We Need the State... Otherwise, Something Bad Might Happen!

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

I have noticed that people often attempt to justify the existence of the State by bringing up some place or some activity where there was little or no government at work and pointing out that, at some point, something bad happened. For example, in reviewing The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche, in Sunday’s (5/16/2004) NY Times, Nathaniel Philbrick offers a couple of examples of such "reasoning." He describes the sea as a zone of "anarchy" with "almost no regulation" by governments. Then he describes two severe mishaps suffered by ocean-going vessels, one of which "released 26,000 tons of molasses into the Bay of Biscay." (Can you imagine how much trouble those fish had getting their mouths unstuck?) "There you are," the reader is clearly supposed to conclude, "not enough government involvement, and next thing you know, something bad happened."

One of the incidents cited by Philbrick occurred in 1994, the other in 2001. I suppose the reader should be imagining that they were two of the, oh, ten or twenty ships to venture out to sea during that period. And surely, while absorbing Philbrick’s sage lesson, he is not supposed to think of transportation by motor vehicle, an arena where the government builds and maintains the roads, regulates the construction of the vehicles, licenses the operators, creates tomes of laws as to how the activity is to be conducted, and sends out swarms of its agents to ensure its dictates are followed, but that is characterized by daily carnage, horrible traffic snarls, terrible road conditions, and frequent, unanticipated delays costing travelers many hours.

Philbrick also warns of "the notion that terrorists are learning to exploit the opportunities offered by the sea." In 2001, he mentions, it was suspected "that a ship containing a large chemical bomb was on its way to London." Nothing happened and no such ship was tracked down, so here we have a case where there was not enough government involvement, and something bad might have happened. Again, I assume we aren’t supposed to recall that when something really, really bad did happen, it involved the extensively regulated airline industry.

But Philbrick is hardly alone in forwarding such arguments. When I mentioned to a friend of mine that I am an anarchist, he brought up the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which killed 146 women: not enough government, and something bad happened. Certainly it was a horrible event, making any of the tragedies caused by governments, such as the Armenian genocide, the Ukrainian famine, the rape of Nanking, the Bataan death march, the Holocaust, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnam War, and the killing fields of Cambodia, pale in comparison. The logic is flawless: when a private business accidentally kills 146 people, we need to increase the power of the government, an entity that deliberately kills millions.

I have sometimes encountered a variation on the "something bad might happen" argument that is even more puzzling than the standard form: the government was involved in some events, and something bad happened, so we need the government or else that bad thing might happen. You might think that no one could even formulate such an obvious absurdity, so I will give you two real examples.

The first one came up when a friend of mine mentioned that he was skeptical that the American entry into World War II was justified. The person to whom he said that sputtered in response: "And what? We were supposed to just let six million Jews die?" My friend was stopped dead in his tracks, utterly unable to grapple with a line of reasoning that seemed to run: "The US government entered World War II, and six million Jews died, so the US government had to enter the war, or else six million Jews would have died, who did die anyway."

Similarly, when I told a person with whom I was conversing that I believe government is unnecessary, he asked me, "Well, would you rather have governments or terrorists?" He really seemed to believe he had presented me with a stark alternative: do away with government, as I was suggesting, and we’ll have a world where people fly airplanes into skyscrapers, bring down large buildings with car bombs, and strap explosives to their bodies, then blow themselves up on a bus, killing scores of innocent passengers. Jeez, when you put it that way, I guess we’d really better keep government around, so we can live in a nice, safe world where none of those things ever happen.

The fact that otherwise intelligent people put forward such nonsense demonstrates just how thoroughly the State has done its job of brainwashing – oops, I mean educating – its subjects as to the dire consequences they will face should they try getting along without it.

May 18, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com.

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