How Jason Smathers learned to stop worrying and trust the State

From Jason Smathers’s report on Wendy McElroy’s recent anti-voting lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

You put your trust in the state because it filters out complexities of life you either cannot manage on your own or see no need to. Why do people obey unjust laws? Because — for the majority, in most cases — it’d be a whole lot more problematic and chaotic without the system there. I may recognize that a war we’re involved in is unjust, but I don’t attempt to overthrow the government because the state simplifies my life in ways that more directly affect me.

Well. I, for one, know that if I were an Iraqi child, I would be happy to die so that Jason Smathers can live a simpler life.

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  1. Bob Kaercher

    Well here’s the money quote for you:

    “Morals matter, but practicality is king.”

    Yeah, morality does matter, but only in this sort of imaginary, nebulous otherworld. It has no bearing on actual reality, in which we must all pay obeisance to someone’s [i.e., a ruling elite’s/majority’s] subjective notion of “practicality.”

    Now, I wonder from where or whom this young man could have absorbed his ideas?

    “The argument that voting is coercive in itself is true, but as professor Harry Brighouse made clear after the lecture, coercion is sometimes moral, especially in the case of the state.”

    That’s right, little boy. Just regurgitate what your smart professor told you. No need to exercise your own brain.

    I have to say, though, that if this kid’s reporting of McElroy’s lecture is accurate, she rather blew it during the Q&A with some weak answers, particularly on the issue of defense from foreign aggression. She really could have done a whole lot better. (And it would seem her expression of a secret yearning for an Obama victory understandably discredited her own arguments in this kid’s eyes.)

  2. Rad Geek

    Bob,

    Well, maybe. I wasn’t there, and Q&A can be tricky, especially when there’s a large communication gap to cross between your principles and your audience’s. But having read McElroy’s other stuff on voting (which I actually mostly disagree with), and having read this dude’s column, I’m somewhat more inclined to think that he didn’t fully understand, and thus didn’t accurately report, McElroy’s answers.

    For example, the claims that he makes about her position vis-a-vis Obama are almost certainly based on one or more grievous misunderstandings of what she said.

    If somebody asked me which of the remaining establishment candidates I’d least hate to see become President, I’d probably answer the same way, but hoping for the less-aggressive Sicilian Mafia rather than the Russians or the Colombians is hardly an endorsement of voting or the political process.

  3. John T. Kennedy

    McElroy is quite wrong about voting being immoral in principle; Spooner correctly pointed out that there is nothing wrong with voting defensively and that no endorsement of any evil is implied in a vote itself.

    Smathers is flat wrong about complexity. As I’ve pointed out before:

    Suppose it were up to you to determine how cars would be produced. There are a lot of irrational people out there and many of them surely have foolish ideas about how cars should be built. So would you be better off choosing a bunch of experts and giving them the responsibility for building all the cars, or just leave people free to produce cars any way they want to? The choice is between central planning and a free market. And what you’ll find is that the free market will produce the best cars even though the irrational are free to be irrational. You will have more control over the car you get when coercive control is completely removed from the production process. Governing the production of cars will ultimately give you less control of your life, not more.

    Markets strongly tend to discourage irrational behavior. If you try to produce cars irrationally, you will soon go bankrupt in a free market. In a free market, you can only succeed at producing cars by acting rationally. Government strongly tends to encourage and protect irrational behavior; with government it is routine for irrational enterprises to survive indefinitely at the public expense.

    The fallacy of control is the notion that you can best control your life by controlling others. But in fact your control of others will ultimately be at the expense of your control over your own life.

    The simplest way to get great cars is to leave people free to produce whatever they want however they choose. That’s the simplest way to get the best of any service or commodity.

    Has government simplified airports?

    The Soviet Union was the ultimate experiment in the kind of simplification Smathers is talking about. You didn’t have to worry much about what kind of shoes to get.

  4. John T. Kennedy

    “Morals matter, but practicality is king.”

    That’s a pretty good slogan for the IRS. Or Homeland Security. Really it should be printed on every coin and on a plaque above the entrance to every government agency.

  5. Francois Tremblay

    Well, that’s it! We’re all wrong! This whole Anarchy thing is over, I guess. If the State simplifies Jason Smathers’s life, then who are we to take that away from him?

    Because it’s not like anything else matters in life, right? Simplicity is the ONLY VALUE that matters!

    Not, say… ORDER? SECURITY? BEING FREE? NOT GETTING ARRESTED? STOPPING WAR GENOCIDES?

    That’s our number one value now? Simplicity??

    What the fuck, seriously? I didn’t get that fucking memo!

    “Morals matter, but practicality is king.”

    Total bullshit. If it was true that practicality was valued above morals, then everyone would be an Anarchist. People support the State because they believe it’s the only way to maintain morals, even when they know very well the State is supremely impractical and that its agents are corrupt.

    Morality runs the world. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll understand people’s beliefs.

  6. Jason Smathers

    Well, this is all very interesting.

    Let’s run this down, shall we?

    First off, as a explanation of that quote: I was not endorsing placement of practicality above morality. For the individual who quoted the post they put on my piece about the Iraqi child, thank you for taking my argument to an extreme that I did not support.

    When I say that it simplifies the complexity of life to put some trust in the state, I’m not saying that the state takes care of everything justly . That would be entirely naive and I’m rightly being thumped for that statement standing without qualification. That’s why it’s called “trust;” not simply a job done by some efficient bureaucratic machine, it’s a gamble.

    All I was saying is that we all put some amount of trust in the state – those who claim they don’t should not be using the internet, own a home or pay taxes if their paranoia of government’s incursion into their lives reaches such levels of vehement refusal. Those who claim they don’t trust the government may be skeptical of the government’s ability to handle certain matters (especially war) but a wholesale condemnation of the government usually leads to revolt, protest or withdrawal from that state.

    However, those who both claim they don’t trust the government and yet continue to live under state control without questioning it are hypocrites. But even those who question the government often live under their umbrella. Why? Because they do not give a wholesale revocation of trust in the system. If they truly did, they’d leave. On the other extreme, I do think that some of the wholesale belief in the government’s abilities is foolish and far more a product of modern American complacency (those who give priority to consumption and comfort are widespread in this country and certainly the exact people I was mentioning in the article.), but it exists nevertheless.

    Of course, don’t take that to mean I endorse it. I was seriously answering her question: Why do people obey unjust laws? Because When considering the whole range of moral, financial and organizational considerations humanity has to deal with it, many defer to the state on some moral matters (and sometimes trust wrongly) and personalize others. If they didn’t, some people would wrestle with contemplation much in the way make-shift philosophers do in coffee shops. But at the end of the day, the get up, walk out and go on with their daily lives. Morality is important, but practicality is necessary to operate on a day-to-day basis.

    So, attack that now, if you will, and I’m sure you will.

    However, I do have to take issue with a few comments here:

    “People support the State because they believe it’s the only way to maintain morals, even when they know very well the State is supremely impractical and that its agents are corrupt.”

    The relationship between the State and the individual might be helpful in resolving individual moral quandaries. (although I suspect it’s more accurate that the State tells them its fine and people want to be told their right, so they swallow what’s fed to them) However, I very highly doubt that morality runs the world. Morality creates theories. Practical applications very rarely mirror the moral basis for those theories. Soviet-era Communism is a fine example of that, but then again so is almost every government . The U.S. speaks of equality and individualism, but after centuries of oppression based on race, we take a “practical” approach called affirmative action that actually dispenses with that initial guiding principle.

    In that way, perhaps morality is the catalyst, but practicality keeps it moving. Although, admittedly, sometimes in the wrong direction.

    As for the case of the free market vs. Central planning: Yes, your case is of course correct, but the economic marketplace is not society as a whole. The strength of our nation is in part based on a strong central authority and our economy is constantly influenced by it: through government subsidies, economic stimulus, fluctuating interest rates (controlled by the FED) and tax levies and cuts. Market economy works, but it is not effective in its purest form because not every player exists in a pure form. If that were the case, competition would proliferate and profits across the board would drop to a big fat zero. However, those corporations have realized how to manipulate capitalism for their own end and for absurd levels of profit maximization that allow the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer. There is a remarkable similarity between the exploitation in Soviet-era Communism and American-style Capitalism; The difference is who benefits and the methods used. (although, let’s be fair, the Soviet regime, along with many other Communist regimes, used extremely brutality to punctuate their needs and this makes state control far more dangerous given the military resources at their side.)

    And to “Rad Geek”: I don’t misunderstand her position. She said she wanted Barack to win. Now, she’ll exercise her moral judgment as she sees fit, but admitting that she does have a preference in that way seemed to hint at a practical application of her pacifist ideals: Mr. Obama seems more likely to her, as she said, to end the war in Iraq (she said something seems really untrustworthy about Ms. Clinton), but what about Mr. Obama’s statements regarding Pakistan and striking al-Qaeda without permission from Pakistan? Certainly pre-emptive strikes can’t square with her “anti-war heart?” Perhaps she considers ending the War in Iraq more pressing than possible damage Mr. Obama might do in Pakistan. If she didn’t, she might have just answered with her blanket statement of “I don’t vote, I can’t be put in that decision.” The fact that she acknowledges one executive is preferred over another isn’t exactly rejecting the system, isn’t it?

    Well, that’s about it. Thanks for calling me out though.

  7. steven

    Jason, you imply that if we truly don’t trust the government we would leave. Why is that? And where should we go? I would love to not pay taxes, but I don’t want to be locked up in jail, away from my family. Do you think that we can just walk away from state control anytime we please? Please tell us how to do that without getting thrown in prison or killed.

  8. Jeremy

    Well, I for one think we should listen to Jason. No doubt anarchists disagree with him. But if we want to understand the phenomenon of the state, we must understand why people accept it. Jason provides one possible explanation – one that I think is quite plausible.

    Perhaps Jason is right: people accept the state because the vast majority of humans have a deep-seated desire to divorce themselves from “risk”. Complex adaptive systems such as unfettered markets are highly creative but unpredictable. Thus the typical human looks to the state and its agents to somehow take on this risk and purge the individual of the horrible burden of contemplating his own fragility and vulnerability.

    From that perspective, Jason’s right: it’s a gamble. A bad, ill-conceived and unadvisable one, but no less a gamble. As anarchists, we need to work on the project of presenting a better gamble to our fellow humans.

    The fact that she acknowledges one executive is preferred over another isn’t exactly rejecting the system, isn’t it?

    Not at all. I prefer death by gunshot to death by strangulation. But I don’t desire either.

  9. Bob Kaercher

    “First off, as a explanation of that quote: I was not endorsing placement of practicality above morality.”

    With a statement like “Morals matter, but practicality is king“? Oh no, of course not. My mistake. How did I ever commit such a silly misinterpretation?

    “For the individual who quoted the post they put on my piece about the Iraqi child, thank you for taking my argument to an extreme that I did not support.”

    Well, if you make an argument excusing the existence of the state, you’re essentially excusing its actions. You think you can excuse a system premised on the initiation of force, coercion, mass theft and mass murder and yet simultaneously disavow the force, coercion, mass theft and mass murder that system commits? What are you, some kind of utopian idealist? An organization of people excused by others to commit evil will inevitably commit evil. If that makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you should follow what instinct for justice you appear to possess to its logical conclusion and condemn the state’s existence instead of offering rationalizations for it (i.e., “simplification” or “practicality”).

    “However, those who both claim they don’t trust the government and yet continue to live under state control without questioning it are hypocrites. But even those who question the government often live under their umbrella. Why? Because they do not give a wholesale revocation of trust in the system. If they truly did, they’d leave.”

    I’ve seen the “love-it-or-leave it” argument before, but this is the first time I’ve come across the “trust-it-or-leave-it” argument.

    I don’t trust anyone who is in a position of power over me. But as Steven pointed out, it’s a bit disingenuous to point out to me that I continue to live under its “umbrella.” What choice do I (or you) have? The state has a monopoly on firepower that I’ll never have. That’s an odd kind of “trust,” the kind commanded only by a mugger when he points a gun at your face: “Just hand over everything I ask for, and trust me that you won’t get hurt.”

    As for your theories on morality and practicality, your error is a quite common one that seems to pretty much permeate the thinking of most of humanity: That the two are seperate, rather than one being the consequence of the other. To be moral–and to be moral consistently, and to equally hold everyone regardless of status or title to the same moral standard–is practical. Morality can be put into practice, and if more people simply chose to practice it (by acting within moral boundaries), we would surely have a more moral society, that is, a society that is more just.

    What is highly impractical is to grant one group of individuals license to commit acts of immorality, as it surely makes the group not so licensed the prey of the former group. How such an arrangement can meet anyone’s definition of “practicality” is beyond me. This is a recipe for lawlessness, as those privileged to act immorally have only more incentive to commit greater and greater acts of immorality: Foreign wars, throwing people in prisons for years on end for victimless “crimes,” etc., etc. (BTW, this is where your analysis of Soviet communism is faulty: Its “practical applications” most certainly did mirror the moral basis for its theories…Its “morality” was inherently immoral. Thus, application of a corrupt morality could itself only be corrupt means.)

    As for your pronouncements on the market system, that it cannot be “effective” in its “purest form” (your term for a truly free market, I assume), I’m a little astonished, since to my knowledge no advanced industrial society has ever been a truly free market system. I can’t see how you can pass such a verdict without ever having seen in practice the system you are so quick to convict.

    The central authority you think is part of the basis for the “strength of our nation” is actually a parasite upon it, precisely by means of the “government subsidies, economic stimulus, fluctuating interest rates (controlled by the FED) and tax levies”, etc., that you mention. Those state actions forcibly prevent resources from being allocated where they are most in demand, thus harming economic activity, not strengthening it. (Which is why a truly free market would “work”: Freely choosing consumers and producers–unlike an army of tax-collecting, dictatorial, politically motivated bureaucrats–acting through the free pricing system, would allocate resources where they are most demanded. Thus, there most certainly would be profits with unrestrained competition, but in the free market, those who are awarded profits would be so chosen by freely acting individuals instead of the thieving, bossing bureaucrats, such as we mainly have now.) Your bit about central authority and the “strength of our nation” reminded me of that very funny line in The Big Lebowski: “Say what you want about National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.”

    But good for you on catching the similarity between Soviet communism and American capitalism: Yes, they are similarly exploitative.

    You see this, and yet you say a free market cannot be “effective”?

    Good night.

  10. John T. Kennedy

    Smathers,

    What goods does your government produce that markets wouldn’t produce better?

    There is a remarkable similarity between the exploitation in Soviet-era Communism and American-style Capitalism;…

    Yeah, it’s called central planning. It exists in a different degree here than it did in the Soviet Union, but it’s the same principle.

    In the absence of a government to manipulate markets would thrive.

    Can you explain how you can exploit people in a free market?

  11. John T. Kennedy

    Jeremy,

    There is no gamble. Smathers, you, and I all get the same regime and political evironment regardlss of what we think of it as individuals. There is no political benefit to holding correct views or political cost to holding incorrect views. You can’t hope to change many people’s political opinions when their opinions make no difference in their individual lives.

  12. John T. Kennedy

    Smathers,

    However, those who both claim they don’t trust the government and yet continue to live under state control without questioning it are hypocrites. But even those who question the government often live under their umbrella. Why? Because they do not give a wholesale revocation of trust in the system. If they truly did, they’d leave.

    One might as well say that since there is crime in America and you don’t move away we can conclude that you really condone this level of crime regardless of any hypocritical protestations to the contrary.

    And that’s all that government is – crime.

  13. John T. Kennedy

    Smathers,

    Is it hypocritical for you to say you oppose the war, and then feed the state that makes this war with your own money? Should we conclude that since you don’t move away and you do pay that you really do support the war?

  14. Francois Tremblay

    I think the idea that people accept the State because they believe it manages risk is absolutely untenable. People most definitely do not hold to the belief that the State manages risk. But I would be willing to be deconverted by any evidence saying otherwise.

  15. John T. Kennedy

    Rad,

    “Well. I, for one, know that if I were an Iraqi child, I would be happy to die so that Jason Smathers can live a simpler life.”

    Do you pay taxes? If you pay taxes does that make you responsible for the deaths of Iraqi children?

  16. John T. Kennedy

    Smathers,

    “Why do people obey unjust laws?”

    To stay out of jail.

    What do you think would happen to tax revenues if the threat of punishment for non-payment was dropped? Do you think most people would voluntarily contribute to support the state? Would you voluntarily contribute, knowing that your money was funding the war?

  17. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    Paying taxes under coercion doesn’t make anybody responsible for deaths of Iraqi children.

    However, endorsing the existence of the State, even taking into account State projects which you yourself believe to be unjust, on the grounds that it makes your life simpler, does indicate something about your hierarchy of values.

    If Smathers had written, I think the Iraq war is unjust, but I obey the unjust laws that perpetuate it because I don’t want the government to shoot me, rather than appealing to some alleged positive benefit that the authority of the State offers for his own quality of life, I wouldn’t have had any problem with it.

  18. Rad Geek

    Jason,

    For the individual who quoted the post they put on my piece about the Iraqi child, […]

    If you’re referring to the comment in the comments section for your Op-Ed (by Charles Johnson), that was me. I’m also the one who made the post on this blog. Rad Geek’s a pen name, but not one I adopted for the sake of concealing my identity. I often use my real name when writing outside of the world of blogging.

    thank you for taking my argument to an extreme that I did not support.

    Well, O.K., but the question is how, given the principles that you explicitly endorsed in your column, you intend to separate yourself from this conclusion. If, in order to get a higher quality of life, you are willing to endorse State authority and obey that authority, even when you regard a particular exercise of that authority to be unjust, and even when the murder of Iraqi children (to take one example) is the direct consequence of that exercise of State authority, then it would seem to follow that you consider dead Iraqi children to be an acceptable loss for your higher quality of life.

    Maybe you think there are cases where the cost is too extreme, and where the injustice is so terrible that no benefit to you could justify condoning State authority on that point. That’s what you seemed to be arguing in your e-mail when I asked you a similar question about whether, had you lived in the North in 1854, you would obey or defy the Fugitive Slave Act. If you do believe that conscience trumps or erases State authority in cases like those, then that speaks well of you, and I agree with you. But then I don’t understand how that position is compatible with what you said earlier about the Iraq war. Aren’t dead Iraqi children an inevitable consequence of the war on Iraq? Isn’t that part of the reason that you consider the war unjust? And if so, then why do you condone the authority of the State to prosecute the Iraq war, while repudiating it in the case of the Fugitive Slave Act? Isn’t the unjust killing of children as serious a crime as capturing escaped slaves and forcing them back into slavery?

    (Or, if you don’t regard it as a serious enough crime to motivate you to repudiate the authority of the State, on at least the point of the Iraq war, then how is my reductio at all unfair?)

    But even those who question the government often live under their umbrella. Why? Because they do not give a wholesale revocation of trust in the system. If they truly did, they’d leave.

    And where would we go, exactly?

    The fact that I don’t move to another country has little to do having any trust in the United States government. It has a lot to do with not having any trust in any other government, either.

  19. John T. Kennedy

    It’s fine that you have a problem with what he said, there’s plenty wrong with it, but your barb about Iraqi children was unfair. Endorsement of the state entails endorsement of some crime but it doesn’t entail any necessary endorsement of the particular crime you name. Iraqi children aren’t dying for him if he opposes the war.

    Suppose you’re paying taxes here, but could move to another country and avoid having your ransom fund this war. Would it be fair to say Iraqi children are dying so you can live in America?

    I wouldn’t say so, because their deaths are no part of your purposes and do not serve your purposes. And I see no evidence that those deaths are any part of Smathers’ purposes either.

  20. John T. Kennedy

    Aren’t dead Iraqi children an inevitable consequence of the war on Iraq?

    Aren’t dead American children an inevitable consequence of traffic? Does this mean no traffic in America can be justified?

    This “poor innocent chuldren” argumentation is weak.

  21. Jimi G

    Omnibus paribus, individuals will make decisions based on least-cost methods. The decision to accept the State is made because it carries the least cost to other options, such as confronting the State, leaving for another State, etc.

    Morality is thus an economic matter. Bertoldt Brecht said, “First comes food, then comes morality.”

    Face it, the human race is a species of KILLERS. The top killers on the planet, perhaps the most vicious species ever to walk the Earth, save certain bacteria.

    I think the sooner individuals accept and confront their killer nature, the sooner a rational dialogue can commence.

  22. Jimi G

    “Aren’t dead American children an inevitable consequence of traffic? Does this mean no traffic in America can be justified? This “poor innocent chuldren” argumentation is weak.”

    Yes and no. Statistics can be used to justify any position, so presenting a statistical fact that X number of children die in auto accidents every year can be read as an indictment of motor vehicle travel. However, I posit that there are individuals operating those motor vehicles who are responsible for the deaths of those children, not the traffic system per se.

    For example, guns are used in many homicides every year in America. Are guns responsible for those homicides? What if guns were magically removed from existence and homicides proceeded apace with knives instead? Are knives then responsible? At what point is the responsibility rightly devolved to human individuals?

    Backyard swimming pools create a hazardous enough environment to create many child deaths every year, yet they are not forbidden by law. Is every backyard swimming pool owner guilty by association, every citizen?

    Life is inherently risky, owing to the omnipresence of death. Morality is rooted in economics and individuals will choose the least-cost method in nearly every case, judging non-material things like standard of living and diversion as possessing an economic value greater than the risk of death in certain cases like motor vehicle travel, gun possession and backyard swimming pools.

    So, to bring it home, it is the individual who must make the economic decisions as to whether traveling by car is worth the risk to his/her children, or whether supporting the occupation of Iraq is worth the lives of Iraqi children.

    There are six billion individual answers to that one question.

  23. Jeremy

    I think the sooner individuals accept and confront their killer nature, the sooner a rational dialogue can commence.

    I couldn’t agree more, Jimi G.

    Smathers, you, and I all get the same regime and political evironment regardlss of what we think of it as individuals. There is no political benefit to holding correct views or political cost to holding incorrect views. You can’t hope to change many people’s political opinions when their opinions make no difference in their individual lives.

    For some reason I can’t decipher what you mean by the above. A gamble isn’t necessarily rational; it’s (hopefully) a calculated guess based on an incomplete understanding of the game board.

    Then again, I might be totally wrong in my theory. It’s been known to happen.

  24. Rad Geek

    Kennedy,

    Endorsement of the state entails endorsement of some crime but it doesn’t entail any necessary endorsement of the particular crime you name. Iraqi children aren’t dying for him if he opposes the war.

    It is not as if I just brought the Iraq war up out of the blue. Smathers introduced the issue himself, in order to say that he freely approves of the State’s authority over other people, including on the Iraq war, even though he himself regards the Iraq war as involving injustice against real victims, because of alleged positive benefits that he gets from the unchallenged authority of the State.

    The point of the barb isn’t that Smathers somehow purposes for innocent Iraqis to be killed by the U.S. government, or that he’s not trying to do something to rescue them. It’s that he openly acknowledges a cost of government in one area (inflicted on other people against their will), but, even taking that cost into account, he nevertheless claims to freely support the unchallenged authority of government in that area because of the alleged benefits for quality of life that he gets from it in other areas. That’s a fundamentally different claim from the claim made by someone who grudgingly surrenders to the power of government under coercion, but regards it as illegitimate. The first claim involves an underlying claim about whether or not other people’s lives are acceptable trade-offs for you to make in choosing the means to your own purposes. The second claim doesn’t involve such a claim.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that Iraqi children are dying for Smathers in any case, because Smathers has no effectual control over the process that’s killing Iraqi children, one way or the other. My claim is just that his ethical position, as stated in the column, is that it would be O.K., on balance, if Iraqi children were dying for him. Which is a position that I hope he’d be willing to abandon if he thought about it a bit harder.

    Kennedy,

    Aren’t dead American children an inevitable consequence of traffic? Does this mean no traffic in America can be justified?

    There’s risk in everything in life, but don’t you think that there’s a significant moral difference between (1) small risks that people consensually take on in order to achieve their day-to-day goals, and (2) major risks that governments impose on innocent third parties, without their consent, in order to achieve their statist policy goals?

    The ordinary risk of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians being killed in traffic accidents is an example of the first kind of risk; it’s a risk that they choose to take on in order to get where they need to go. It’s terrible when anybody is killed in an auto accident, but you’re quite right that that doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of driving, because people can choose to risk whatever they want to risk as far as their own lives are concerned.

    But the risk of an innocent Iraqi getting a bomb dropped on her head, just for existing in the wrong neighborhood, is a risk of the second kind, not the first. It’s not a risk that anybody takes on for herself but rather a risk imposed on large numbers of nonconsenting third parties by a gang of criminals pursuing goals that they had no right to pursue in the first place. If that kind of risk doesn’t undermine the legitimacy of government war, then proving that will at least take more argument than you’ve given here.

    If you want an analogy between dead Iraqi children and deaths in traffic, then you would have to discuss risks that go above and beyond the normal risks that drivers, passengers, and pedestrians consensually accept as part of choosing to use the road. For example, tearing down the wrong side of the road at 90mph while you’re drunk out of your mind. I’d agree that that’s an appropriate analogy for government warfare, and that death and mayhem are the inevitable consequence of driving like that. And I’d say that, given that inevitable consequence, there’s no way to justify driving like that, either.

  25. Rad Geek

    Jimi G.,

    Omnibus paribus, individuals will make decisions based on least-cost methods. The decision to accept the State is made because it carries the least cost to other options, such as confronting the State, leaving for another State, etc.

    I am sure that this is true, for some definition of cost. In fact, for some definitions of cost, you can remove the ceteris paribus clause and just say that people will always make decisions that way, on praxeological grounds. But, if you adopt that interpretation of the word cost, the interesting question is now what sorts of things people will incorporate into their understanding of the costs and benefits of a situation. Presumably physical or emotional pain for you will usually count as a cost, ceteris paribus, and so will things that endanger your health or material well-being. But, for example, does the suffering of people other than yourself count as a cost to you? From the standpoint of Wertfrei economics, there’s no reason why it couldn’t or shouldn’t; people can choose to value or disvalue all kinds of things. And from the standpoint of moral deliberation, I think that just about everyone in the world does treat that as part of their conception of costs, to a greater or lesser extent, and that absolutely everyone has good reason to treat it as part of their conception of costs. (Because, whether any given person recognizes it or not, the kind of life she would have to live to remain indifferent to, or taking pleasure from, the suffering of other people, is a mean and miserable sort of life for her to live.)

    But, clearly, if the suffering of others is one of the things you consider (ceteris paribus) a cost in any situation that has it, then that’s going to significantly affect your deliberation about the least-cost option.

    It also matters whether the person deliberating views all costs and benefits as qualitatively on a par with each other — so that for any given cost there is some quantity of benefit that would make the cost an acceptable trade-off — or whether one’s conception of cost includes certain kinds of costs that cannot be overridden by any quantity of other kinds of benefits. (E.g., if I accept that my personally doing an injustice to somebody else is a cost — and, after all, why should I not view that as a cost? — it remains to be asked whether that cost is an absolute bar to any course of action that involves it, or whether there is some level of benefit that might make the cost an acceptable trade-off.) Again, economics has nothing to say about whether or not an agent can or should incorporate these sorts of decisively-defeating costs into her calculations, or whether she’ll treat everything as negotiable. What morality has to say on the topic about whether people should incorporate them into their deliberation is a matter of dispute; in fact, that’s pretty much the whole of the dispute between consequentialists and deontologists.

    And again, whether an agent has these kind of decisively-defeating costs, or whether she views all costs and benefits as qualitatively on a par, and differing only in quantity, will make a significant difference to the outcome of her deliberations about what the least-cost option is.

    Now, on the other hand, if you meant to use the word cost to mean something more narrow (like, say, balance of pain over pleasure for the agent herself, damage over health for the agent herself, and/or economic outflows over economic income for the agent herself), then I don’t think it’s at all true that people always choose the option that they believe will minimize cost in that narrow sense. A lot of people no doubt do that nearly all of the time, and nearly all people no doubt do that a lot of the time. But I don’t think anybody could honestly look at history, or just at the people around them — family, friends, and lovers, and conclude that those narrowly-defined costs are the only sorts of evils that people act to avoid, or that their opposites are the only sorts of goods that people act to achieve. (Hence the popularity, amongst people who want to uphold a version of this narrower and stronger claim, of psychoanalytic speculation about the unacknowledged deep motives supposedly behind human behavior; where honest inspection won’t get the job done, there is always bullshitting about the real motives behind an act.)

    The top killers on the planet, perhaps the most vicious species ever to walk the Earth, save certain bacteria.

    Well, if viciousness requires deliberative rationality, then human beings are probably the only vicious species ever to walk the earth (possibly with the exception of some other primates and cetaceans). But then also the only virtuous species ever to walk the earth.

    Bacteria may be dangerous; they may even be loathsome. But it would make no sense to call them despicable or vicious when they kill, or admirable when they do something useful or save our lives (as some bacteria also do). They don’t choose to be dangerous or loathsome and they can’t choose to be anything else. We can, and I think that, not some kind of inner fixed nature, is the real issue.

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