A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

All Men Are (not) Born Equal

In Ideology, Law And Order on September 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s Law and Order Series

I never could resist an argument with an anarchist. Ben Southwood rightly takes Stephen Wan to task for some of the assumptions inherent in Stephen’s recent article, so I of course intend to look for the assumptions in his rebuttals. Assumptions are lovely things. Once you have found them, you can deconstruct almost any argument.

I also intend to continue this month’s analysis of Law and Order, killing two birds with one stone. This will not be difficult, as the following argument will be aimed at the most basic level; the questions surrounding the need for government, if indeed there is one.

Ben, in answer to Stephen’s assumption that human nature is basically wrong, extends the logic of James Madison; “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” — continuing; “if men are fallible, they are not fit to govern”. However, I believe the assumption in this is even more interesting — that all men are equal.

Consider; Ben tells us it does not matter if men are angels or fallible. But surely this only holds true if all men are equally angelic or fallible? Let us reword the statements for a moment to describe two hypothetical situations: “No government, because all men are angels”; “No government, because all men are fallible”. In both situations anarchism could work, but what they both have in common is “no government, for all men are equal”. And this implies an equality which can by no means be taken for granted.

For I see no evidence for such an equality. Men are self-evidently not equal. Moreover, it should be obvious that “all men are [not] born equal”. Some are born ill, others well. Some are born into families, others begin life as orphans. Some have wealth, others live in poverty.

Although I have come to see the optimism of many anarchists as indestructible, even I cannot believe that they could be so arrogant to blame every one of life’s ills on the State. I grudgingly respect that the State’s impact on the distribution of wealth is up for debate. But disease has always been with us, and always will. Humans have been born weaker than others before, and always will. Some are born into privilege, others into want, and this will always remain the case, even if it is only due to luck or providence.

And, as Ben willingly admits, men are fallible. And not only are they fallible to different degrees, resulting in a society which always divides people, criminal or saint, slave or master, coward or hero — but their fallibility also exacerbates their natural inequality in numerous ways. If men were “angelic”, inequality would not matter — but as men are not, then unequal power corrupts. This inevitably leads to the concepts of crime, government, and of course law and order. These problems will always be with us. The State did not invent them, nor can it ever fully get rid of them.

What the State can do, I firmly believe, is act as a stabilising force. Since we have established that these problems will always be with us, the question now becomes “how are they best minimised?” I believe they are best minimised through a separation of power with some holding it privately (businessmen, bankers, landowners), and some holding it publicly (politicians, policemen, civil servants). I shall tackle the questions, as well as the philosophy, of how this is best put into practice, in a further post.

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  1. All of which justifies the basic Conservative position that the primary role of the state is to provide security. To go all Max Weber on you – someone has to exercise the monopoly over ‘legitimate’ use of violence for a society to function – that ‘someone’ must always be the state.

    Interesting you broaden the traditional meaning of ‘separation of powers’ (a seperate executive, legislature and judiciary) in the way you do. I entirley agree with the gist of what you say – robust private enterpise in a state of competition (not in a state of monoploy or oligopoly), a free and varied press, private wealth outside the control of the state are all useful balances against possible state excesses. Interesting stuff.

  2. Your willingness to take the fight to the anarchists (or liberals, whatever they want to call themselves nowadays) is certainly commendable. However, I feel obliged to form some sort of coherent attack thereby on your article, if only for the sake of equal critiques inherent on TDS.

    To defend Southwood’s assumption (loathe as I am to do so), I believe he was referring to moral equality when he extended Madison’s quote, that all men morally equal in terms of how much they are worth, and in their ability to make morally right or wrong decisions. Talk about wealth, privilege, health and so on is almost beside the point – no-one has the right to take away my life, liberty or property, because I have as much moral worth as they do. If everyone were perfectly moral, then there’d be no need for government. If everyone were definitely immoral in any small way, then no-one is fit to rule over anyone else. You can have as many levels in between as possible, but the only person fit to rule over the immoral is a perfectly moral person – who, obviously, does not exist.

  3. @Guy the Mac, Weber simply defined government as the agency that “monopolises legitimate force” [paraphrase] in an area, and didn’t defend governments in this respect!

    @David. Let’s assume you are correct in saying some men are greater than others*; does this imply we should have some sort of government? I don’t see why; we would have to assume that however the government is chosen, it will put the better people into power. I find this assumption suspect, given the great succession of not-fit-for-office people that we have had in power — from oligarchies, democracies, aristocracies, autocracies, monarchies and dictatorship.

    Obviously I have moral problems with elite groups wielding power over others, but if we ignore these, I think it impractical because we cannot expect the best in society [if there are better and worse people] to be those with power.

    And after all, power corrupts.

    *As Stephen said, I see people as morally equal, although obviously unequal in wealth, physical and mental prowess/capability

  4. “To defend Southwood’s assumption (loathe as I am to do so), I believe he was referring to moral equality when he extended Madison’s quote, that all men morally equal in terms of how much they are worth, and in their ability to make morally right or wrong decisions. Talk about wealth, privilege, health and so on is almost beside the point – no-one has the right to take away my life, liberty or property, because I have as much moral worth as they do.”

    Two points. The first is simply that “fallibility” refers to more than just moral fallibility. I partially address this at the end of my article:

    “And not only are they fallible to different degrees, resulting in a society which always divides people, criminal or saint, slave or master, coward or hero — but their fallibility also exacerbates their natural inequality in numerous ways. If men were “angelic”, inequality would not matter — but as men are not, then unequal power corrupts.”

    So even assuming equal moral status, an unequal distribution of power delivers disproportionate opportunities for human immorality to be satisfied. Therefore our natural moral fallibility exacerbates our natural inequality.

    The second point is simpler. Even though men have equal moral worth, their actions do not tend to be morally equal in society’s eyes (though not God’s). Nurture plays a large part in determining the nature of one’s crimes, resulting in certain people being more “socially acceptable” than others. This is more basic than government — we will always view murderers as worse than petty theives.

    I think your concluding assumption is weak: “the only person fit to rule over the immoral is a perfectly moral person – who, obviously, does not exist.”

    I would only agree with this when it comes to absolute power. In terms of the power of partial governance, I think there’s no reason why a “more moral” person to rule over a “less moral” one.

  5. “Let’s assume you are correct in saying some men are greater than others*; does this imply we should have some sort of government? I don’t see why; we would have to assume that however the government is chosen, it will put the better people into power. I find this assumption suspect, given the great succession of not-fit-for-office people that we have had in power — from oligarchies, democracies, aristocracies, autocracies, monarchies and dictatorship.”

    Many of the “not-fit-for-office” cases I find suspect, as it assumes that compared with the performance of others in the population they would be comparatively worse on average, which is impossible to prove, and, I feel, a little rose-tinted. A good democracy results in a) a competitive process which puts the person the people view as best into power, and b) Accountability.

    As for power, you probably know how I respond to that — but it’s at the end of this article in any case. I don’t believe the only kind of power is that weilded by the State, so I view the State as part of a healthy checks and balances system. Which is a good reason not to view the State as a monopoly on force.

  6. @Stephan Tan: That’s the point though – if the state has the monopoly on violence then it must use it to be the stabilising force – the challenge everyone is grappling with is how once state enjoys the luxury of this monopoly you can get consitutional mechanisms which avoid the abuse that comes with it (absolute power etc.). The answer is in the Separation of Powers – as I think is the broad thrust of David’s argument.

    @David: There is a subtle difference between ‘force’ and ‘violence’. The state has to have the monopoly on the use of violence (including delegation of permission to use it in accordance with law in certain circumstances) if we are to avoid a feudal or gangster society.

  7. “The answer is in the Separation of Powers – as I think is the broad thrust of David’s argument.”

    Sort of. I think the thrust of my argument (or rather, what will be the focus of the next article, whenever I get round to writing it), is that separation of power not only applies to the public sphere but also society in general, because power can exist privately (or, in anarchist terms, “illegitimately”) as well as publicly.

    Thus the State has to have a monopoly on the use of “legitimate” violence, but that isn’t the same thing as it holding an actual monopoly on force/power.

  8. A good example would be the USA. The State has a monopoly on judging whether or not violence is legitimate, but it also has its control over the ability of its citizens to indulge in violence curtailed by an ancient document which cannot be modified without significant grassroots support.

  9. “Many of the “not-fit-for-office” cases I find suspect, as it assumes that compared with the performance of others in the population they would be comparatively worse on average, which is impossible to prove, and, I feel, a little rose-tinted. A good democracy results in a) a competitive process which puts the person the people view as best into power, and b) Accountability.”

    It isn’t even relevant whether or not you have the best or the worst of humans in a position of power. Taking as an assumption that the moral fallibility of leaders is not negligible in almost all cases, and that in a few cases it will be very large, we can quite clearly see that by investing extreme power, such as control over a military, a police force and so on, we magnify the harm that such a person can do.

    To take a quite obvious example, George Bush and his cronies would not have had a hope of causing the devastation they achieved had he not been president, and Bush I do not maintain was a particularly morally evil man. Indeed, when we look at the truly evil men, we can see just how much harm they become able to do when they gain power. This wouldn’t be a concern if democracy had proven to be an antidote to tyrants, but it has not; in any case, as much harm is done by the continual violence of the state in the hands of normal men.

    The problem with a powerful government is that it is able to amplify all of the factors that can cause immoral behaviour. Firstly, there is continual opportunity open to only a few people; secondly, there is a very real divide between the harm and the perpetrator- 100 dead on a page is much less daunting than having seen 100 bodies that you killed[1]; and thirdly, there are many opportunities for self-justification, such as the political mandate.

    In light of these exacerbating factors, it seems much more doubtful that you could successfully find the man, regardless of the system chosen, who is so much more angelic than the average man that he still does more good than harm.

    [1] Note here also that the cost of government is phenomenal. In the UK, it is half of the earnings of the entire country, so the very idea that the balance might be in favour of the government in terms of rights-violation seems far-fetched. One would have to assume total chaos as the result of anarchy.

  10. “we can quite clearly see that by investing extreme power, such as control over a military, a police force and so on, we magnify the harm that such a person can do.”

    I certainly agree when it comes to investing extreme power. Where we might differ is at what point we begin to define State power as extreme.

    “This wouldn’t be a concern if democracy had proven to be an antidote to tyrants, but it has not; in any case, as much harm is done by the continual violence of the state in the hands of normal men.”

    I agree the jury is still out when it comes to democracy being an antidote to tyrants. However, you cannot deny the existence of a link between the rhetoric espoused by politicians and the beliefs of the people.

    “The problem with a powerful government is that it is able to amplify all of the factors that can cause immoral behaviour. Firstly, there is continual opportunity open to only a few people; secondly, there is a very real divide between the harm and the perpetrator- 100 dead on a page is much less daunting than having seen 100 bodies that you killed[1]; and thirdly, there are many opportunities for self-justification, such as the political mandate.”

    I think you’re making the mistake here (and earlier with your example of Bush) of assuming that there would be no opportunity for similar things to happen — that all violence in an anarchic state would be “personal”. But that really is a nonsensical assumption. People would be perfectly free in an anarchic society, freer than they are today, to form their own institutions with their own agendas. There is nothing to prevent collective and hierarchical violent institutions in a society without a “legitimate” government. This is why I take the view that a “monopoly of legitimate violence” is in fact a check on general, “illegitimate” violence in society. Furthermore, that is why I feel the use of value terms such as “legitimate” and “illegitimate” is misleading.

    There is nothing to say that George Bushes would not exist in an anarchic society under different institutions, and in fact there is nothing to say that they do not already exist outside of official governments today. I would suggest that your focus on the corruption of government quite possibly limits your vision of corruption of power that lies outside of government.

    “Note here also that the cost of government is phenomenal. In the UK, it is half of the earnings of the entire country, so the very idea that the balance might be in favour of the government in terms of rights-violation seems far-fetched. One would have to assume total chaos as the result of anarchy.”

    As an assumption, I would have thought that was no worse than assuming that getting rid of government would get rid of all opportunities open to corruptible humans. Incidentally, I’m not sure of your claim that government costs the earnings of half the country: http://freethinkingeconomist.com/2010/01/06/the-government-is-smaller-than-you-think/

    Still, I have to admit that your arguments are provoking. It gives me no great pleasure to defend the existence of the George Bushes of this world. If you’d like the chance to write an article which drew on some of these thoughts, you’d be welcome to.

  11. “I certainly agree when it comes to investing extreme power. Where we might differ is at what point we begin to define State power as extreme.”

    Although one has no choice than to admit that the power of a head of state individually, and politicians collectively is extreme in comparison to the normal citizen. The degree of power is clearly a sliding scale, and the more power invested in a particular person, the more the potential effects are escalated.

    “I agree the jury is still out when it comes to democracy being an antidote to tyrants. However, you cannot deny the existence of a link between the rhetoric espoused by politicians and the beliefs of the people.”

    Nor do I have any need to deny it. The rose-tint necessary to suggest that rhetoric matches actions is phenomenal. Nor does the idea that the beliefs of 51% of the people should determine whether or not property rights are maintained fill me with any great confidence.

    Regarding your points about the potential for corruption outside the government, of course it is the case that criminal behaviour will continue without a government. The question is a matter of degree, and not one which anyone is equipped to answer. Unlike Ben, I do not maintain an anarchist position, largely because the acts of property violation would become far more random and so more severe for the victims.

    However it is to me clear that the government, because it is widely accepted as legitimate, has far more power than any criminal gang could wield.

    “Incidentally, I’m not sure of your claim that government costs the earnings of half the country: http://freethinkingeconomist.com/2010/01/06/the-government-is-smaller-than-you-think/

    This is a red herring (albeit, I admit one allowed by my referring to “cost” in an imprecise way). There is a large proportion of tax money that is just transferred to other people, yes, however that taxed money still represents a property right violation, regardless of how it is used. When discussing the role of government in protecting the property right, that they don’t themselves directly spend it is not important.

  12. “However it is to me clear that the government, because it is widely accepted as legitimate, has far more power than any criminal gang could wield.”

    In some respects, legitimising its power also limits it. A criminal gang does not tend to consult on the question of how its relationship with you and your property is changed, but the government feels compelled to consult over spending cuts. A criminal gang operates in secrecy, with quite possibly much information and many of its members unknown. A government, on the other hand, faces increasing calls to further release more information about itself.

    “Regarding your points about the potential for corruption outside the government, of course it is the case that criminal behaviour will continue without a government. The question is a matter of degree, and not one which anyone is equipped to answer.”

    I agree with this. Ultimately, this boils down to a philosophical difference of opinion. There is no way of comparing the way the same society would operate and change with different power structures.

    “Unlike Ben, I do not maintain an anarchist position, largely because the acts of property violation would become far more random and so more severe for the victims.”

    What position do you maintain?

  13. “In some respects, legitimising its power also limits it. A criminal gang does not tend to consult on the question of how its relationship with you and your property is changed, but the government feels compelled to consult over spending cuts. A criminal gang operates in secrecy, with quite possibly much information and many of its members unknown. A government, on the other hand, faces increasing calls to further release more information about itself.”

    Again, you conflate what people say and what people do. Was there, for instance, serious consultation on tax increases during labour years? Not really, and even if it had, it is still a property rights violation to ask A and B how C’s money should be spent for the benefit of D.

    As regards openness, there are many aspects of government that are deliberately concealed, and many more that are open but never receive any attention from an electorate that is ignorant because their votes cannot count for much.

    “What position do you maintain?”

    Essentially minarchism: an extraordinarily constitutionally limited government, which is only given the right to act to prevent and prosecute after crimes against life, liberty and property.

  14. “Again, you conflate what people say and what people do. Was there, for instance, serious consultation on tax increases during labour years?”

    I’m not sure, but there is certainly a consultation into spending cuts at the moment.

    “As regards openness, there are many aspects of government that are deliberately concealed, and many more that are open but never receive any attention from an electorate that is ignorant because their votes cannot count for much.”

    I’m not sure that would be the reason the electorate was ignorant — if indeed it is in general. You’re right that much of government is still concealed, but the concept of today’s government is built on the idea of legitimate power — with the consent of the electorate — and government has a bad reputation at keeping important secrets. Certainly, I think it’s less efficient than many private institutions.

    “Essentially minarchism: an extraordinarily constitutionally limited government, which is only given the right to act to prevent and prosecute after crimes against life, liberty and property.”

    How far do you go in defining property?

  15. […] class” might not necessarily be a bad thing. Certainly, given that government is supposed to “amplify all of the factors that can cause immoral behaviour”, I see a surprising lack of evidence for this in the criminal justice system here, which has been […]

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