Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on June 3, 2013

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence, Myths and Fallacies

… is from pages 3-4 of George Smith’s hot-off-the- Cambridge University Press volume, The System of Liberty; although I only just started to read it, this book is one that I’ve awaited eagerly for quite some time and the wait is proving, so far at least, to have been worthwhile:

Something remarkable happened in the seventeenth century, as John Locke and other philosophers began to think the unthinkable and imagine the unimaginable.  They suggested, if only indirectly, that government is not absolutely necessary for the existence of society, that social order and even justice can be maintained to some degree without political institutions.  Just as the authority of religious institutions had previously been undermined by Protestant Reformers, so the authority of political institutions now faced a serious challenge from liberal individualists.

The true progressives are advocates of moving as far as possible away from the use of force and top-down design and control as the means of organizing society – and moving toward relying, as much as possible, upon bottom-up, evolved organic social institutions.  These institutions include, of course, commercial markets of the sort that are the object of study of introductory economics texts, but they include far more.  These institutions include also mutual-aid societies (some history of which is detailed by David Beito), clubs of all kinds, philanthropic organizations, condominium and homeowners associations; the list is long.

Resort to force is a first – a base – a primitive – impulse.  Og sees something he doesn’t like; Og responds by wanting to punch or pound or club that something into the form that he fancies.  Og might resist this impulse if he suspects that Ug and Gog and Tig don’t share his fancy and that they have wider fists, bigger rocks, or heavier clubs than his own.  But Og’s impulse – just like that of an ill-disciplined second-grader on the playground – is to force others to do his bidding.  And, human beings being what we are, Og’s resolution to use force to achieve his ends only grows if Og convinces himself, or is convinced by others, that his use of force, in addition to promoting his own welfare, serves also some ‘higher’ purpose.

Further, if and when Og becomes the dominant force-wielder, it’s too easy to convince oneself and others of the alleged impracticality of dispensing with Og’s practices.  Og himself – Og the person – might become dispensable, but that which Og does just seems so utterly essential to social order.  Only an ill-tutored barbarian or an egghead-in-the-clouds libertarian would even think of dispensing altogether with the functions performed by Og’s club.  (“Realists,” of course, have no truck with questioning at a fundamental level our need of Og-deeds.  And the most realistic of the Realists get to advise Og on the proper use of his club.  How satisfying!)

Uncivilized people, children, violent criminals – these are people whose first instinct is to demand the seemingly simple solution of brute force to all problems, real and unreal.  But there’s surprisingly little difference between the base, instinctive attraction to force of such people and the base, instinctive attraction to force of academics, “activists,” pundits, and politicians who, dissatisfied with some aspect of the world, immediately propose to use force to remedy the problem.  Awareness of the great potential for society to progress undesigned, organically, bottom-up, spontaneously, piecemeal through a marvelously complex process of multitudinous tiny mutual adjustments – that is, awareness of the only process by which society has in fact progressed from subsistence and incivility to prosperity and civilization – is lost on the advocates of force, the most intellectually celebrated of whom call themselves (irony of irony) “Progressives.”

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