Social Stability, Rule of Law, and the Free Society

Man’s inner evil spirit

Democracy has been hailed as the great system of governance that keeps a nation balanced on the thin line between authoritarianism and lawless anarchy. The voluntaryist’s suggestion that the core responsibilities of the state – provision of courts, police, and national defense – be demonopolized (that is, allowed to work in private hands instead of being financed by coercive government taxation) is met with amusement at best, fury at worst. “The nation would devolve into perpetual struggles of one man against another!” critics cry out. If this is true, it may be a death blow to the idea that man can exist in peaceful, law-abiding voluntary relationships. Indeed, Hobbes would be right that man must be coercively controlled to rear in his savage nature. Is this what we must accept?

The first objection to this worldview is that if men are by nature evil, how can a small group of them with concentrated, exclusive power to initiate violence in society be trusted to rule in a righteous way? That is the nature of government – concentrating the power of violence in the hands of a few. Indeed, it might seem that this would very much exacerbate the problem.

Perhaps, then, only some people are evil, while the rest are good. If the majority is good (even moderately so), then I hope it’s clear that marginalizing the evil minority would not be a problem. They would form voluntary associations on the market to provide for the defense of their property.

Proponents of the Evil Man theory, to salvage the concept of government, must go on to claim that in fact the majority of men are evil and they must be controlled by a minority of good overlords.

Have you seen this voter?

The validity of using democracy to elect government, then, must then be called into question – how come evil men (the voters) can choose good masters (the rulers)? Does it not mean they have an inherent interest in preserving the rule of law and goodness? If so, then do they really deserve to be called evil men? Regardless of what one chooses to call them, if they have an interest in preserving the rule of law, then why couldn’t they do this without government? They could organize in firms providing security and dispute resolution. After all, even the (supposedly) evil men have an interest in keeping their property safe. The free market has proven to be the marvel through which humans can coordinate their interests through peace, rather than through use of violence. Furthermore, the best government can hope to do is approximate market outcomes, and it always fails.

But ah! some critics continue – evil men (rulers) can create good laws to rule over other evil men (the public) because of the system of checks and balances. Our evil masters are pitted against one another, and this tempers their ability to control us. Yet if they are fundamentally evil, why do they not cooperate to inflict evil upon the public? They certainly can have conflicting goals, but that doesnt preclude the possibility of compromising and lavishing themselves with great wealth – billions of dollars each!

Constitutional “checks and balances”

Furthermore, when people talk of checks and balances, they speak of the system as if it were written in stone. Checks and balances are not a law of nature – it’s not as if the laws of the universe physically impose checks and balances upon the politicians. No – the politicians could wake up one morning and say “scrap checks and balances – I’m doing what I want today!” After all, nothing besides a piece of paper – the Constitution – “forces” politicians to work within checks and balances. Do we really want to claim that a piece of paper is what establishes the system of checks and balances? No. Rather, it’s the public’s demand for moderation in the political sphere that forces the politicians to work within the system.

A very similar scenario exists when the question of succession is brought up. Once the sitting Congress’s term is over, why do the politicians leave? Why do they not just claim the seat of power as their own and proceed to rule as despots? It is certainly not the voting process that compels them to give up power (as commonly believed). Can we be so mystic as to think that putting papers with names on them in slots actually physically controls the outside world? Not at all – the voting system is followed because of the public’s demand for rule of law [1]. Voting by itself achieves nothing.

It is seen, thus, that men as a whole cannot be an evil bunch. If we’re all devils, there’s no reason to expect that making only few devils able to systematically inflict violence on other devils will ameliorate our problems.

In fact, if, as the critics say, a system of checks and balances is what makes the political world go round, why not rely on the checks and balances inherent in the market process [2]? No company can consistently provide bad service without being run into the ground by its competition. The market has successfully taken down such giants as Sears, US Steel, Xerox, Eastman Kodak, and IBM. This, combined with the near-unanimous, deeply-seated respect for rule of law in the United States, would create an inherently-stable system. In fact, police violence would probably decrease – if a company doesn’t manage its officers well, it will lose customers and soon go out of business [3]. On the other hand, when government offices fail the obvious conclusion (to the public) is that they were not funded well enough! [4]

Choose voluntary today!

The conclusion of Jefferson is ever clearer – If men are angels, then we do not need coercive government; if they are not, we dare not have it [5]. The central idea to take away is one of institutional incentives – We know that the public systematically desires rule of law – this is what is actually the cause of the stability in the system. If only people were to see that by its very nature government violates the rights it’s supposed to protect, then we could easily transition into a more prosperous and just voluntary society. Becoming convinced of the workings of the market for security is not an easy task – especially after twelve years of schooling teaching us that government is the fountain of happiness – yet it’s a productive journey that I hope will become increasingly undertaken.



[1] For those who have read Hasnas’s article “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” do not think that I am referring to “rule of law” in the strict sense Hasnas is. When he speaks of rule of law, he means rule by laws that are not open to subjective interpretation, as opposed to rule by the whims of men. For my purposes, I use “rule of law” to mean a general adherence to a code of common law.

[2] Minor sidenote: Some readers might, from reading the article, suppose that I’m claiming that checks and balances do not play an important role in the stability of society. This is not true. While I personally believe that humans don’t burn with desire to actively war with each other, I do not deny the role of checks and balances. Checks and balances in the market, after all, are one of the things that prevent a business from charging us $100 for a gallon of milk – other businesses would quickly seize on the profit opportunity and drive the price down to the “proper” level. Another factor that prevents this ridiculous pricing, of course, is the subjective valuations of consumers – I doubt many people would be willing to purchase milk at such a high price. Instead, they would turn to substitute goods. As an even more “side”-note, milk prices are actually artificially raised by government through price floors.

[3] It is not my intent in this article to describe exactly how the private security could be provided. For such a discussion, see Murphy’s Chaos Theory

[4] To not clutter the article for a more casual reader, I present here a slightly more elaborate argument against a free society concerning the incentives to the public. It is possible to claim that a person in the public might very well act in a lawful and orderly manner – provided that the entire society is lawful and orderly; and in the case that law and order is not existent, she might prefer to act lawlessly herself. This at first appears to be an intriguing argument, until it’s realized that any statist proposing this argument would in fact be defeating himself. Supposing, as the statist does, that the state provides law and order, the problem presented above ought to prevent the formation of states as well. Since states exist, the statist’s argument fails even in his own framework.

[5] For the record, I mention Jefferson not because I am a Founder-worshiper, but because he was right.

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4 thoughts on “Social Stability, Rule of Law, and the Free Society

  1. […] [11] Really, it’s not the Constitution that gives you rights. If a constitution were what actually gave people natural rights, then people who live under no constitution would be fair game during hunting season. I hope that the reader does not believe this to be the case. This seems like an obvious point to me, but I’m often surprised by how many people think that it is in fact the Constitution that gives them natural rights. On this issue, see my article “Social Stability, Rule of Law, and the Free Society“ […]

  2. henrymoore 05/13/2013 at 23:12 Reply

    My take is that mankind is basically bad (I would include myself and just about every person I know and love and trust in that), but that this manifests itself most potently in destructive activity. The state is by nature destructive. Voluntary arrangements, because all parties would tend to be satisfied by the ends and outcomes (or else they would’nt voluntarily agree to means and procedures), are by nature constructive, and thus, conducive to man’s better qualities.

    And by “bad,” I do not mean Hitler-esque or even Capone-esque (the institution of the state is behind both of these types), I simply mean imperfect in their knowledge (and thus prone to mistakes), prideful (and thus prone to not acknowledging their mistakes), and very self-interested, as often as not to the point of greed (and thus biased, in both their success and their failures, towards themselves, even at the expense of others). Fortunately, even greed can be channeled by the free market in such a way as to actually improve the situation for almost everyone. Without it there would be no trade. Without trade, production and consumption would decline. WIthout these, populations would be devastated.

    It is because I think man is basically bad and that statism, as you say, exacerbates bad qualities, that I am opposed to statism, but the thrust of this piece seems to be that man being good is the reason to reject statism. This seems, at first, if man is indeed basically good, like it could be the case. However, I think man is not basically good, and even if he were I would still have an objection:

    Say that mankind is basically good, but that he was still incapable of perfect knowledge. Would this not warrant statism to some degree, because, theoretically, under this scenario, it would be beneficial to have the intelligent (but basically good), rule over the less intelligent (but still basically good)?

    • wheylous 05/15/2013 at 09:45 Reply

      “Say that mankind is basically good, but that he was still incapable of perfect knowledge.” – but doesn’t your definition of “good” and “bad” really rely on “imperfect information” itself? It seems like you might be equivocating between different meanings of the word good.

      “Would this not warrant statism to some degree, because, theoretically, under this scenario, it would be beneficial to have the intelligent (but basically good), rule over the less intelligent (but still basically good)?” – Well, why would you need statism if everyone’s good? Again, you seem to be switching between meanings of good and bad, so I can’t answer your question more precisely.

      But on another point, no, it would not warrant statism, exactly because of the information problem you mentioned. Austrian economists in particular have always stressed that even the best-intentioned regulations fail because of knowledge problems. The statist mastermind simply can’t beat the market.

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