Is Government a "Necessary Evil"?

Bob Murphy claims "Thus, the average person defends the existence of the State not for principled reasons but instead as the lesser of two evils."

This is true only by equivocating on the meaning of "the lesser of two evils."

In one sense, we use the phrase all the time for things we don't really think are evil, but that, if reality were different, and they became unnecessary, we would not engage in just for the heck of it. So, one might say "working out is the lesser of two evils" (when compared to getting fat and out of shape), or "paying those hospital bills is the lesser of two evils" (compared to dying of a heart attack). In cases like these, the person using the phrase "the lesser of two evils" does not actually think that exercising or paying for medical treatments are evil at all. The phrase is merely a rhetorical device indicating that if the speaker thought he could get the benefits of X without bothering with X, he would do so. So, if he found a magical way to stay in shape without exercise, or a doctor who would treat him for free, he would pick those options over exercising or paying the doctor. In fact, given the nature of reality, exercising and paying for medical services are positively good things. They just are not pleasant things.

The other sense of the phrase indicates that one is stuck with two possibilities, both of which one considers to be actually evil: for instance, one believes one is faced with the choice of bombing the site of a nuclear weapon, killing innocent people nearby in the process, or allowing a nuclear launch from that site to destroy in major city, killing far more people.

If the average person says government is "the lesser of two evils," they clearly mean it in the first sense: if they magically could have civil peace without having to pay taxes, they would prefer that to civil peace plus taxes. But not being in the thrall of an ideology, the average person is sensible enough to recognize that without a government, there is no civil peace. Given the nature of reality, government is not a "lesser evil," it is a positive good.

13 comments:

  1. Surely Bob must mean that people have misjudged the nature of reality and that the state is not actually the positive good they think it is when they make their "the lesser of two evils" judgement?

    If exercising actually destroyed her health then the person claiming "it is the lesser of two evils" would change her mind when they realized the truth.

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    1. Rob, did you actually bother reading Bob's piece before claiming what he "surely" must mean? Because he clearly means that people ACTUALLY acknowledge that government is evil, but think it is necessary nonetheless.

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    2. OK, Joe, stop posting comments after drinking so much whiskey. Your last one was not even coherent.

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    3. Where in his article (beyond the quote under discussion) does he say (or imply) that people really think the govt is evil but support it anyway ?

      My reading of the article is that people support the state because they think it is keeping them safer - and Bob clearly thinks they are mistaken in this belief.

      To quote: "However, even on its own, narrow terms, the standard defense of the State is empirically false. It is simply not true that the existence of a large institution that centralizes the provision of military defense, keeps society safer. "

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    4. Oh, I see Bob just settled this discussion in your favor. Damn !

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    5. He says that they do not support it for "principled reasons," i.e. it is agsinst their principles, i.e. they think it is actually evil. Bob himself assured me that is what he thought in comments on his blog.

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  2. "Thus, the average person defends the existence of the State not for principled reasons but instead as the lesser of two evils."

    This seems like a strange claim to make in a country like the US, where there is so much patriotism and people have such reverence for things such as the Constitution, the flag etc. (This is what it looks like to a foreigner at least).

    Maybe Bob thinks that the State is not the same thing as the organized political community referred to as 'The United States of America', with its Constitution, its flag, etc?

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  3. Gene surely you should link to my slipshod arguments!

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  4. "My reading of the article is that people support the state because they think it is keeping them safer..."

    No s$&t Sherlock. Despite the fact they think it is an evil, they think it keeps them safer, so they support its existence.

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    1. So why does Bob say in his most recent post:

      http://consultingbyrpm.com/blog/2014/06/is-the-state-more-like-a-gym-or-an-army.html#comment-617481

      'If you said out of nowhere, “Is your government evil by its very nature?” probably most would say, “No"'

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  5. Perhaps you ought to write Bob a note and tell him that "surely" he is wrong about what he meant when he wrote this.

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    1. Well, If the aim of his original post was to make the point that he thinks most people think the state is evil but support it anyway.
      then I surely don't think he did a good job of making that point.

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