On Evil Acts

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Events such as the massacre at Virginia Tech set off national discussions on the problem of evil. There are two aspects to this: moral and social. Another way to put it is: how does such an impulse come to reside in a particular person and unleash itself in ghastly ways? The part that impacts on politics and economics is the second consideration: how can we as a society best deal with the problem of evil?

I begin with this distinction because discussion of this issue conflates the two. For example, we might say that the propensity toward evil is quite minimal and limited. Therefore, the conclusion runs, we don’t need drastic changes in the way we deal with it. Maybe we need background checks for handguns, better counseling services, more attentive administrators who spot problems before they get out of control.

This is generally the way the mainstream (also called “liberalism” in our times) deals with the problem. Several commissions will be established to look into the Virginia Tech matter, and they will all conclude that mostly people did what they were supposed to do, but people might make some effort to do it even more and better. That conclusion is the usual one, but it is profoundly unsatisfying.

The other position is that human evil is ubiquitous. Sometimes it rears its head in overt and super-bloody ways, but make no mistake: the appearance of normalcy is always an illusion. Life is, at its core, brutal and shocking. People are depraved in every way, whether they show it or not.

This is the thinking of the group generally known as conservatives. And what do they suggest? That we always and everywhere prepare for total war. Whether we are speaking of Virginia Tech or international politics, society must be armed to the teeth and people must be relentlessly roughed up and scared straight, or else society crumbles. This probably means that we need more jack-booted thugs and more decisive wars to give the enemy the what-for. And let’s hear nothing from the wimps who doubt the need for torture and prison without trial as policy options.

This is roughly the way the political factions break down when faced with violence, massacres, terrorism, and the like.

Both socio-political perspectives are wrong because they claim to flow from an evaluation of the human soul that may or may not be right. What if, for example, the mainstream perspective is actually wrong, and evil in fact lurks all around us, and every third person really is a potential terrorist? Small reforms to the existing system won’t fix the problem. Certainly “background checks” for ownership of guns are useless under these conditions.

And what if the conservative position of total depravity turns out to put totally depraved people in charge of running the system that is supposed to protect us against evil? That only magnifies the problem. In fact, I’ve never understood the people who claim that the universal pervasiveness of human evil means that we need a strong state. What guarantee do we have that the people who run the state will be less evil than those who are run by the state? If people are irredeemably corrupt, don’t we have even more reason to reduce the chance that evil people will get hold of the mechanisms of power?

In any case, the problem with both positions is that they start with an assumption about human nature and then launch into a socio-political analysis. What we really need is a system of social organization and political management that creates the best possible environment for human thriving regardless of man’s propensity toward evil. Whether men are angels or devils should not matter. The system we favor should keep devils at bay and allow angels to flourish, and somehow be able to tell the difference and deal with it when they change roles.

In the case of Virginia Tech or any other institution, there must be some way in place to protect against violence in the future. But that system needs to be carefully calibrated to match the level of danger. Otherwise, we end up with the current situation in airports in which the official policy assumes that every single passenger is a likely terrorist. Every person is investigated inside and out. And yet even the investigators know that this is going too far, and therefore they become lax and the system eventually fails.

The problem is that we don’t know in advance precisely what level of risk is present in any given situation or when or how the problem of human evil will show its face. So it does no good to turn society into a prison camp, nor does it makes sense to be naïve about evil and therefore at its mercy when it does appear.

There is only one system of social organization that strives daily for a more perfect way of identifying the problem of evil, assessing its likelihood, and curbing it as much as humanly possible, and that is the competitive market economy rooted in the private ownership and control of property.

Matching security to risk is a very complicated undertaking, so firms work with insurance companies to discover the right means. Clearly, a convenience store in a violent East Coast urban environment is going to need more protection than even a fancy jewelry store in a Midwest suburb. Customers would think the owner was nuts if they encountered bulletproof glass in a 7-Eleven in Sheridan, Wyoming, but this is the norm in the Bronx. Of course firms make errors, but competitive pressure drives them always to adjust security to match the facts as they know them.

For this reason, it is not enough to say that Virginia Tech ought to ban guns or ought to arm students and teachers. Neither solution is necessarily right. One can imagine that some universities might not want students to carry sidearms. For other places, this might be just great and even essential for putting parents at ease. Which is the right solution? Only when such decisions are left to private owners and the competitive marketplace can we know for sure. One-size-fits-all doesn’t work any better in security provision than in clothing.

With the market, there are many decisions that we as a society do not have to make collectively but instead we make them individually as buyers. We do not have to decide collectively what cars to drive, what websites to visit, or what food to eat. So it is with security. And so it is with the problem of human evil. We do not have to side with either liberals or conservatives. We only need to say that whatever is the intrinsic nature of man, the market will find the best possible means to deal with it, and whatever the outcome of that market process, it cannot be made better by involving the state.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty.

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