Government Action

I'm often amazed at how little most people think of suggesting that the government should do/fund this or that. It's possible, I suppose, that all of these people have spent a lot of time thinking about the question of what the government is or is not justified in doing, and have concluded that the government should pretty much play the universal Mommy and Daddy and do whatever seems best for us. But I'm not optimistic about that - I doubt that most people put much thought into the question of justification.

An example of this often comes up in discussions when one person is questioning whether or not we are justified in using force/coercion to do something thing or another, and the other person flippantly replies with something like "Oh, you mean doing X through taxation?"

The implication, of course, is that collecting taxes to feed the poor or do research or fund a war is no big deal - governments tax people, and that's just the way things are. But this is a pretty obvious fallacy. People who make such statements are appealing to convention to support justification. But convention isn't relevant. Convention means people are so used to something that they don't bother to question it; it doesn't mean that the activity in question is actually justified.

Supporting some program through taxation is supporting it through force. That's clear enough if you take a second to think about it. People have to pay taxes or they'll be forcibly jailed; if they resist, they'll be attacked and possibly killed.

That doesn't mean that taxation is automatically unjustified, but it really should make you think a little more before casually suggesting that the government fund this or that. The idea that a suggestion of the use of force automatically calls for justification (as opposed to the alternative of not using force) seems pretty universal - that's one of the underlying assumptions behind any kind of political philosophy that aims to explain why a government of whatever form is justified.

The Distant Hand of Uncle Sam

I also get the impression that people are comfortable suggesting the use of force to support various programs because that force is exercised through some immense, faceless entity - the government.

Let's take social security as an example - though any other will work as well. How many people, I have to wonder, who now support social security would still support it if they had to establish and keep it running through force they had to exercise themselves?

Imagine we were in a very small society - consider a town of 10,000 or so as a microcosm of our entire actual society. In this town, some people decide that a social security type program would be a good idea, to care for people who don't save up for retirement or get disabled and have no savings or disability insurance.

Maybe there's a pretty strong majority who think this would be a good idea - three out of four people, so 7,500 in the town of 10,000. There are two obvious paths for implenting this program. The first would be privately - it could be an opt-in program that only covered people who paid into it (a sort of collective insurance), or a more general charity program funded by whoever was willing to fund it and that covered everyone. The alternative is a mandatory public program - everyone has to pay into it, whether they like the idea or not.

Chances are, the mandatory program will cost less. People who have been saving up for retirement and paying for disability insurance probably aren't going to want to hand out more money. So if the program was optional, many of the people with the most money won't want to join. Most of the people who would benefit probably will. So the opt-in program would have a lot of people who needed money and not that many people who could provide it. The same would go for the optional charity program - there would be even less benefit for the people who could afford it, so there would be even fewer people putting money in and even more people who needed that money.

Because most people who support such a program would rather pay less than more, chances are they would prefer a program in which everyone has to participate. The only way to accomplish this would be through the use of force.

So, if we imagine that there is no distant faceless government to do the dirty duty for them, the people who want the program to be mandatory are going to have to enforce it. They will have to personally approach the 2,500 people who don't want to be involved in the program. They will have to personally demand: "Give me y amount of money for our social security program. If you don't give it to me, I'm going to lock you up in a jail cell. If you won't go voluntarily, I will use force to put you there. If you fight back, I will attack and possibly kill you."

I'm sure there will be some hard-liners who would be willing to do that. But I suspect that a good many of the rest would think twice about any sort of mandatory program.

The real-life application? I would suggest that we do this same thought experiment for any program we would argue that the government should support. It's the same force being used in real life, even though we get to sit back and have hired hands do it for us. If we're going to hold the position that some program is important enough for mandatory public funding, we had darn well better have a strong justificatory argument for it.

What do YOU think?
Click Here to join the discussion!

Get your blog listed on my main page! by linking to this post. How do you do it? Click here to find out.

I'll add you to my Blogroll if you Blogroll Me!

End Page