Where Utilitarians Go Wrong

The freedom movement in America today can be divided into two main camps- deontological and utilitarian. The former tends to be in favor of the age old natural rights tradition, while the latter judges the effectiveness of the freedom movement in terms of how much prosperity it leads to. While it is rather easy to adopt the latter position, rooted in the argument that humans naturally tend to judge actions by their effectiveness in improving their own happiness, the utilitarian doctrine has its flaws, and one fundamental flaw in regards to the state.

I should first note that utilitarianism itself has nothing to say in regards to the state or the freedom movement. Cut and dried, utilitarianism is a moral doctrine that simply aims at the maximization of happiness. It says nothing as to how this can be achieved, and to what extent certain political frameworks maximize happiness. One could be an anarchist or a statist and still see that utilitarianism fits within their respective political framework.

Utilitarianism in a voluntaryist framework could certainly oppose the natural rights tradition in the following manner: Individuals will avoid committing crimes not because they fear that they will violate someone’s natural rights, but rather because they will come to realize that committing more crimes leads to an overall decrease in happiness. Thus they will support individualism and non-aggression on the basis that it will help increase overall happiness in society, not because they think that humans have certain inalienable rights. Against the State: An ... Rockwell Jr., Llewelly... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 UTC - Details)

This notion attempts to imply that the idea of natural rights is widely ignored by most people. The implication is that natural rights hold no power to prevent crime, because they are simply only a proclamation of rights, thus the only basis that would encourage people to act in favor of liberty and non-aggression would be one that is utilitarian, i.e., one that would lead to consequences initiated through a “call and response” mechanism. While there are numerous objections one can make towards the notion of natural rights, I will not examine natural rights here.

To gain a better understanding of the utilitarian voluntaryist mindset, let’s examine the historicity (historical authenticity) of the state. It should be noted that the state is a relatively modern conception. To say that any political apparatus in any given time period is a state is rather anachronistic. In reality, the state is a complex order and can’t be defined as adhering to a single plank. Luigi Bassani and Carlo Lottieri have written an excellent essay titled “The Problem of Security: Historicity of the State and European Realism” on the subject of defining the state, considering its historicity.

One characteristic that the state embodies, albeit not the only characteristic that defines it as a state, is the idea of suppressing negative externalities that arise from crime. It is said that crime is a detriment to the whole of society, and hence some sort of scheme ought to be devised to protect the collective population from such negative externalities as fear, potential disorder, accidental chaos, et cetera. Again, utilitarianism itself says nothing in regards to this matter, and certainly not all utilitarians would view the matter in such a way, but it can be reasonably derived that utilitarians would view crime as a societal problem that decreases overall happiness.

One ought to look into the juridical protocols of the middle ages, before the emergence of the state, and see that conflict resolving would be kept strictly to the confines of the parties involved in the conflict. If A committed a crime against B, the administration of justice would be strictly focused on these two parties. Conflicts would be resolved peacefully between the involved parties and no one else. As Luigi Bassani and Carlo Lottieri note, in the middle ages, “redress was done from the point of view of the victims, never of a supposedly wounded collectivity”. Jailing is a common mechanism used to suppress the so called negative crime externality.

Upon examining both the doctrine of utilitarians and the historicity of the state, we see a parallel, i.e., the view that crime would create a negative externality which only brings about disutility to the collective population. Now the issue gets more complicated in the case of the utilitarian voluntaryist. The utilitarian voluntaryist would likely view the state as overall anti-utilitarian, i.e., the benefit derived from it’s suppression of the crime externality does not exceed the costs inflicted on society through other state programs. He will thus not condone the state.

The main point I want to underscore through this analysis is that the connection between utilitarianism and the historicity of the state creates a very murky foundation for the freedom movement. While utilitarianism itself is again not directly linked to the idea of the state being a suppressor of the crime externality, it is reasonable to say that some utilitarians would see the state as beneficial based on this premise. If the utilitarian voluntaryist saw a reason to condone the state, no matter how small the scope of intervention, this could bring in many unwarranted interventions. There would simply be nothing to safeguard the rights of individuals at all times, in the longer term.