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What the state should and should not do

I see that today’s Samizdata quote of the day spot for today has already been taken. By me, but taken. Had it not been, I might instead have offered this:

The main argument now, increasingly, is between those who view the state as an enabler and those who view it as, at best, a sometimes necessary irritant. To employ a massively oversimplified analogy, statists seem to think that the state should act as captain, coach, physio, kitman, ballboy, PR department, groundsman, ticketing department, FIFA representative, the guy with the half time oranges, agent, translator, WAG, turnstile operator, matchday police, the guy selling the big flags outside the ground and the guy confiscating the big flags on the way into the ground. Libertarians just want a guy with a fucking whistle.

As I often have (or at any rate want) to remind people when I shove up an SQOTD, the fact that I think whatever it is to be a snappy bit of prose doesn’t necessarily mean that I completely agree with it, even as I usually reckon it to have its heart in the right place.

A complaint about the above quote, for instance, is that it omits to mention the most obviously foolish of all state activities, which is that states now routinely insist on striding onto the pitch and trying to play, like that embarrassing games teacher played by Brian Glover in the movie Kes, even as (like Brian Glover) they continue to be the ref.

I recently heard President Obama say on my television that the job of President is (I quote from memory as best I can) “making decisions and helping people”. President Obama thinks that he should be both the referee and a player, in other words. And since he cannot possibly help everyone in the USA, he ends up playing for one side (helping only some people) against the other side (at other people’s expense), and his refereeing gets bent out of shape to reflect his competitive preferences.

Presidents shouldn’t be helping. They should be maintaining and defending the circumstances within which people can help themselves.

25 comments to What the state should and should not do

  • Oh, I don’t know.

    Surely in a truly free system rulers (and likewise the State) go into the mix with everyone else, to help, hinder, or whatever they choose to do.

    If they win, good luck to ’em – let the Market decide.

  • Surely in a truly free system rulers (and likewise the State)

    In a truly free system there are no rulers and no State. In a logical sentence there are no oxymorons:-)

  • And here I figured the QOTD from that article was

    Well, let’s not start snorting lines of coke off each others’ dicks just yet, Mark.

  • Good analogy. But does a referee add value? I would suggest yes – without him there would be no game of football.

  • lukas

    As kids we would play without a referee all the time, and we enjoyed ourselves just as much.

  • DOuglas2

    As an immigrant in a few other countries I thought that politicians made life hard for foreigners and loaded them up with petty fees because they didn’t vote (US makes you dial a 900 number and wait on hold to make immigration appointments!)
    Then trying to get my wife admitted to my own, I discovered that phoning up the constituency office can suddenly cut through a ream of red tape. I think they make things intentionally bad so that they can get the credit of helping thier constituents.

  • Brilliant post, sir, and a welcome corrective to the State Of The Union speech that the U.S. just endured.

  • RRS

    We shall now have to re-title the GrossSpiel as:

    The State of Politics Address

    little to do with the conditions of the “Union.”

  • One of the classical justifications of a (limited) state, is as a means to solving collective action problems, like the provision of public goods. That certainly qualifies as ‘helping people’ when done, since it makes everybody better off in ways they couldn’t achieve as individuals.

    It isn’t perhaps really fair to expect Obama to be so libertarian that – like me – he’d consider the state to be so good at providing public bads, that in the long run it will always tend to destroy more value than it creates. If he or any previous president thought that way, their highest concept of their office would necessarily be as grit in the machine’s wheels, and something tells me they would have found alternative employment.

    I think the corrupt tendency to which you allude, in which the members of the State systematically confuse ‘the public’ with either themselves or the Right Sort of People, is actually one of its least damaging costs. Worse are its systematic and more universally-sellable tendency impartially to confuse ‘the public’ with itself as an institution, via mystical representation; and its truly pernicious institutional incentive to redefine every decision anybody could possibly make as a ‘collective action problem’, thereby slowly expunging human agency and thence the human being itself as living concepts.

    None of these excuse an Obama or a Ghost of Cameron Yet to Come when they scarf down my grub in order to help me by curing me of my full English breakfast habit. But I wonder if the referee analogy really doesn’t obscure more of the problem than it reveals – or even play unwisely to the statists’ favourite self-justifications.

  • Ian Bennett

    maintaining and defending the circumstances within which people can help themselves

    That’s the money quote, right there.

  • John B

    “In a truly free system there are no rulers and no State. In a logical sentence there are no oxymorons:-)”

    Yes, Alisa, indeed. Unfortunately not yet being perfect we need some kind of adjudication but in principle you are absolutely right.

  • “In a truly free system there are no rulers and no State.”

    Not at all.

    They are free to evolve and if they evolve, they evolve.

    If they have evolved they are free to continue or decay.

    Their existence is no less an inflexion of freedom than their absence.

  • Yes, they evolve at the expense of the others’ freedom, just like cancer evolves at the expense of the organism. And no, they are not free to continue, they always decay – but never before the organism itself.

  • John B

    Ah, sir Jacobite, indeed things will change and evolve and reality will prevail. In the end the free market/exchange system will prevail, in all of life, because it is simply reality.
    As, for instance, Bernie Madoff demonstrated, we all have to be our own decision makers in the end.
    So yes, there will be horrors and the Soviet/Nazi systems will come and go, as they evolve, but they are not where one wants to be.
    We are, I guess, talking about a limited view of freedom because the totally evolving freedom does indeed contain pain and terrible circumstances of slavery and bondage.

  • Rich Rostrom

    “Presidents shouldn’t be helping. They should be maintaining and defending the circumstances within which people can help themselves.”

    But bear in mind that people don’t just compete against each other, they also contend against the natural world. (This includes the process of learning, and education is generally a state function.)

    There are ways in which the state can and does help people: for instance, distributing information to farmers about crop rotation, contour plowing, etc. The danger, of course, is that the success of such modest measures leads the bureaucrats to think they should be telling farmers what and how much to plant, setting prices, and so on.

  • There are ways in which the state can and does help people

    Of course. The question is can anyone other than the state perform these same functions at least as well, if not better than the state, while not overstepping the clearly-defined boundaries of these functions (by telling the farmers and everyone else what to eat and where to smoke, among many other things).

  • “…and education is generally a state function.”

    Lamentably, schooling is generally a state function – what manner of “education” it constitutes is another matter entirely. But there is no necessity for the state to have any business in education at all, and in fact, getting the state out of the action and encouraging non-state alternatives is surely a strategic priority to people who value freedom and education.

    “There are ways in which the state can and does help people: for instance, distributing information to farmers about crop rotation, contour plowing, etc.”

    Jesus wept; those farmers are just about cooked then aren’t they if they have no other choice but to rely on some skinny 22 year old in a shirt and tie from the state department of agriculture to teach them the necessities of survival. Pass me the fucking gin…

  • “totally evolving freedom does indeed contain pain and terrible circumstances of slavery and bondage”

    Yes, and inevitably, and there is no other reality (or genuine freedom). The “limited view of freedom” which you identify as the unstated assumption lurking here is no more than yet another inflexion of unfreedom: Authoritarianism in Liberty’s clothes.

    Any other view (whatever its attractiveness) is just wishful thinking.

  • totally evolving freedom does indeed contain pain and terrible circumstances of slavery and bondage

    Sorry John, but I don’t understand this statement.

  • Steve

    “As kids we would play without a referee all the time, and we enjoyed ourselves just as much.”

    There is the oxymoron in the “logical” sentence. As kids we were both players and referees. We kept and played by the rules which had been handed down as the definition of the game. Infractions of the rules were noted by the players themselves and sanctions for egregious fouls were imposed by the group according to the list of infractions and attendant penalties contained in the rules.

  • John B

    I mean that with humanity’s ingenuity for nastiness, situations where Hitlers and Stalins rise to power occur.
    They do this by distorting reality, enforcing unreal agendas. It seems this is often through some form of collectivism. Stalin using Marxist Leninism. Hitler using National socialism. Mussolini using fascism. Chaka using ancestor worship and spirit horrors. Whatever, it is totalitarian.
    But in the end reality does prevail.
    The true function of supply and demand manifests. All the water they having been pushing uphill starts to flow downhill again, sometimes with secondary consequences – eg – Russia in the ’90s.
    In the long term reality does prevail. The balance establishes. Reality cannot be broken.
    But being a limited part of the total reality we can suffer an awful lot in the shorter term and so one should seek liberty. In the long term liberty will prevail because it naturally is that which conforms to reality, but in the shorter term it can be distorted for a while.

  • Thanks John, I now see what you mean. I agree on the whole, although I still have some problems with some of the semantics which seem to represent actual premises.

  • John – I should say that tyranny is, all too clearly, a feature of reality. Liberty certainly improves people’s long-term incentives to conform their actions to their perceptions of the world, rather than to some model of it imposed either sincerely or self-servingly by an authority. That is a big win, and there is reason to hope it is also adaptive – that history is, as you suggest, on its side. That is what I have staked my chips on.

    But we may be wrong. It may be that the level of tyranny which arises spontaneously from the interplay of self-willed agents with coercive powers, is such that in reality the costs of it are with us forever, by virtue of the very abilities that make freedom both possible and precious.

    Running up against tyranny when we would mostly all just like to mind our own business is a stand-out case of a hard collision with reality. If we want to make Leviathan unreal, in the way that woolly mammoths are now unreal, it will take positive action by individual human beings, and technological ingenuity every bit as game-changing as the language-coordinated hunt and the chipped-flint toolset.

    History is as cold as Fortune to suitors who take her favour for granted.

  • Paul Marks

    Rich Rostrom is (I think) pointing at the environment when he talks about state help.

    Actually the state is HARMFUL in such matter.

    What is needed is PRIVATE PROPERTY.

    For example, the Federal govenment thought that the great cattle ranches that had evolved in the American West were wasteful of the land and so passed Homestead Acts to devide them into farms (Hollywood is still making films praising this).

    This action led straight to the dust bowls.

    If big estates evolve (in America, Australia, Latin America or whereever) that is because this form of landholding is most suitable for the land. Otherwise the big estates would be voluntarily sold off into smaller farms – period.

    For rivers and forests – private ownership is also the key.

  • Paul Marks

    I am not an anarchist – but even I see the idea of the state as umpire as not without problems.

    First of all policeing (even in densely populated England) was mainly a matter of ordinary people acting against criminals – not state police acting against them.

    Indeed state police were not compulsory in English cities till the 1830’s and not in the counties till the 1850’s – and we were not all eating each other before this time.

    Also the state may not side against criminals – it may side with them.

    An interesting example is the “Lincoln County War” in New Mexico in the late 19th century.

    The Murphy/Dolan operation kept up prices for its goods by discouraging competitors – discourageing them by killing them (as with Mr Tunstall and Mr McSween – both unarmed and killed in seperate operations).

    The Murphy/Dolan operation (and the people wearing badges who served them) caused some resentament by their actions.

    Noteably on the part of “Billy the Kid” and his “Regulators” (who also wore badges) . These people had firearms of their own – and used them on the Murphy/Dolan people (although, as they were fond of pointing out, never on anyone who was UNARMED).

    The United States goverment duely acted as “umpire” – the U.S. Cavalry arrived AND BACKED UP THE MURPHY/DOLAN OPERATION.

    “Yes, but the state provides a legal system by which one may settle disputes”.

    So it does – and years later Mrs McSween hired a lawyer to investigate events with view to bringing a prosection.

    Almost needless to say – the lawyer was killed as well.

    Various people working for the Murphy/Dolan operation expanded their operations into Mexico (where they specialized in taking cattle without paying for them, and involuntary sexual intercourse with local women – killing any men who tried to stop these activities) and into Arizonia (under the employment of the local Clanton family).

    However, the operations in Arizonia ran into trouble.

    It is true that the operations ran into trouble with people who (mostly) wore badges……

    However, I suspect that the family Earp and their friend the exdentist would have been amused to be told that they were representatives of the government. After all it was local shopkeepers (and other such) who actually paid the Earps. They were not paid very well (in comparison to the material rewards of their foes) – which led many people (then and now) to be confused as to why anyone sided with the Earps (or with their friend Bat Masterson in his “town tameing” operations in other States) – to which the only sensible reply is “if you do not understand the reason – there is no way I can explain it to you”.

    As for government…..

    Certainly W. Earp’s “Vengence Ride” (where so many armed people were hunted down and shot to death – after Mr Earp’s two brothers, Morgan and Virgil, had been ambushed and shot, one killed the other crippled for life, in different incidents on dark nights) was not approved of by the government (indeed Mr Earp had to leave Arizonia – he was finally buried, due to the wishes of his wife, in the Jewish graveyard in L.A. in 1929).

    As far as the government was concerned Arizonia would have been left to the Clantons (and their associates) just as much of New Mexico had been left to Murphy/Dolan (including many of the SAME associates – such as the “Ringo Kid” [whose proud boast was that no man he had killed had ever seen him comming – i.e. that he had always managed to shoot his victims in the back] and other gentleman of leasure).

    Even big business can not rely on government.

    After all J.J. Hill of the Great Northern faced the bombs and bullets of the Union Pacific – and the government was no help to him. He had to fight force – with force.

    Indeed even when his enemies turned to “legal” trickery the government was still no help to Mr Hill – the only help he got was from the House of Morgan. And “anti trust” (i.e. let us hit Mr Hill) got him in the end.

    No – even on basic law and order matters, trusting the government can, in some circumstances, be an error.