To Prevent Something Worse

Posted on 2015 March 18

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Most of the time we do good things, like working to earn money, or cooking dinner to eat, or playing a sport to have fun, or sleeping to refresh ourselves. Now and then, however, we will do something bad to prevent something worse. We let doctors cut us with knives to get rid of cancer. We tell a lie to protect a friend from danger. We strike at a robber to prevent a mugging.

The police use violence (a bad thing) to protect us from crime (a worse thing). The state goes to war (a bad thing) to protect us from invasion (a worse thing). 

Then we get the notion that all this force can be used to create results we regard as good, like taxing everyone to pay for universal education or healthcare or public transit or payments to the unemployed. Force becomes a virtue. But soon we’re taking people’s hard-earned money and using it to jail others who perform the wrong kind of sex or smoke the wrong kind of drug, or to bail out big corporations, or to launch wars against other countries to force them to behave the way we want. 

What we forget, when we get carried away with the sheer power of government, is that its force is a bad thing. As such, it should be used only to prevent something worse. Otherwise, it makes things worse all by itself

This is why, the more we attack other countries, the less safe we feel. This is why, the more money we throw at the drug war, the more incarcerated becomes our citizenry and the worse grow crime in the streets and violence on our borders. This is why, when we bail out corporations, other companies start taking worse risks. This is why, when we throw extra dollars at education, our students turn out more ignorant. This is why, the bigger the government gets, the more unhappy and polarized we become.

All these results stem from the use of force, either to extract taxes or compel behavior. It goes wrong for a simple reason: force is a bad thing. It’s for emergencies only, not day-to-day use.

Imagine if your boss or friend or spouse threatened to beat you up any time you failed to obey them. (Frankly, a few of us actually do experience this.) Consider how long you’d put up with such behavior. Now consider why it’s valid or even wise to use government force to threaten your neighbors with arrest and/or violence so that they conform to whatever edicts you favor. Would you do that yourself to your friends and neighbors? If not, why do it through government force?

The reason we don’t threaten people personally is that using force as a daily tool alienates others, generates resistance, and slowly ruins everything in our lives. Force doesn’t work: it’s for emergencies only; when we use it cavalierly, it comes back to bite us. Yet we ask the government to threaten others to achieve our ends, behavior that’s bad for us when we do it ourselves. And governments are no more immune than are we to the unhappy effects of using force to achieve goals. Look around at the chaos in the world, and note that most of it is caused by governments threatening or suppressing or attacking people.

What’s saddest is that, when our public use of force makes problems worse, we redouble our efforts: we call for even more force. And we spiral downwards.

Let’s stop breaking out the fire ax and loading up the weapons for every little thing. Instead, let’s consider doing good actions — like cooperation and negotiation and trade — to produce good results.

Sometimes we must do bad things to prevent worse things. But when we do bad things to force good things, our efforts blow up in our faces.

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Posted in: Politics