview.