Government and Self-Interest

Why the state is more than a "necessary evil"

There are any number of justifications for the human creation of government. Some emphasize the benefits of collaborative effort, some the protection afforded the weaker members, and some offer other arguments. However, for the most part, such arguments ignore one simple truth, or, even go beyond ignoring it and actively deny it. That topic is the self-interest found, not just in living in a social setting, but in actively following the rules of such a society. Far too often we hear society dismissed as a “necessary evil”, which completely overlooks the fact that government, for all the potential for abuse, is actually to the benefit of those who live under it.

Let us look at the question on the most basic of levels. There is clearly a benefit to living in groups, thus I do not think I need to make that argument. However, how shall such a society function? Who will be allowed to take what actions? What interests will be protected?

Obviously, each individual would like best the state which placed absolutely no limits on his actions, allowing him to take what he wanted, do what he wanted, while at the same time protecting him, and his property against the rest of society. Essentially, everyone would like to be a despot. But, excluding a few exceedingly rare circumstances, it is unlikely others would agree to such a situation. For the most part, people demand symmetry, and what is protected for me will also be protected for them. Thus, our question is, is it more beneficial to retain absolute freedom, at the expense of granting others the same? Or is it more beneficial to enjoy the collective protection of my life and property at the expense of having to respect the lives and property of others?

I like to think the answer is self-evident, that no matter how much I could conceivably steal, no matter how inclined I might be to do others harm, given a single individual, the theft and injury he could do would be far outweighed by the harm the collective could do to him. Thus, assuming social living is beneficial, it only makes sense to organize it along lines which protect individual rights to life and property in a uniform way. It is not a necessary evil, it is a valuable tool allowing people to live communally and enjoy all the benefits of social existence.

Some will argue that my case above is not universal, certain “strong” individuals may benefit from living outside the law, that they are powerful enough they could garner more benefit from robbing society than they would suffer harm. It is a case one hears from time to time, even in a few cases from professionals in political theory. However, I would argue the case, while perhaps superficially plausible, is far from the truth.

The most obvious case against it is to simply consider one man and one hundred men. No matter how strong, how well armed — even assuming Chuck Norris with an arsenal of machine guns — the one man is unlikely to be able to defeat the hundred in combat. But even that is but one aspect of the picture. This overlooks some simple facts. Our one man needs to sleep. So do our hundreds, but they need not all sleep at once. Thus, it would be simplicity itself for our hundred to avoid the vagaries of combat and simply steal back their possessions when the thief slept, or perhaps poison him, or smother him. A single individual, reliant upon himself alone, is at a tremendous disadvantage facing even a small handful of individuals.

And we see this in the case of historical outlaws. While the outlaw is traditionally depicted as a loner, reliant solely upon himself, in the vast majority of cases, those living outside the law tended to operate in gangs, offsetting the numeric advantage of society. Or, to look at it a bit differently, they were not “outside society”, they were simply members of a smaller alternate societal grouping, a fact which also makes a strong case for the benefits of social existence, that even those rejecting the strictures of society find no recourse other than forming a rival society of their own.

Why does this matter?

First, because it makes a strong case for respecting individual rights. One of the principle benefits of forming a society is to be found in the mutual recognition of rights to person and property. Whatever I might sacrifice in terms of freedoms I more than regain in terms of protection. Thus, my recognition of others’ rights is not founded in some abstraction, but rather in the concrete gains enjoyed by the mutual recognition of such rights.

Second, it is beneficial because far too often the case is made for society in terms of those aforementioned abstract ethical principles. Such arguments are fine, and perfectly valid, but they lack the immediacy of self-interest. So long as society is nothing but a moral obligation, a necessary evil we must uphold for reasons which provide no clear benefit, there will be a tendency to see the state as an enemy, to dream of a blessed anarchic state, and to fail to see what the proper role of the state is, since a state which is a necessary evil would clearly have no proper role.

But, if the state is something we join out of self-interest, if it has a rational purpose and we can assess the benefit it provides, then we can view the state in terms of its costs and benefits, assess which functions are essential to maintain that state, and which are superfluous or even harmful. Thus, it is in our interest to see the state, not as some evil imposed upon us because we are imperfect, but as a beneficial tool for organizing human affairs, which, though often abused, is still irreplaceable and capable of providing us with valuable service.

NOTE: The arguments in this essay were taken, in part, from my old blog posts “A Rational Approach to Punishment“, “The State of Nature and Man’s Rights” , “The Benefit of Society“, “A Beast’s Life“, “Learning From Crows“, “Knights and Bandits“, “The All or Nothing Mistake“, “Of Ants and Men“, “Fair or Functional” and “Caution, Not Fear“.

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About Andrew Sherrod 15 Articles
I believe government is not a "necessary evil", but rather a tool, just one that is very often misused. It should be kept small, and more importantly, local.