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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Ends, Means, and the Modern State

Modern States, such as the governments of the anglosphere, most of the governments of Europe, Japan, and a few others, vary somewhat, but have certain things in common. They all provide many services to their citizenry, including at least a minimal safety net for the poor and elderly, educational funding, and at least some regulation of their economies. In order to accomplish these Ends, the Modern State claims the right to certain Means. For example, the Modern State claims the right to regulate and tax.

From where does the Modern State derive its rights to those Means? There aren't many choices: from God or other supernatural phenomenon (I'm sure this group of readers will reject that possibility immediately); from might ("might makes right") which is inherently immoral; or from the people, which, in a democratic society with a government of, by, and for the people, seems like the only reasonable choice.

If the government derives its rights from the people, can the people give the government rights that they don't have individually? Volumes have been written on the subject, and it's pretty clear to me that the answer to this question is no. Or more accurately, that I can't see how the answer could possibly be yes. There's no way I can make a compelling argument for this view in the limited space and format provided by this blog, so I'll make a non-compelling one instead.

We need to start by backing up and considering what rights people have outside the framework of a modern state. Those rights are part of a moral framework so we need to agree on the moral framework. There are many possibilities, but given that our society has evolved from a Judeo-Christian framework, it's likely that we'd all agree that lying, stealing, and murdering are immoral (ten commandments stuff). Conveniently, many philosophers have taken this basic Christian morality and rolled it up into something a little more detailed. For example, John Locke wrote "Two Treatises of Government" to address exactly this (among other things). Robert Nozick, in "Anarchy, State, Utopia" conveniently summarizes Locke's thoughts in regard to this subject:
Individuals in Locke's state of nature are in "a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or dependency upon the will of any other man" (sect. 4). The bounds of the law of nature require that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (sect. 6). Some persons transgress these bounds, "invading others' rights and ... doing hurt to one another," and in response people may defend themselves or others against such invaders of rights (chap. 3). The injured party and his agents may recover from the offender "so much as may make satisfaction for the harm he has suffered" (sect. 10); "everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation" (sect. 7); each person may, and may only "retribute proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint" (sect. 8).
You can imagine that for people living in "nature" or anarchy, this describes a good and rational moral code. It's even a familiar moral code. In other words, if we were suddenly dropped in a part of the world that subscribed exactly to Locke's description, we would likely feel comfortable with it, or at least we wouldn't have to learn lots of new and foreign principles in order to fit in.

This moral framework assumes that people have the right to have possessions and to dispose of those possessions as they see fit. One could imagine a moral framework without possessions, but in the real world, there's never been a society that didn't have possessions, except for primitive peoples who were so poor that there simply was nothing to possess. Modern States have limited property rights via taxation and regulation, but at this point in our discussion we're dealing with the interactions between individuals in a "state of nature" or anarchy, and we'll return to the behavior of Modern States, and whether or not they're acting morally, shortly.

Let's start with two people in Locke's state of nature. Neither can take property from the other without the other's permission, nor can they prevent the other from using that property as long as no harm comes to the first from that use. If there are three people, no one may take from the two others and no two may gang up and take from the third. We can add people one by one and find that for any N people, none may take from the others, and no group of N-1 may combine to take from the remaining person. Repetitively following this logic we would find that for any N people, no group of N-K people may take from the remaining K people. Or at least they cannot do so without utilizing immoral Means and violating at least one persons rights.

N has no limit. It's not the case that the above is true for N below some threshold (as an example, 97,246, or any other value), but for N above that threshold, some magic government fairy dust gets sprinkled, and it's suddenly okay for various subgroups to take from other subgroups. Thus, a government that is of, by, and for the people has no right to use Means that the people didn't have the right to use before the government was formed.

So now let's consider a large number of people (large N) operating within Locke's moral framework in a "state of nature" (i.e., anarchy). One thing that comes to mind is that these N people are really, really free. As free as you can get. And, they are living morally. In fact, Anarchists claim that this (anarchy) is the only morally acceptable structure for society.

Using only moral Means derived from the people, can we get from Anarchy to a State? The answer is yes, but it's only a Minimal State, consisting of only protective and defense agencies. In "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," Robert Nozick (in a mere 294 pages of detailed logic) manages to show that for protective and defense agencies only and nothing else, taxation is morally justified. Taxes for any other purpose are immoral. This is the pure libertarian position.

But what about a social safety net for the elderly? Surely it must be moral to tax for such a purpose? The libertarian position is "no, absolutely not." Unlike the libertarian position, my position is maybe, but only because the Ends justify the use of immoral Means. That's how we can get to the Modern State from the libertarian's Minimal State. By judicious use of immoral Means to achieve beneficial Ends. In other words, a large fraction of Modern State is moral only because the Ends justify the Means.

So, you don't agree? So, you say that Locke's state of nature wasn't the right place to start? Fine. Your challenge then, is to put forth an alternative and realistic moral framework that holds between individuals, and then show how a modern state could be derived from that moral framework. Give it a try. It's an interesting thought experiment. If you can't do it, I wouldn't be surprised, because nobody else has been able to do it either (without invoking God). John Rawls' "Theory of Justice" is the closest anybody has come (I think) but it's based upon a hypothetical ideal that can't actually be implemented. All other utopian schemes, in addition to the justification for the actions of the Modern State, are strictly based on Ends justifying admittedly immoral Means.

Given the above, I would like to address some previous Ends and Means posts. Jim writes:
...the electorate (including Howie and Bret) cares almost exclusively about results, and not the way the results are achieved (nor even the potential long-term consequences). Indeed, an examination of means to the ends is deemed an exercise in futility since all sources of information are assumed to be compromised.
I don't disagree with this statement at all. However, I would add that even if the Means are immoral, they could be easily justified by the Ends. Or, if it is simply unacceptable to ever use immoral Means, then we need to revert back to the Minimal State. I can be quite happy with either approach, but strongly think consistency is important.

Jim, being a prolific guy, also writes:
So long as principles are secondary to securing advantages, progress for democracy and individual freedom will be slow.
I'm not sure about what "progress for democracy" means, but I think that it is exactly correct to say that there is a tradeoff between "individual freedom" and "securing advantages" for society. Anarchy provides maximum individual freedom, but the Modern State focuses on securing advantages for it's citizenry. If we really think we need more freedom, then we need to head back towards the Minimal State and get the State out of the business of safety nets, education, and the like.

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