Friday, March 13, 2009

Government unlimited

What do we think is the purpose of government and what do we think is the capacity of government?

If we think the purpose of government is to “do good” and that the capacity of government is limited only by intention and resources, then there is no limit to what government ought to do.

If, however, we think the capacity of government is limited by other factors than (formal) intentions or resources, and that the formal, public purpose(s) of government are limited, undermined or subverted by the motives of people in government, then we are likely to be very sceptical about what government can or ought to do.
In a democracy, scepticism about the capacity of government (including scepticism about official processes) can be paraded as being an attack on democracy, the voters and citizenship. Not least because there is a kernel of truth in this. The greater the scepticism about the capacities and purposes of government as it actually is (or is able to be), the more limited value is being put on the utility and effectiveness of democratic processes.

That an expansive belief in the purposes and capacity of government can easily be paraded as a form of moral expansiveness adds to this effect, as it provides a basis for beliefs as status markers. Belief in the purposes and capacity of government becomes a means for conspicuous compassion, scepticism about either a form of moral (and perhaps intellectual) insufficiency.

Hayekian humility about the capacity of human actors to know enough to run a sufficiently complex system is not congenial to such moral expansiveness. But neither is Burkian humility about the legitimacy of other people’s choices. The state is first and foremost a system of coercion and the moral costs of such coercion increase the more one accepts the legitimacy of other people’s choices.

This last moral calculus is complicated, since it is clear that some government actions can expand choice. But the more expansive one’s moral vision for state action, the more likely it is one is limiting rather than expanding choice. After all, there is hardly any more unlimited vision of the moral capacity for state action than Leninism, with its belief that political action can transform people, culture and society and usher in a completely equal, stateless society, nor any philosophy which has proved more murderously and brutally oppressive.

But humility about one’s capacity to know, or about the legitimacy of other people’s wants, beliefs and actions, can lack a certain appeal. Particularly if one’s self-image is very much one of being clever, knowing and very moral. (This is not limited to one side of the political spectrum: consider the attitude of many devout Christians, Muslims or Jews to homosexuals and homosexuality.)

There are some libertarians who can be terribly, terribly convinced that they just know how things work and what is “obviously” the right approach. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which they are profoundly more humble than those expansively confident in the moral possibilities of government action because they accept Hayekian and Burkian humility (as building blocks of why they are so convinced about how little government should do).

There are clearly major difficulties with the information governments are capable of finding or using effectively. There are also major issues with the incentives of government action. The moral hazard problems with much regulation, for example. That government resources are controlled by particular humans in particular circumstances. And so forth.

The fundamental paradox of political action is that we rely on the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators. We can differ where the balance between those sets of dangers lie in any given circumstance. What is disastrous is believing that we have somehow abolished that paradox.

But nor is it conducive to good public policy to believe that government action does not suffer from serious information and incentive problems. It may be very morally comforting to believe so, but that is a danger, not a recommendation.

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