Friday, September 30, 2005

scaling up: the government on behalf of society

1. The unspoken assumption that Daniel tries to bring to light and confront in his opinion piece is that governments are a morally justifiable way to get people to do good things and to keep them from doing bad things. He frames the government as a political entity of force and coercion. To make his point Daniel scales down the concept of taxation for the poor to a single interpersonal relationship.

Someone might argue that to scale moral issues up or down changes the content of the dilemma (e.g., two people fighting is a different moral issue than the justification of two armies going to war). Wacome wonders if this belief is simply arbitrary.

But consider murder, the unjustified taking of someone's life. If one woman kills another woman, it's murder. But if the murderer is put onto trial and is sentenced to death, we consider this a different sort of act than murder. Hopefully even someone who thinks that governments unjustly kill when they enforce a death penalty, sees this act as somehow having more reasons and more legitimacy within society--at least in general people do seem to give the government more legitimacy in these matters, in a way that cannot be scaled up or down.

That is because, at least in a republic, we see the government not only as a political entity (dealing with the military, borders, diplomacy) but also as a speaker for society. We must give reasons to society for our behavior and we all work together to decide what it is our society stands for. The government works as a service to society. So to give one's money over to the government is not the same as giving one's money to any stranger on the street, it is to give it to the greater good of society. And, seeing that all the property we do have comes from society, it is really giving back a little to society via the government for its betterment.

Exactly how this is done is a different question and there perhaps are better ways to work toward an equal and fair society. Tax exemption is a good way of letting people choose where they put their money instead of just letting it go to some general fund; in this way society promotes charity and philanthropy, especially among the very wealthy.

2. Nevertheless, I do agree that society cannot make people do the right things for the right reasons, especially live according to the gospel. There is a force behind society that makes sure people act certain ways but there are many 'forces' around us that shape us and direct us.

In one way of looking at things, I was forced to learn English as a child, I was forced to live in a family, I was forced to walk on two legs, I was forced to live as an American citizen. Well, yes, forces do impose themselves on us continually but we do not think that all force is inherently bad, right? The forces of nature have shaped our entire species but we don't think that it would've been better if we had been radically free immaterial souls. So why then, as members of a society, do we think that society is bad for forcing us to abide by rules that lead to the betterment of all its members? We should not be upset that we might have to give reasons for breaking the rules of society and that, while in our own minds giving our money to support a war may be morally wrong, we can still say that if society throws us into jail for tax evasion society is still acting fairly and properly.

[I'd like to make a note that these comments are for the sake of argument, worthy to be considered, but not my own position.]


Blogger wacome said...

A liberal response to Pseudo-Ryan:

1. I read Daniel’s (classically) liberal epistle not as baring the assumption that governments are a morally justifiable way to get people to do good things and to keep them from doing bad things, but that when they do so they are not subject to the same moral constraints as individuals.

2. Suppose--implausibly, I’d say, but for the sake of argument--that a government is morally justified in executing a murderer. The only basis on which this could be true is if individual persons would be morally justified in doing this, in the absence of government. The liberal (i.e. Lockean) tradition says that if Daniel does certain kinds of morally bad acts, then Ryan is morally justified (and in some cases obligated) to punish him, but there are moral constraints on Ryan’s attempts to do so. He’s obligated to make a serious effort to ascertain that Daniel is really guilty, and not, say because of the heat of anger or personal bias, to punish him more severely than his crime warrants. The difficulty of adhering to these moral constraints are among the “inconveniences of the state of nature,” which individuals acting in consort with others reasonably assign to hired legislators, investigators, and enforcers, i.e. thy create governments. But the moral rights of a government are simply the rights that, in principle, everyone has. When governments are brought into existence they bring no new moral rights with them. Thus the idea that government derives its powers from the people. The liberal rejects the idea that in virtue of being an agent of a government someone (magically?) acquires a moral dispensation to do things to people that individuals lack. In the end, having a government is like hiring a night watchman, a bodyguard, a private detective, etc. and assigning them the task of defending you and other innocents, but subject to exactly the same moral restrictions under which you find yourself. Out of moral concern,we freely agree provisionally to give up some of our rights to act against wrongdoers, agreeing to let others do that for us.

We should regard a state execution as more legitimate than a privately enacted punishment of the same sort, but only on the assumption that the state takes greater care to punish justly. On the supposition that it is sometimes morally permissible to punish by killing, an individual who takes proper pains to kill the right person for the right reason kills but does not murder; agents of a government who execute someone without taking those pains are murderers.

3. The liberal, with an actual government in view, might say: I’ve never given any money to this government, though a good bit has been taken from me on pain of violent reprisals if I didn’t!

4. The liberal says: having a legitimate government is precisely like hiring a person off the street to take care of matters of one’s defense, and the defense of others, against wrongdoers. Actual, i.e. illegitimate, governments, are to one degree or another exactly like hired servants who go berserk and enslave their masters.

5. The liberal says: None of my property comes from “society.” All of it came my way because some other individual freely chose to give something to me, either out of the goodness of his heart, or in exchange for some service on my part. (In general, the liberal is deeply skeptical of any attribution of agency to “society;” societies don’t do things, individual persons do things.)

6. The liberal strenuously objects to blurring the distinction between being forced to do something, i.e. being coerced by means of violence, and being “forced” to do something in the sense of having no reasonable alternative to a particular course of action. If, after he gets his Ph.D., I offer Daniel $2/week to bathe my cats and this is the best employment opportunity he can find, I am not forcing him to work for (only) $2/week. Perhaps there is some other moral objection to my refusing to pay him more than this when I could, but to describe my salary offer as “force” is to empty that term of its moral significance. The liberal properly refuses to describe mutually voluntary, and thus in the participants’ estimation mutually beneficial, arrangements between consenting adults, as instances of coercion.

7. Pseudo-Ryan writes, “ members of a society, do we think that society is bad for forcing us to abide by rules that lead to the betterment of all its members?” The liberal answer is that it is morally wrong for anyone to initiate the use of violence, and that we are morally obligated to refrain from using violent force except against those who themselves initiate it. (In this regard liberalism is a limited form, and arguably the only morally acceptable form, of pacifism. But I’ll leave that for another post.) Possibly, some of the things governments claim to be doing for “the good of society” really would be good for lots of people, and really are being done. (Neither should be taken at face value.) And in some instances an individual might have a moral obligation to act for “the good of society” in this sense, and to do as a government demands. Further, in at least some cases we are morally obligated to try to influence others to do what they morally ought to do. Yet there are moral constraints on what we may do to try to move others to do what they ought to do. The liberal says that initiating the use of violent force is not a morally permissible means to try to get a person to do what he ought to do. So far as I can make out, this plausible moral principle is never addressed, but merely evaded, by Republicans, Democrats, and similar malefactors. (On the other hand, we should not think that agents of the state are bad when they force us to abide by rules they would be morally justified in enforcing even if no government existed, e.g. if they violently interfere with our attempts to kill other people in the absence of adequate justification.)

8. An individual who claims, justifiably or not, to be acting for “the good of society,” ought not to resort to violence to try to enlist others’ cooperation in his projects. Conceivably, this principle is true applied to individuals but for some reason evaporates when we scale up to governments, but I haven’t seen that reason.

9. Finally, it’s worth asking: What is the legitimate purpose of government? On other conceptions the point of government is to regiment individuals in pursuit of the good. Liberalism says the only legitimate aim of government is to keep the peace by protecting individual persons and thereby sustaining a neutral framework for the pursuit of the good as diverse individuals conceive it. I suggest we need only frame the question this way for it to be clear which conception best fits the Christian gospel.

7:53 PM  

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