March 22nd, 2003

Me 2012

Government is Just a Hammer

I think the thing that I disliked the most about the game NationStates was its implicit assumption that government was the controlling force to society. That is to say, everything that happens in a society: the economy, the divorce rate, the family structure, technological achievements, etc., was the direct result of government policies. There is an assumption that if the government doesn't do something, nothing will happen. If the government doesn't save the rainforest, then it will inevitably be cut down. If the government doesn't outlaw public indecency, everyone will walk the streets naked. If the government doesn't provide social security, then all elderly people will go homeless.

I think it's this fundamental assumption that leads people to think of Libertarians as hard-hearted conservatives indifferent to human suffering. You look at someone who says "we should do away with food stamps" and it's hard not to think "Don't you care?"

Of course I care. Of course I think people should help one another. Of course I believe in charity, in compassion, in decency.

What I don't believe is that the State is any good at charity or compassion. The State is good -- really good -- at just one thing: the use of force. By golly, if you need guns or jails or manpower to kick people around, the State is the place to go. It can bully, harass, and coerce like nobody's business.

And that's a good thing. There will always be powers in the world that will use force against you, and force will always be necessary to defend you from it. The State, ideally, is that good guy using its considerable force in defense of its people.

But force is not the solution to every problem -- at the very least, not the best solution to every problem. When the State tries to do other things, that don't really involve the use of force, it tends to botch them up. It has unintended consequences. It's so big and impersonal that it lends itself to corruption and abuse.

It's not that I'm a pessimist and think people are so pathetic they don't deserve help and should be left to die if they can't take care of themselves. It's that I'm a hopeless optimist, and I think that smaller organizations will step in to fill the void, and to do it better, if the State stops trying.

The State is a hammer. It's a big hammer. It's a really good hammer. But not every problem in the world is a nail.