So we’ve been discussing the proper role of the state on this blog recently, particularly as it relates to the legalization of marijuana. This discussion, in all of its unfortunate snarkiness and nastiness (to which I freely admit having contributed, not that I’m proud of it) is really a discussion on the proper role of the state.
I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory. We begin with the proposition that everyone has basic natural rights: to life, liberty, and property. In a hypothetical scenario in which there is no coercive authority (the state/government), we must also act as our own judge, jury and executioner. In this anarchic situation, our rights to life, liberty and property are unsecured. In order to secure them, we collectively renounce our right to be our own personal government and transfer that right to a government we establish by contract. Our property – life, liberty and estate – is more valuable and necessary for life than our “right” to do as we please, when we please, to whomever we please.
The terms of the contract are rather simple. They are stated very simply in the Declaration of Independence. Governments exist to protect our natural rights. They don’t exist to make us “better people” – that’s what the Church is for. They don’t exist in order to achieve “social justice” – that is what private charity and free markets are for. The individual American states were founded by people of like-minds who wanted to establish communities that reflected their religious values - Pennsylvania for Quakers, Maryland for Catholics, and so on. The Constitution was created by the states mostly for the purposes of common security.
Government is not a positive good. It is an evil necessary to prevent the greater evils that would result from total anarchy. As such, it must be kept on the tightest of all possible leashes, which is why so many Americans demanded a Bill of Rights as a condition for the ratification of the Constitution. If men in a state of anarchy would be evil, they don’t suddenly become angels because we give them titles, badges, and offices. The evil in our hearts is the evil in their hearts, and the greater the scope and depth of the powers we give to governments, the greater potential for evil we establish.
This is all the more true when governments are run by people who don’t believe in natural rights at all, and who likely, if they believe what is academically fashionable, don’t believe in free will and the dignity that attends it. It is all the more true when they are run by people who don’t believe in, or seem to understand, the concept of private property, and who consequently believe that their role is to decide how much of our own labor we are allowed to keep for ourselves. It is the absolute worst when it is run by people who believe it is their mission, divine or self-appointed, to save people from themselves – to rule and use coercive force for people’s “own good” in the manner of a parent to a child who doesn’t yet have the use of reason.
We are entitled to personal liberty within the limits of other people’s rights because we have souls, because we do have free will, the use of reason, and therefore the inherent capability to choose our own path in life, and in this our dignity as human beings lies. There is no practical or consequentialist argument that can override this basic fact about human nature, because it was established by God Himself.
None of this entails an endorsement of immoral and anti-social behavior. Moreover, I don’t object to local communities placing severe restrictions on individual liberty, provided that individuals are free to leave at any time. A monastery is a good example of what I have in mind: it is voluntarily formed, it is a life of rigorous discipline, and no coercive force keeps a man in it. He submits his own will to a higher rule of life. A workers cooperative is another example. So are the American colonies I mentioned previously. Voluntary collectivism (particularly in the service of God) may be our highest calling as individuals, but involuntary collectivism is among the most degrading things we can possibly be subjected to.
We don’t have to fit the textbook definitions of a communist or fascist state to experience what it is like to have our dignity violated either. We can have pockets of vicious totalitarianism alongside pockets of ideal liberty and natural order. We can walk around the streets freely while possibly being guilty of one of tens of thousands of obscure federal crimes that no one has ever heard of, until the unfortunate day that the government finds a reason to look. We can quietly work and pay taxes to fund activities that none of us would ever morally approve of and some of which we find horrifying. We can get by, because no matter how bad “it” gets, “it” can’t happen here – right?
Believe that if you like. But don’t talk about the law as if it as anything other than violent coercion. In order to secure our rights, I’m willing to say that some violent coercion is necessary. Beyond that, there had better be a darned good reason. Saving people from themselves (and punishing moderate users indiscriminately), bringing “democracy” to people who never asked for it (with drones and depleted uranium), and achieving “social justice” (i.e. radical egalitarianism) are not good reasons. That’s why I’ll always vote for the most libertarian candidate in the field.
So I’ll get this out of the way too: Rand Paul 2016!
PLEASE NOTE: Let’s try to keep it civil below. Snark is unavoidable I suppose, but insults will simply be thrown in the trash.