There Is No Such Thing As A Do-Good State

If enough people contribute voluntarily to the cause of food stamps, then there is no rationale for the U.S. government to force unwilling persons to pay for its program. On the other hand, if not enough people are willing to contribute voluntarily, then why should the U.S. government force unwilling people to pay for it?

The answer we will get is that feeding people is a good cause, just as sending soldiers and jets to Poland is a good cause in the eyes of many. And if people are unwilling to support these good causes, then the argument goes that the government must force them to support them. This is an argument in support of a do-good state.

The immediate objection to the do-good state is that it is not universalizable. There are all sorts of good causes, and they vary with the persons who regard them as good. The state can’t adopt all of these causes. It cannot even decide which ones are better than others. The state certainly cannot force all those causes it decides are good upon everyone without undermining the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its citizens. Let us lay aside this objection, because in the real world we know that governments do adopt a menu of causes that they claim are good causes. They may be acting inconsistently, irrationally, partially and destructively but the idea of the do-good state still has a strong hold on many people.

According to the do-good state argument, one of the state’s purposes is to find good causes that people will not voluntarily support and then to force them to pay for these causes. This purpose is never stated as baldly as this, but it is an accurate characterization. The argument presumes that each person doesn’t know enough to find out or support what that person conceives to be good, but those people who operate the state do have this knowledge. It presumes that persons left to make their own decisions will make inferior or wrong decisions, so that their decision-making capabilities must be abridged by the superior state. In this view, the state is a do-gooder, like a parent that makes children do various things for their own good. In this concept of the paternal state, those who operate the state, its officials and lawmakers, decide what is good. They decide how much to take from citizens to accomplish the good and they decide how to distribute the takings among a menu of causes that they think are good causes.

I think that the preceding is a fair statement of some of the presumptions that underlie the do-good state. I’d go further, however. In the do-good idea of the state, there are superior human beings who run the state and there are inferior human beings who do what these superior beings tell them to do. It is a master-slave relationship that, in this view, is justified by the good that it accomplishes, that good being always what the superior beings see it as and say it is.

I will argue that there is, in reality, no such thing as a do-good state. I will argue that the state’s monopoly power conflicts with and precludes its being a do-good state as any kind of general outcome.

However, the masters of the state do not see it this way. They justify their positions by telling the slaves that they are often or even always listening to them and heeding their collective or majority wishes and that they can always choose different masters as long as they leave untouched the powers of this select group. The slaves are told to be satisfied because they have democracy and they are the real masters. But if it were really true that the masters obeyed the wishes of the slaves, this would mean that the slaves in fact can identify good causes for themselves. Who needs the masters then? And if it’s really true that the collective or majority determines what the government decides is good and uses its power to implement, then this only means that the actual masters consist of an unidentifiable and shifting group of voters. One may be a slave with respect to one cause and a master with respect to another. Just because one’s masters are a more diffuse and hard-to-identify group than if they were all sitting on Capitol Hill doesn’t mitigate one’s status of being a slave. These democratic rationales peddled by the masters and by professors of political science do not take the sting out of being a slave.

In practice, most states nowadays are not completely totalitarian. This is not because they don’t want to be totalitarian. They do want complete control, as is shown by many proposed laws. However, they don’t pass certain laws because they’d face too much resistance from the citizens. Before increasing their control, they need to prepare the citizens for it. This is why they do not immediately presume to remove all decision rights from their citizens. They let them choose many actions themselves, such as food, clothing, location, recreation, mates, sex partners, etc. Still, behind the scenes, they use power to alter the menus and to influence choices. Most states are partially totalitarian, and this still gives them plenty of current power over major areas of human decision-making, including law-making, administration of justice, health, education, welfare, the military, agriculture, energy, communications, transportation, commerce, industry, the workplace, one’s associations, and so on. Individual decision rights are replaced by collective decision rights, which actually means decision rights of those who run the state. All of this existing control gives the state the leverage to increase the degree of totalitarian control. It might conceivably awaken enough consciousness and resistance among the citizens that they alter the balance of power.

All can agree, be they those who support the state as a do-gooder organization or those who think the state embodies a master-slave relationship, that the state claims a monopoly power over citizens; that the state seeks to maintain this power and to impose it on citizens; and that the state has a high degree of success in achieving this objective. In a word, all can agree that the state is POWER, and it seeks to be the final and legitimate word on power in its domain.

In view of human nature and human failings and the monopoly character of the state’s power, which even its supporters do not deny, can the concept of the state as a do-gooder state be valid? No, it can’t possibly be valid. Even if power is considered very narrowly, problems emerge. Defense is one such narrow area. The proper use of power for defensive purposes to enforce rights is not something for which there is clarity or agreement among all human beings. Details of cases vary. Ideas vary about what is right and wrong. Definitions of aggression vary. Ideas of remedies vary. Even if a state is restricted to matters of crime, wrongdoings and justice, its having a monopoly power is questionable. The power to settle issues with finality is one value that the state brings to the table, but the actual content of justice is another value that is very important. When the state has the monopoly power over justice, the content of justice can easily be sacrificed to the finality. This occurs because with power justices can make decisions based on their idiosyncratic ideas. They can also make decisions that cater to private interests and factions and not to justice. Will they do so? What’s to restrain them? Many government courts have very weak institutional mechanisms of restraint. In such circumstances, justice is unlikely to conform even to the do-good ideas that the proponents of the do-good state support. Even if the doing of good by the state is limited to the provision of justice, the monopoly power aspect of the state conflicts with providing justice.

The conflicts between doing good and monopoly power rise rapidly when the state curtails the decision rights of its citizens in all those many broader matters relating to their associations with others (or their exchanges with one another) and absorbs them as its own. It is human nature to seek to use the state’s powers for one’s own ends and devices. It is human nature for those who operate the state to seek to extend its powers. These forces cause the state’s actions to deviate from the many and varied conceptions of what a do-good state should be doing.

It is a pervasive human limitation to be operating with partial knowledge and uncertainty. Every presumption of the do-gooder state is questionable, even if monopoly power were not the important issue that it is. The do-gooders in general have no special insight that enables them to identify the good better than their millions and millions of individual subjects can. The do-gooder rulers are influenced by their own tastes, their own limited knowledge of history, their own ideas of right and wrong, their own ideas of good and bad, their own ambitions, their colleagues, their emotions, not to mention the interest groups that lobby them.

What is clear about the state, to everyone, is that the state is power. What is not clear among those who fancy the do-good state is that this power does not imply that it can be used systematically to do good or will be used systematically to do good. The opposite is more apt to be the case. As a rule, the state’s power can’t be and won’t be used to do good. As a rule, the masters who run the state won’t be able to identify the good of their subjects, that good being highly individual and varying from person to person. By removing decision rights from the citizens, they will impede economic calculation, prevent adaptation to changing prices and conditions, and undermine learning. Complex processes will be replaced by the simplistic decisions of the state’s operatives. Their prioritization of the many conflicting possibilities will not be resolved and cannot be resolved by reference to the good of the subjects. They will use political and personal calculations. Consequently, the state can not and will not do the good that the do-good state is conceived of as doing by its proponents. Instead, as a rule, it will be a do-bad state.

There is no such thing as an exceptional state, one whose rulers avoid the personal failings of all human beings, who consistently identify what is good and right, and who are capable of bringing it about. The state’s monopoly power has to result in their being selected and operating otherwise than as people who can or will do good. The state’s monopoly power conditions the outcome, which is the state’s being a do-bad state, not a do-good state.