2013-10-30

Is Government Evil?

It's been suggested that all I do is complain about how evil the government is. So, I guess the question is: is government evil? Or perhaps, do I think the government is evil?

One answer I can offer here is that the question itself is absurd. Is the government evil? Are the Chicago Bulls evil? Is the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers evil? Were cavemen evil? Is society evil, and if not, is a particular segment of society evil?

There are a few very simple points I'd like to make here, which will probably clear up the confusion. Once I've made my points, the answer to these silly questions should be obvious, but just in case it isn't, I'll actually spell it out. (You thought you were getting off easy, but you forgot that this is my fabulously long-winded blog.)

First Point: Institutions Are Not Moral Agents
Last year's shocking Steubenville High School rape case made major headlines. Feminist media outlets such as Jezebel immediately made the case against the "culture of rape," whatever that is. Some predators use social arguments to excuse their crimes. That needs to change, because crime needs to change. Some rapists invent convoluted rationale for the hideous things they do. To the extent that they do so, they need to stop. This is not because society endorses the arguments of rapists, but rather because rapists commit heinous acts against other people.

Perhaps reasonable people can argue over the existence of a "culture of rape," but no one in their right mind would declare that society raped a Steubenville High School student.

The reason for this is obvious: While individuals can act, "society" cannot. That's because "society" is a word we use to denote the collective actions and beliefs of many individuals. We can describe society's tendencies, but we cannot describe a particular act conducted by society. Every institution is like this. "The student body" just means students in general. It can't do anything, even though we might use that phrase to describe what other people do.

And so it is for government, too. "The government" is not a moral agent. "The government" is an institution containing thousands of moral agents, all of whom act morally or immorally as the case may be. Individuals are responsible for their actions. We might want to hold institutions responsible for their actions, too, but that would be futile. Because institutions aren't agents, there is nothing there to take responsibility for anything. Ultimately, you always have to stick it to an individual.

Part Two: Moral Agents Are Neither Good Nor Evil
The woman you loved broke your heart. Some of the deepest hurt you ever experienced as a child was from something your parents or siblings did or said. The most terrible thing you ever heard was probably said by someone you never would have expected it from.

So what gives? Are people just, ultimately, deep-down nasty people? Were you somehow mislead about the "true nature" of the ones who let you down?

No, of course not. Moral problems are complex and multi-faceted. Human coping mechanisms are imperfect and subject to emotional weakness. In other words, we don't always live up to our own highest hopes.

There are, of course, a few truly rotten apples out there. There are psychopaths and murderers, pathological liars, manipulators, people who lack remorse. But most of us would agree that such people have fundamental psychological problems that make them atypical cases. For all the rest of us, we commit acts of good and evil all the time. Sometimes an act of good is viewed as an act of evil when seen from another perspective. And vice-versa.

I do believe in "good" and "evil," but I consider them deeds, acts, data points. I don't believe that human beings can belong solely to one category or the other.

Part Three: One Need Not Be Evil To Breach Your Trust
Have you ever broken up with someone? Chances are, part of what happened in your failed relationship was some sort of a breach of trust. I don't mean that all break-ups involve infidelity. What I mean is that when you forge a relationship with someone, you trust them with your emotional intimacy. When the relationship falls apart, you no longer trust that person with the same level of emotional intimacy. Much of the resentment we end up feeling boils down to our feeling as though that intimacy has been betrayed.

Does that mean all your ex-lovers are evil? Obviously not.

What it means is that perfectly good people - people you fall in love with - are capable of breaching your trust. It shouldn't be surprising to discover that total strangers, often times acting on behalf of institutions, can also breach our trust.

Conclusion
Moral agents can breach our trust; moral agents are typically neither "good" nor "evil;" institutions are not moral agents.

Let's return to the original question. Do I think government is evil?

It cannot be evil, because it cannot act.
Those who act on behalf of government institutions are usually neither good nor evil.

So, no, I don't think that government is evil. But those who act on behalf of the various institutions of government can breach our trust. When that happens, it is logical to give pause and ask what might be done in the future to prevent its recurrence. When a lover breaches your trust, the relationship ends. We cannot - or at least do not often wish to - end our relationship with government.

But we can banish government to "the friend zone." We can avoid being intimate with government, emotionally or otherwise. The way we accomplish this is by restricting government's ability to penetrate our lives.

It's not that government is bad, it's just that many of the moral agents acting on its behalf fail to live up to the responsibilities with which they have been entrusted. These moral agents ought to find other jobs, outside of government, where they can do less universal damage.

But their institutions can also be shrunk to a size more befitting of the temptation felt by some of its agents to breach our trust, or the fallibility inherent in human behavior.

Think of it this way: Just because we have created an organization large and powerful enough to build an maintain a nuclear arsenal doesn't make it a particularly good idea. Shrinking that arsenal might be a good idea, but if so, how much better an idea would it be to prevent any institution from having that power in the first place?