Revised Rejoinders to Douglas J Amy – Is Government Good?

In his essay entitled The Forgotten Achievements of Government, Amy asks the reader to consider several of government’s indubitable achievements; his goal, as always, is to present government as a necessary, vital institution, which performs a valuable service in behalf of humanity. The position of this essay is rather the contrary: that government enables an otherwise unsustainable capitalist system, doing so by the generous application of violent measures which would be unnecessary if capitalism were to be abandoned.

Prelude

Before he presents his impressive list of government achievements, Amy begins by summing up what, to him, seems a strong record of government stewardship: By and large, the public sector does a good job providing clean water to drink, keeping the peace, sending out Social Security checks, reducing workplace injuries, ensuring aircraft safety, feeding the hungry, putting out fires, protecting consumers, and so on.

Several points are noteworthy about this presentation. First, it is notable for its myopic view of government. If, by “the public sector” one means a state such as the United States which has had over 235 years to perfect its technique in the judicious application of selective violence, then perhaps his statement makes some sense. But too often Amy seems to forget that “government” is not a synonym for “the United States at this point in history.” When Amy examines “government,” he usually seems to be examining a particular expression of the phenomenon, namely, the government of the United States as it exists in the 21st century. But I contend that this is too myopic. If the true cost of government is to be appreciated, it is necessary to think of government in terms of opportunity costs: what are we giving up by having a state as opposed to not having one? To properly understand this opportunity cost, one must analyze the wide range of expressions of the state and not simply consider a single example of government at its best. If the United States, for instance, is to be lauded as an example of government at its best, then it is well to remember that government does not usually take such a benevolent form. It is irresponsible to forget the cost to society wrought by less enlightened expressions of statehood.

Just as one should remember the wide variety of expressions of government currently in existence, one should also maintain a historical perspective. One wonders whether examining an earlier period of U.S. history would lend perspective. After all, although America has a long history of representative government, it simply is not true to claim that the America of today is the same as the America of two hundred years ago. Nor should it be thought that America was benevolent toward all her citizens for all that time. Indeed, quite the contrary seems to be the case, even by a generous accounting of history. Further, if one maintains the perspective that the United States and similar Western states with long histories of stability contain only a fraction of the world’s population, and that the vast majority of earth’s population both now and in the past languishes or has languished under states that do not ensure even the basic necessities of life, then a much more realistic measure of government’s true social cost can be approximated.

None of which is to concede that the United States is the best expression of government. Part of the problem with Amy’s defense of government is that he never explicitly expresses the way that he determines what constitutes a good. Amy thus often finds himself in the position of defending government by noting that government makes a certain thing possible when it is not even clear that the thing in question is desirable. Amy undoubtedly hopes that the general public agrees with his conception of the good, but without establishing any methodology for determining whether or not a given development truly is good, his work is at best an appeal to popular sentiment and at worst a simple piece of propaganda. Judged by the standards of a typically American audience, the government of the United States must have the appearance of government at its finest. But it must not be forgotten that the American government to a large extent is shaped in the image of American society. To say, then, to an American audience that the government of the United States is best representative of its values is somewhat of a tautology. What could be hoped is that Amy would try to defend those values using some noncontroversial standard. But that is a project he never undertakes, and it is far from clear that if he did undertake it America would seem objectively superior.

Finally, even if we were to concede to Amy the goods in question and allow the premise that America is at least a superior expression of government’s utility at achieving these goods, it is not altogether clear that government is vindicated. True, government may, in the United States, do a fairly good job of providing for, say, relatively clean water. But a cynic might wonder why it should be necessary to provide such a service. After all, there are natural systems in place to cleanse water from the natural pollutants which any ecological system presents. Unhealthy water is caused, not by any natural necessity, but rather by environmentally damaging corporate practices and human overpopulation, both a result of capitalism. By cleaning the waters, therefore, the capitalist state really only seems to be managing the disastrous effects of its own policies. The point is obvious: even if government does a superior job of managing disasters, it is not vindicated if it proves to be the case that it was also the cause of the disasters.

Because Amy never engages with the concept of government from an international and historical perspective and avoids entirely the thought that his views have moral implications because they presume value statements, it is difficult to critique his overall views. After all, it is notoriously difficult to critique ideas which are implicit rather than explicit. For this reason, in this essay I will primarily engage with Amy on his own turf: the question of whether government is a success story here in the United States at this time period. I come at it, specifically, from the perspective that the state is a facet of the capitalistic economic system. Specifically, my thesis is that the state is that aspect of the economic system which prevents the economic system as a whole from collapsing. This is the perspective of this essay, but this perspective should be thought of as inclusive of my perspective that the values of capitalism are not centered in humanism. Thus, while I do not often comment on the values of the capitalistic system within this essay, it should not be forgotten that underlying the anarchist perspective is the adoption of contrarian values. I reserve the right to reintroduce the concept of humanistic values where it seems that the capitalist state is an egregious violator of them.

Thus ends my introductory comments on Amy’s essay. What can be said about the particular instances of “government success stories” cited in Amy’s essay?

Keeping the peace?

It is difficult to imagine that even the greatest optimist would credit government with “keeping the peace,” and yet Amy does precisely that. It is far more difficult to imagine just why any person believes that government maintains the “peace” than it is to suggest counterexamples. Given the hundreds of millions of casualties of government in the 20th century alone, it requires a radically Hobbesian perspective to assume that our world is far more peaceful with our brutally violent governments than it would be without them.

Social safety net?

What can be said of Amy’s claims that the government provides a valuable social safety net, such as social security and “feeding the hungry”? This, too, is a rather myopic view, because it ignores the role that government served in causing the societal problems in the first place. By legitimizing property claims, government effectively creates a monopoly of the means of production. By so doing, it advantages capital over labor and ensures that labor will be forced to its lowest possible market price. Government further complicates the labor market by subsidizing transportation, which enables companies to further consolidate production and then transport the goods over long distances, further weakening labor’s bargaining power. Since tax policy in modern governments is usually controlled by corporate interests, the heaviest tax burdens in many western democracies often fall on the middle class. Overwhelmingly, then, labor finds that it is forced to pay the tax burden of subsidies when the benefits of those subsidies are used to reduce already meager wages. The result? Labor often finds that wages are insufficient to cover expenses. The government’s solution, even under the best of situations, is merely to provide a small amount to ameliorate the worst effects of labor’s suffering. And all too often the “best of situations” fail to materialize. When the economy is suffering and workers can least afford it, government often says it must “tighten its belt” by cutting subsidies to the poor and retired.

Whether the issue involved is Social Security and Medicare for the elderly, or food stamps and other welfare benefits for younger working families, government’s role is the same: these “benefits” are necessitated by the exploitation that is inherent to the capitalist system, the same capitalist system which is enabled and nourished by government. That government helps to ameliorate a small amount of the suffering caused by capitalism is no justification for government in any universal sense. Rather, it is a condemnation of the entire capitalistic system.

The fact of the matter is that Amy admits my premise: He says that government welfare programs were “never intended to get [the poor] out of poverty. They were only intended to alleviate the suffering of the poor – and studies have shown that they have been very successful in doing this”.i One wonders whether Amy has a different perspective on success than the majority of us. If the poor are not lifted out of poverty, then how can it possibly be suggested that they are not suffering from the effects of poverty? This could only be suggested if government was successful at eliminating all of the deleterious effects of poverty. But this cannot be posited without evoking mockery. We still have, after all, a large and ever increasing homeless population. Food stamps are available only for those who meet shamefully low definitions of poverty, leaving many hungry. There are embarrassingly long waiting lists for subsidized housing. And the poor continue to suffer from reduced access to health care and education. So it would be laughable to suggest that the effects of poverty have been eliminated in the United States.

One wonders why Amy is content to partially alleviate suffering, rather than holding government accountable for a more ambitious program of ending poverty. The answer is that Amy himself is an apologist for the capitalist system, as all informed government apologists must be. It is only the very naïve who can pretend that capitalism and the state are separate entities. Those who are educated realize that they are related and interconnected at the deepest levels. This is a reality that Amy cannot deny.ii So as a government apologist, he must also be a champion of capitalism. And no champion of capitalism can be a consistent proponent of policies designed to create egalitarian communities. After all, if there were no large divide between rich and poor, then capital accumulation would not be possible, which is simply another way of saying that capitalism would be impossible. So the elimination of poverty can never be a true goal for government, though government can obviously make noise about eliminating poverty for the purpose of duping constituents. The fact of the matter is that government of necessity must pursue policies which permit corporations to exploit labor; it then tries to partially cover for the resulting suffering with small amounts of aid. I do not consider this to be a success story of any kind at all unless you own large amounts of stock in valuable corporations. But it certainly is no success story for the working poor in society.

Social Protection Services

What can be said of public protection services? Amy mentions fire protection. In California, where I live, wild fires are a natural feature of the dry environment. They are a problem for humans only because of human encroachment into already taxed habitats; destruction of habitats in turn is caused by human overpopulation, which itself results from the overproduction which is inherent to the capitalist system. Then, too, there is the problem of restrictive building codes, which often are designed to support industries and protect property values rather than to promote healthy, environmentally friendly buildings. Thus, “fire” as a property hazard is directly caused by a state managed building code which promotes the use of combustible building materials rather than fireproof building materials. And individuals ignore these “codes” only at their own peril. Once again, the capitalist state finds itself in the position of managing problems of its own creation.

This is not to imply, certainly, that societies need no organized protection whatsoever. Certainly, even the safest buildings have some fire risk. Rather, it is to note the ways in which governments tend to exacerbate the problem. Another item is of note: most of society’s social protection services are services provided by local municipalities and not the federal government. This is an important distinction, because it suggests that when there is a legitimate need, the services in question seem better supplied in a decentralized way than by centralized governments. While local governments do tend to provide this organization, there seems to be no reason why it must be the case that these services are provided by governments. Certainly, Amy could counter that public agencies must provide such services because private interests cannot do so. This seems intuitively correct. We tend to think that profit should not be a motivating factor in such vital services. We no doubt cringe to think of a family’s house burning to the ground because the family had not purchased private fire protection. Thus if so-called private interests are the only competition to governmental public services, I would be forced to agree with Amy. However, from my cooperativist vantage point, I imagine the demise, not only of the state, but also of the capitalistic system which it enables. In such a system, public services are no longer synonymous with state-run services. This requires reimagining what we mean by the term public. But by whatever definition we use, there certainly needs to be no state which exists in collusion with corporate power in order to provide social protection services.

Consumer Protection

What about government in its consumer protection role? Take, for instance, the matter of food safety. Are our food products safer than they would be if the government did not intervene? I maintain that this is the wrong question. The better question is “under what conditions would food producers naturally produce high quality food, such that protection would be unnecessary?” And the answer to that question invariably would imply a non-capitalistic method of production involving small, local producers producing for the communities to which they belong. Such small producers exist today, and can often be found selling their produce personally in local farmers markets. And in such markets, the FDA requirements seem remarkably superfluous.

What is true of government in its consumer protection role specifically with regard to food can be usefully asserted respecting other products more generally. Small, community oriented manufacturers which produce for their own communities and sell locally do not seem to require such intensive regulation. For instance, most of us would not hesitate to purchase a homemade blanket from a flea market. It seems that regulation is only necessary when production has been moved to faraway locales and individuals no longer produce for the communities to which they belong. And this is simply another way of saying that it is the capitalistic economic model which requires regulation. The role of consumer protection, therefore, seems to be another case of the capitalist state managing problems of its own creation.

Aircraft safety?

In his essay, Amy cites aircraft safety as a benefit of government. I am not sure, exactly, to which aspect of aircraft safety Amy is referring. He might be referring to the construction standards in building the aircraft, or to the system of air traffic control, or even to the T.S.A., which attempts to ensure that passengers do not bring prohibited items or weapons aboard the aircraft. Probably, he refers to all three. But from an a non-capitalistic perspective these are actually quite different roles because the actions of the T.S.A can only be accomplished by coercive violence whereas the other actions can conceivably be done entirely through voluntary cooperation. Pilots have no incentive, for instance, to defy the air traffic controllers. The air traffic controllers have a sort of natural authority. It derives, not from their power to impose sanctions against noncompliant pilots, but rather because of the truly horrifying sort of death that might befall a pilot who chose to resist coordination of his flight with others. Since every pilot understands this, the cooperation with air traffic control is natural. The actions of air traffic controllers are to coordinate, not to coerce. In this sense, there is no reason why a completely voluntary agency rather than the state could not accomplish the same effort.

The same cannot be said of the T.S.A., and it is not entirely clear that the role of the T.S.A. could be taken on in its current form without the government. Of course, individual airlines could provide their own security in cooperation with the airports, much as they did before the events of 9/11. But, while that would replace the security function of the T.S.A., it seems clear that the security function is only part of the role of the T.S.A. The T.S.A. performs a very valuable function from the viewpoint of the corporations which own the airlines: it limits their liability in a way which could not be achieved by providing their own security. The security gains of the T.S.A. post-9/11 are not substantial; individuals are not significantly safer, statistically, flying on an airplane after 9/11 as they were before. The only thing that has changed is that government has taken the job of providing security away from the airlines, and thus also taken away the airlines’ liability. From the standpoint of the corporations, this is indeed a success story because it effectively means that they cannot be held responsible for any breach of security. But it is difficult to see how the public is benefited. If anything, the public maintains the same level of security as before while experiencing greatly limited recourse to hold anyone responsible in the event of security breaches.

Regulation of the business cycle?

Amy believes that the state is necessary to regulate the business cycle. Moreover, he believes that the state has succeeded. Current economic conditions seem to imply, however, that this success has only been partial. Amy boasts that “before government took on this responsibility, severe depressions were a routine and recurring problem in this country [. . .] Thanks to government intervention, we have been able to avoid the enormous amount of human suffering caused by these economic meltdowns.” The irony of this statement is that, even as Amy wrote this passage, our country was in the midst of the greatest economic downturn since the great depression, resulting in precisely the “enormous amount of human suffering” that Amy credits the government with preventing. Bad timing, perhaps? And it is not as if this is the only economic downturn that the United States has experienced since the Great Depression. Severe economic downturns afflicted the country during the Carter years and early years of the Reagan administration, as well as during both Bush administrations. So for whatever else might be said, it cannot be said that government has ended the business cycle, nor that downturns are any less “routine and recurring” than before.

All cynicism aside, government regulation probably is responsible for ameliorating the severity of most recessions. Amy’s hypothesis holds, even in our current economic depression because, according to many economists, it was precisely the government’s failure to regulate which led to the intensity of the current downturn. If government had acted to regulate more aggressively, even this current downturn might not have been so severe. It must not be forgotten, however, that this is completely harmonious with my analysis that the state is a facet of capitalism, in fact that facet of capitalism responsible for protecting it from itself. In this analysis, the state must naturally act to protect capitalism from its own excesses. The so-called business cycle is a naturally occurring aspect of capitalism, which would be obsolete in a healthy economic model which provided for goods and services in proportion to the actual need of society and not only to the extent that such production can exploit wealth. Therefore, I would suggest that the capitalist state’s success in this instance, as in many, is merely to partially ameliorate the suffering which it has caused.

Public Health Programs?

Amy suggests that the government has “greatly improved” the health of most Americans. As evidence, he cites the nearly complete eradication of polio, cholera, and smallpox, and the vaccination series which have greatly reduced the incidence of many other diseases. At first glance, Amy may have a point. The government has indeed invested in public health measures which have brought a measure of relief from many diseases which would have previously killed or incapacitated many people. But several facts ought to be noted which bear on the issue of public health.

First, it is not entirely clear that government should receive the lion’s share of the credit for the public health benefits of vaccination because vaccination, like many other health improvements, owes to a technological innovation; technological innovations are likely to be discovered under any circumstances because they represent the natural culmination of human inquisitiveness. But, even granting that the government did invest heavily in the technology to help disseminate it, it is not clear that absent government investment dissemination of the technology would not have occurred. Quite the contrary, in a system of small local communities such as those that I envision, it seems quite probable that local communities would have invested in their own local health programs, without paying the cost premium that was necessitated by government sponsored patents. These patents, and the accompanying government contracts to purchase such patented health products, arguably did much to enrich pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the public pays twice for these health products: first, it pays to sponsor the public universities which often do much of the grunt work of medical research. Second, the public pays again when it pays inflated prices to the pharmaceutical companies which are the beneficiaries of a patent system which enables them to gain profit by taking out patents on the finished product. It is hard to believe that, absent the government, society would be unable to afford such health innovations for which, in the presence of government, it pays such exorbitant prices. It would seem that, absent the capitalist state, such health measures would be far more cost efficient.

But an even larger problem is created by considering public health in such a piecemeal fashion. If one only looks at government’s purported successes, a quasi-plausible case can be made that public health is a “government success story.” However, when public health is envisioned from a larger perspective, a perspective which includes both successes and failures, the case that the government contributes to public health seems much less plausible. As Michael Pollan points out in his excellent work In Defense of Food, all of the technological innovations have not resulted in greater public health:

[M]ost of that gain is attributed to the fact that more of us are surviving infancy and childhood; the life expectancy of a sixty-five-year-old in 1900 was only about six years less than that of a sixty-five-year-old living today.* When you adjust for age, rates of chronic diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes are considerably higher today than they were in 1900. That is, the chances that a sixty- or seventy – year old suffers from cancer or type 2 diabetes are far greater today than they were a century ago.

After noting that the heart disease is likely also subject to the same dismal record as diabetes and cancer, Pollan inserts a footnote which indicates that matters seem to be getting even worse in the 21st century, likely negating even the six year increase in life expectancy:

It may be that the explosion of chronic diseases during the twentieth century is now taking a toll on the American life expectancy. In 2007, the CIA World Factbook ranked the United States forty-fifth for life expectancy at birth, below countries like Israel, Jordan, Bosnia, and Bermuda. Future gains in life expectancy depend largely on how much we can extend life among the elderly – exceedingly difficult, when you consider that the incidence of diabetes in people over seventy-five is projected to increase 336 percent during the first half of this century. (93)

If government’s public health measures have reduced or eliminated so much infectious disease, they have also contributed to a dramatic increase in chronic disease. Pollan blames the government for deliberately shifting the American diet away from whole foods and towards processed foods via targeted agricultural subsidies and intense propaganda. But I believe that Pollan misses the point. The government did not do this as some sort of a gigantic conspiracy against American health. Rather, the government shifted the American diet out of necessity, to feed a burgeoning population. Grains are the most energy efficient crops, and thus grains are the diet that we must be persuaded to eat if the world’s population is to be satisfied. The problem facing mankind, (and thus public health), is severe overpopulation. Already nearing 7 billion people, world population is expected to increase to over 9 billion by 2050.iii World grain production already cannot keep pace, resulting in steady price increases and rampant starvation in the third world. It is well known that populations grow in proportion to the resources available to them. Capitalism, which is hyper productive, tends toward massive overpopulation, which in turn fuels the problems of unemployment and resource depletion. The government has enabled this practice by coordinating a shift in diet toward more processed grains and less whole foods. But the impact on public health has been far from beneficial.

The Interstate Highway System?

If public health is a bad example, surely Amy has a slam dunk when he credits government with the Interstate Highway System. Much depends upon one’s perspective. The government incontestably is responsible for the Interstate Highway System, but whether this is to the public benefit is a matter of some dispute. If forming the “backbone” of “interstate commerce” is considered a good thing, then no doubt the Interstate Highway System is a refreshing breeze in the dung heap of government’s so-called “accomplishments.” But this is not an uncontroversial assumption. What seems clear is that, by any measure, corporations have benefited far more than individuals from a system of subsidized transportation. (This is as true of the Interstate system as it was of the railroad “public works” system which preceded it.) After all, subsidized transportation moves goods far more often than it moves people. And this results in a movement away from locally produced goods towards centralized production and a distribution network based on interstate (and international) transportation, all of which is subsidized by the very people harmed by such a development. All of this has a deleterious effect on small, local producers which are much more likely to contribute positively to their communities. It sacrifices local, well-paying jobs for jobs in large factories in places where the wage market is most favorable to investors. It allows corporations to dictate terms to local governments by threatening to displace workers if communities do not accede to corporate demands, and it forces smaller producers out of the marketplace, unable to compete with foreign goods produced by children working in sweatshops. Further, subsidizing gasoline and diesel results in an exponential increase in such traffic, and has invariably harmful effects on the environment and global climate. When viewed from such a perspective, the Interstate system seems like much less of an accomplishment.

Federal Deposit Insurance?

Amy’s claims respecting Federal Deposit Insurance are simply one more example of Amy missing the point completely because he focuses solely on the presence of a government program rather than the causes which necessitate it. Capitalism requires access to liquid pools of money, which the banks make available by capitalizing less liquid forms of capital.iv The government’s role in this is actually fairly murky. In the United States, the FED actually operates as a quasi-government entity, but is largely outside of the control of government. The Fed Chairman is appointed by the government, but neither the executive nor the legislative branches have much power to influence its monetary policy. Although the ostensible purpose of this arrangement is to separate monetary policy from the cyclical changes in representative politics, the end result is to ensure that monetary policy is as much a direct policy of the corporate banks as it is a policy of government. That having been said, the government can legislate to change matters if it so desires, but for obvious reasons has never seen fit to allow changes which would have the effect of making legislators directly responsible for monetary decisions.

From the perspective of many critics, governmental regulations on banks actually reduce access to much needed capital because of collateral requirements which insure that only the wealthy will be able to secure access. This policy is ensured via several mechanisms, but primarily the state’s practice of licensing banks. Absent such government interference, the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker noted that a mutually owned bank would issue its own bank notes which would be issued in order to permit a borrower to “exchange his own personal credit… for the bank’s credit ” at a greatly reduced cost, compared to present interest rates.v

The irony of our current banking model is that bankers charge exorbitant rates for loans when, in reality, they have no money to loan. In fact, they have only a very tiny fraction on hand compared to the amount of loans outstanding. This is permitted due to the government sponsored practice of “fractional reserve banking,” a practice which would be considered fraudulent if you or I did it without the government’s permission. Fractional reserve banking practices permit bankers to loan out many times the amount of cash currently on deposit. The banks operate under the assumption that only a small fraction of depositors will demand their money at any given time. This is because, historically, depositors do tend to leave their money in the banks. But history is not always on the bankers’ side, and at times consumers do demand more money than the bank has on hand.

Fractional reserve banking is a systemic threat, but not the only one. Banks routinely make risky loans because loaning money is the only way banks can make money. But in a nation as strapped with debt as our own, default is always a threat. Whatever the threat, individuals want assurance that the money that they have on deposit with the banks is not at risk; the irony is that funds on deposit at banks are inherently at risk, because banking is inherently unstable. To ameliorate this risk, the United States has instituted the FDIC, which guarantees deposited funds.

Interestingly, the system is not without its critics. The FDIC, some charge, promotes even riskier banking practices than would otherwise entail because banks pay the same rate for the insurance regardless of the amount of risk of their investments. If a bank with conservative, financially sound practices must pay the same rate for insurance as a reckless institution, the bank has precious little incentive to maintain its conservative policies and every incentive to take on a little more risk in exchange for the hope of better returns on its investments. Furthermore, it has not been demonstrated that countries that have adopted a system of private insurance are substantially riskier. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case. The major banking centers of the world, (such as the Cayman Islands, to note only one example,) operate almost entirely on voluntary insurance programs, and enjoy greater stability in the banking system. This is because the private insurance carriers may charge higher rates for insuring a less financially sound institution. And, while banks are not required by law to take out private insurance, they do so in order to secure investors who otherwise would be leery of placing money in an uninsured account.

The G.I. Bill and Student Financial Aid?

According to Amy, the G.I. Bill is a significant government accomplishment which enabled many veterans to go to college after returning from the war. There is a sort of bitter irony to any such claim; after all, it implies that education is a service that the government only sees fit to “provide” after one has put oneself in harm’s way in behalf of the state. That the prospect of a higher education should be held over the heads of poor children, only offered to the extent that they are willing to risk life and limb in behalf of the state, belies any sort of benefit that one might be tempted to credit government in this matter, unless one is inclined to believe that extortion is a benefit. After all, any such “benefit” is immediately outweighed by the concurrent exploitation.

In a broader sense, the thought that college tuition assistance is a public benefit suggests that education is not something that would naturally be provided absent the government. This seems doubtful, but in reality the omnipresence of government makes speculation as to what would happen in its absence unverifiable. But this lack of verifiability ought not cause us to error on the side of presuming that a stateless society would be incapable of providing education. Education can be a broad term. We typically use the term with reference to the particular style of education that currently exists in our society, complete with administrators, classrooms, standardized curriculum, etc. But education need not take this particular form. In its broader sense, education is simply the instruction of society’s members in the skills necessary to survive and thrive within that society.

The fact that all responsible governments see fit to provide for education at some level is nearly proof enough that education is a universal good. And if something is a universal good, it seems self-evident that society will find a way to provide for it. Stateless societies, too, will need education, and will find means of providing it. Granted, the particular form that education takes would likely be different; after all, it would be odd indeed if an educational system designed to meet the needs of capitalism would, without any changes whatsoever, be adapted to suit a non-capitalistic society.

What seems certain is that education suitable to the needs of society will be provided. One might even be tempted to suggest that society could provide for education in a much more efficient way if it did not have to pay the inflated administration costs of education, (not to mention the higher fees for “intellectual property”) that are necessitated by government intervention. Due to space constraints, for the moment I will have to let this particular possibility remain simply that: a tantalizing possibility which deserves more research and further explanation.

The Federal Housing Authority (F.H.A.)?

Amy maintains that the F.H.A., the government agency responsible for guaranteeing low-down-payment mortgage loans, is a substantial benefit because it increases access to home ownership for many low-income families. This is undoubtedly true. However, as so often is the case with Amy’s examples, there is always a flip side. After all, if the F.H.A. increases access, the question immediately presents itself: “why were the individuals excluded in the first place?”

In his essay regarding the way that government enables capitalism, Amy frankly confesses that property rights are not a natural feature of our world, but rather are produced by governments.vi But if government defines property rights by granting them to certain individuals, then by definition others are excluded from the right to access land. In a stateless society, the right of access to the means of production is a given, and therefore exclusion cannot occur. So, if exclusion has occurred, it can, by Amy’s admission, only be because of the action of the government. And if government has excluded these low-income individuals arbitrarily, it hardly makes sense to trumpet the inclusion of some percentage of them as a government success story.

Anti-Discrimination Policies?

The irony of this particular claim is that it was not too long ago that the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to women’s rights by significantly raising the standard of proof necessary to utilize the protections of these purported “benefits” against wayward employers.vii The end result of this decision is that many of the anti-discrimination policies which Amy trumpets are nothing more than paper tigers, without substantial teeth.

In fact, women and minorities still face substantially greater obstacles in the job market than do Caucasians, particularly Caucasian men. Minorities, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, are overwhelmingly more likely to be convicted of crimes, and American drug policy assures that the sentences of minorities are likely to be more harsh than those of a white person convicted of a similar crime. So whatever else can be said of the government policies, it cannot be said that they have ended discrimination. Via such laws as the Defense of Marriage Act, discrimination against homosexuals has actually been written into federal law. So permit me, a gay man who pays a premium in tax for my domestic union, a bit of skepticism concerning government’s record in matters involving anti-discrimination.

What seems clear is that moral norms are a function of society, and government merely legitimizes them. These moral norms often change, and as they do previous norms seem barbaric, enabling society to perceive itself as enlightened in comparison to previous generations. Roman pederasty seems shocking to modern ears, as does the fairly recent American practice of slave-owning. But, by their own cultural standards these practices were considered normal, and hence received the approval of the governments of their time.

At some future date, it seems plausible that the enslavement, slaughter, and consumption of non-human animals might come to seem barbaric to a future society. And, if that event ever occurs, it is certain that government will respond by prohibiting the practice of eating meat. Undoubtedly, the Amys of that time will credit government with the enlightened response, whereas government is doing nothing more than responding to the already existing cultural sensitivities. The state is a relatively recent phenomenon; for most of human history, anarchist tribalism has been the prevailing form of order. And tribalism certainly was never short on cultural taboos. So the thought that cultural norms can only be expressed via state sanction is beyond ridiculous.

Clean Air and Water Programs?

My earlier analysis of “clean water” programs applies equally to government’s efforts at ensuring “clean air.” Essentially, capitalism causes the problems in the first place and government, as a facet of capitalism, merely tries to manage the mess. Particularly onerous, with respect to air quality, are government subsidies of the oil industry; the result is a transportation infrastructure which exists only by spewing garbage into our atmosphere, a development which is currently threatening our climate and thus our very survival.

Further, I take issue with the assumptions which seem to underpin Amy’s boast that “while only 85 million Americans were served by sewage treatment plants in 1972, that figure has now risen to 170 million.” The assumption seems to be that Americans previously had a horrible method of disposing of waste, and thanks to government efforts now enjoy a much healthier method of sewage disposal. The reverse is actually the case. I suppose we are expected to imagine a gloomy portrait of 1970′s era waste disposal. Perhaps Amy wishes us to imagine Americans in 1972 defecating into buckets and then tossing the contents of those buckets into rivers. In reality, however, the major competition to government sewage treatment plants are septic systems. Far from being an improvement over septic systems, sewage treatment plants actually represent a regression from a better system to a worse system. Properly designed septic systems are more environmentally friendly, longer lasting, and more cost-efficient than sewage treatment facilities. Furthermore, they recharge the water tables with clean water, and thus do not necessitate “cleaning” the water which has been produced with toxic chemicals such as chlorine.viii And yet, municipality after municipality is mandating that homeowners convert their environmentally friendly septic systems to environmentally damaging sewage treatment facilities. And Amy is representing this idiocy as a government success story.

Workplace Safety?

As is his custom, Amy likes to cite government’s attempt to partially ameliorate the suffering caused by its prevailing economic system as proof of government’s efficacy rather than proof of the foolhardiness of capitalism. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his attempt to cite government improvements in workplace safety as a government success story. Somehow, we are led to believe that the capitalist state’s reduction in the number of injuries and fatalities, while still obviously high, is a testament to its brilliance. Amy’s attempts to boast on government’s behalf in this matter appear to me much like manufacturer claims that their products “Now have 40% less sodium” – we’re still going to kill you, just not as quick. I suggest that if one wants a fair comparison of government’s true impact on workplace safety one ought to compare government safety statistics to a control group composed entirely of worker owned cooperatives to see if workers can manage their own safety when they are stripped of the capitalistic infrastructure which turns them into wage slaves and sees their labor as nothing more than a commodity to be exploited. The results would not vindicate government.

The Military?

I am tempted to note the incredible damage to humanity that our militaries have wrought upon us. But I will resist other than to note that, even if the U.S. Military is a success story, I doubt that the Nazi era German military would likewise be considered a success story. It is sort of reminiscent of that quote from the first Harry Potter movie, where the wand-maker says that the villain “did great things. Terrible things…oh yes, but great.” Judging by the same standards by which Amy judges the U.S. Military, its good training, state-of-the-art equipment, and ability to project force, the Nazi military was nearly as much of a “good” as the U.S. Military is.

It goes without saying that no amount of technological sophistication could ever make the Nazi military a good, for the very reason that it was used to accomplish evil. But one wonders why this fact, obvious with respect to Nazi Germany’s military, does not seem equally obvious with respect to the American military: whether or not it is a good depends entirely on what it is used to accomplish and not its technological sophistication and superior training. Obviously, a judgment of something being “good” is an ethical statement, and therefore it does not seem possible to push issues of “how the military should be used” to the periphery as Amy seems to wish to do. I would suggest that any debate as to how “good” the military is cannot consider only its strength but must consider the manner in which it is used. This topic obviously necessitates much more consideration than the paragraph which Amy devotes to it, and thus I suggest that citing the military as a success story is inappropriate in Amy’s brief article.

But there is an even more fundamental reason why the military is not a success story from the stateless perspective. Militaries can only be formed by states, but in a stateless society there are no states so there are no militaries. (There is also no full-fledged war, though small skirmishes can at times occur.) Militaries are made both necessary and possible by states. The United States needs a military only because other countries have militaries which might potentially threaten us. Further, other militaries can threaten us only so long as there are definable targets. In the United States, our major cities, our military bases, our weapons storage depots, and like objects are targets for opposing militaries in the event of war. But a stateless society has no definable targets because it has no centralization. It is thus impossible even to wage a modern war against a completely decentralized society. The irony is that any military can only be a “success story” if government is presupposed. But government is precisely the institution under question. So citing the military, as Amy does, as a success story is nothing more than begging the question.

The West?

Amy claims that the Western United States “literally would not and could not exist as it does today without the sustained help of the federal government.” Part of the biggest irony of Amy’s statement is that his own words defy his conclusion. He admits that the West was “won” only by a campaign of genocide against the original inhabitants of the West – or in Amy’s more sanitized words, a “depressingly efficient program of `Indian removal.’” Presumably, if the U.S. had not engaged in such aggression against those peoples, they would have continued to inhabit the area in the way they saw fit, even as they had for generations before we intervened. So it makes no sense to claim that the West could not have supported human communities. After all, if it could not support human communities, then there would have been no need to displace the original inhabitants. So Amy doesn’t make the claim that the West could not exist at all, rather he makes the much more moderate claim that the West “could not exist as it does today” without the help of the government. Which is simply another way of saying that, without government intervention, genocide and mass displacement of indigenous peoples would not have been possible.

Amy takes it for granted that our civilization is objectively so much better than the civilization which we displaced. But that is a moral statement which is not in evidence. So before Amy cites this development as a “good” he needs to define his ethical system and open it up for inquiry. After displacing the natives, government initiated a program that was largely beneficial to corporate interests, by Amy’s own admission, which is further evidence that the state and capitalism are intertwined rather than completely separate entities. Since Amy has not defended the existence of capitalism as a good but rather seems to have assumed it as a premise, he is once again guilty of begging the question.

To make his statement that the West is a government success story intelligible, Amy first needs to explain how the results which he trumpets are good and the manner by which he determines “goods” clear so that they may be subjected to review by others. As it is, he seems to be relying on the vulgar conception of the West as a “good” merely because it is “convenient.” But while the existence of U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas may be “good” if “good” merely means convenient to some people, Amy is a long way from demonstrating their “goodness” in any ethical sense.

National Weather Service?

I have very little to say about this. Once again, Amy appears to confuse the currently existing method which one state (the U.S.) uses to deploy a particular technology with the technology itself. Yes, technology improves over time. I have never heard anyone suggest otherwise. That is a far cry from validating government’s methods of using coercive violence, even if a government is able to utilize or deploy any particular technology.

Funding Basic Research?

Once again, Amy seems to be unwilling or unable to draw a distinction between technology and research, which result naturally from human inquisitiveness, and the government, which obviously likes to put its hands in every pot. Just because government does something does not mean that is the only way it can be done. And the fact that government puts its hands in the pot usually means that it controls the type of research being done. Thus, it is often the case that certain research is neglected because government is paying for a different type of research, or else paying for research to be converted to weaponry rather than for peaceful uses.

Let’s be clear here: Research and education go hand in hand. That is the reason that much of our research is done by state sponsored universities. But there is no need to assume that our current funding model is the only one available to us. Society unnecessarily pays trillions of dollars in military spending and servicing of public debt that would not be possible in a stateless society. Without these liabilities, society would have more money with which to engage in productive research which benefits humanity. And, while coordination is undoubtedly necessary so that research is not unnecessarily duplicated, coordination can be done on a completely voluntary basis by organizations which do not maintain a monopoly on violence.

It further seems a little pretentious to credit government with such human breakthroughs as the discovery of the nature of matter and energy. These discoveries are the product of human genius, genius exploited but never produced by governments. In fact, the state does more to inhibit human genius than it ever could do to promote it. Albert Einstein was a true genius. But would he ever have developed his potential if he had languished in poverty in Somalia, or been orphaned due to an airstrike in Baghdad? The fact is that genius occurs in rather predictable percentages of the human population, but such genius must be developed. Because government promotes such a large contrast between the rich and the poor, it effectively ensures that many humans with genius never have the opportunity to develop their genius, and much human potential is effectively wasted by capitalism.

A Note on Methodology:

To sum up his case in government’s defense, Amy highlights a study by Derek Bok which evaluated American progress from 1960 to 1990. Bok divided American society into seventy-five categories, and then judged American progress based on improvement (or lack thereof) in each of these categories. The results? Americans were found to have “improved” in two-thirds of all categories. While Amy would surely like to focus on the two-thirds improvement in certain categories while ignoring the third of the time in which things didn’t improve, this sort of categorization really tells us nothing about our society. After all, every person has different criteria that matter to him or her, but there is no real way of quantifying the importance of each category relative to other categories. To illustrate, consider this small representative list of categories:

Voting Rights
Extent of Pre-Natal Care
Per Capita Income
Rates of Accidental Death at Work
Public and Private Spending on the Arts
Life Expectancyix

So imagine this hypothetical scenario: Imagine that life expectancy decreases by 10 years per person, and per capita income also decreases by 20%, but that we spend 5% more on the arts, rates of accidental death drop by .000354%, prenatal care availability increases by 2%, and voting rights are considered improved by 3%. Now, consider the case of the typical person who works an office job. She only has children two or three times in her life; she doesn’t really care much about the arts, and she only votes about 20% of the time. Although the two categories which affect her life the most have gone down, (life expectancy and per capita income), four categories which have minimal impact on her life have actually risen. This means that in this hypothetical situation, Amy could claim that her life is improved because in two-thirds of all categories her life has improved. But because the categories are not weighted in her case (and in the case of society as a whole it is impossible to weigh them at all accurately), then there is no objective way of saying that her life has improved. In fact, in this case her life seems to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse: she is closer to poverty and will die sooner. But that doesn’t change the fact that in two out of three categories her life has improved.

I hope this illustrates the folly of trying to quantify societal bliss in this manner. But there is an even more fundamental objection to Amy’s use of this study to demonstrate the necessity of government: it only compares government to itself. It doesn’t compare government to a stateless society. If one is to draw the conclusion that government is necessary vis a vis the stateless alternative, what is needed is to show that government does a better job of providing for society than would a stateless society. This cannot be shown. So Amy compares government only to itself. The logic seems to be this: In 1960, government’s manipulation of societal problems resulted in X. Thirty years later, there was a 30% improvement over X. Therefore, government deserves the credit for the improvement, because we have reason to attribute the improvement to government programs. But even if this statistic is upheld as being accurate, it only proves that governmental interference has resulted in more happiness now than governmental interference did thirty years ago. It cannot tell us what the opportunity cost of government is because it cannot tell us whether or not government results in greater happiness than it would if government did not exist.

Presumably, Amy would contend that the statistics can tell us that government is preferable to a stateless society because we can know several things. 1) Since society itself is presumed to be static, we can know that all of the improvements to society have been a result of government intervention. 2) Therefore, if the government had not intervened, we would not have had the improvements to society. But this analysis presumes that critics who wish to abandon government would keep all other facets of society the same. Whereas the facts as conceded by Amy are that if government were to be abandoned capitalism would not be sustainable. Therefore, abandoning government results in the introduction of a completely different variable: the structuring of a society without capitalism. If, as I maintain, capitalism is the largest blight to human progress imaginable, then the gains to society by eliminating government would be enormous because of the resulting demise of the capitalistic system. Amy’s analysis completely overlooks this aspect of his argument.

In the end, my analysis remains that the state is that facet of the capitalist system which serves to protect it from itself, to enable it to maximize its exploitation. Thus government is as much of a parasite on human society as the capitalist system to which it belongs. Allegations that it ameliorates suffering must be balanced against the large amount of suffering that it creates. I have heard that the mosquito introduces a chemical to numb the spot on the skin in which it intends to inflict its stinger. That it thus relieves the pain is no consolation to the victim which has been so bit, because the pain relief only serves to enable the mosquito to accomplish her dastardly deed unnoticed. This, I maintain, is the function of government in the capitalistic system.

————————————————–

Footnotes

ii Compare Amy’s statement: “In reality, a market economy does not exist separate from government – it is very much a product of government rules and regulations. The dirty little secret of our `free’ market system is that it would simply not exist as we know it without the presence of an active government that creates and maintains the rules and conditions that allow it to operate efficiently.” http://governmentisgood.com/articles.php?aid=13

iv Carson, Kevin A. Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. Fayetteville: Self-published, 2004.

v Tucker, Benjamin “Apex or Basis,” Liberty December 10, 1881, referenced In Carson.

vi “Without the right to own property and dispose of it as you wish, capitalism as we know it could not exist. These legal rights are created and protected by the government. Moreover, in the U.S., the federal courts have extended to corporations the same property rights given to citizens. Corporate property rights – one of the main legal instruments that insulate business from government power – can be created and maintained only by government.” With these words, Amy not only acknowledges the role that government plays in preserving individual property rights, but also the role that the government plays in enabling corporate property rights, and thus capitalism. Amy’s quote is short, and it is impossible to deduce whether he agrees that corporations ought to be thus shielded from governmental power, i.e., that they ought to be shielded from oversight by the people. Since his article is a defense of government because it sustains the capitalistic system, one can surmise that he finds this unproblematic. At any rate, even if Amy does not see this development as a good, he is forced to concede that it does indeed happen. This advantaging of capital over labor, of corporations over private individuals, is a feature of capitalism, and I rightly point out that it does not represent humanistic values. Source quoted from http://www.governmentisgood.com/articles.php?aid=13

vii I am loathe to quote Fox News. In this case, however, I selected Fox News as the source because so-called Progressives are more likely to be aware of this devastating ruling than are self-described Conservatives. So I am using Fox News as my source to convince even the Conservatives that the Supreme Court has effectively nullified anti-discrimination protections: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/06/20/groups-blast-laud-high-court-for-decision-against-nations-largest/ Essentially, the court ruled that women could not sue as a class – thus, even though they can statistically prove that Wal-Mart discriminated against women, women as a class cannot sue. Presumably, women individually can still sue, but without the benefit of a class action, it will be difficult for any individual woman to prove that in her individual case discrimination was the reason for her lack of promotion and low wages. This effectively means that women cannot hope of redressing corporate-wide discrimination practices.

ix Technically, all of these categories were considered to be improvements. But this only throws the methodology in doubt. After all, it is well known that, adjusted for inflation, wages have stagnated since the 1970′s. So the categories could have been skewed, either by considering too wide of a time period (comparing since the 1960′s rather than since the 1970′s) or else by failing to adjust for inflation. Regardless of whether the categories were considered improvements or not, my point is to illustrate that the impossibity of quantifying the relative importance of the categories makes analysis of this sort meaningless, and that point stands regardless of which categories are considered improvements and which are considered to be unimproved.

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6 thoughts on “Revised Rejoinders to Douglas J Amy – Is Government Good?

  1. the problem is that this argument in response to Douglas makes quiet a few errors when it presumes the state is the cause of capitalism rather than merely a symptom of it. It makes a categorical error when it presumes that sense the state “tends to” cooperate with capitalist that it’s only role is to do so. Also appealing to the “history” is disingenuous n nature. It’s not particularly relevant. conflating the state with Capitalism is a categorical fallacy. Libertarian types always love to argue as though the capitalist companies are the same thing as their State corporate charters but I adamantly beg to differ that corporations are defined by their legal entity but rather the entity that legal document represents. If Walmart’s LLC were burnt to the crisp and it became “Walmart’ instead it would be every bit as much a problem in fact worse then it is now. A corporation is -NOT- it’s legal existence but it’s concrete physical form and existence in the empirical and real material universe. The problems with the state are symptoms of Capitalism-Not Inherent to statehood. It’s again arguing backwards. appeals to the legal structure as to define WHAT a corporation is are weak. If the rivers are being poisoned by Private interest that poisoning belongs to private interest-not the state. a corporation TRANSCENDS it’s Corporate charter And would continue to maintain a concrete physical existence and operate without it-Likely by Hiring private mercenaries. like Academi. Formerly known as Blackwater. In Essence you’re making categorical mistakes when you pretend that because the state granted corporate charters that the problem is the state and the charter and not the corporate actors and concrete physical existence itself. You can’t Define a corporation as it’s legal existence. It’s it’s LITERAL existence

    • Thanks for your response. I do have several questions, though.

      First, why would you assume I am a “libertarian type”? Amy spends a lot of time critiquing the political right. My goal is to show him that the state faces strong criticism from the left. I identify strongly as a “leftist”. When I vote, I tend to vote Green Party. So I am uncertain why you have categorized me as a “Libertarian type”.

      I am curious why you think that historical arguments are “disingenuous in nature”? First, I never made a historical case against Amy’s argument. I said that such an argument would not fare well for Amy and that his argument was myopic because it only considered one particular expression of government at one particular historical period (namely the US in the 21st century.) Notwithstanding that observation, I agreed to only meet Amy on his own turf by directing my analysis only to the features of American government right now. So while I expressed confidence that Amy would lose a more comprehensive analysis of the issue, it was a point my essay never explored. Second, why would it be disingenuous to explore historical manifestations of the state? Would that same objection work if the topic were religion? If I started spouting nonsense such as “religion is a force for good” would you be acting disingenuously to mention all the harm that religion has wrought throughout history?

      Also, I am not certain that I understood your remark about corporations. You seem to have understood me to be making some sort of distinction between corporations in their legal (as opposed to de facto) sense, and assumed that I was analogously comparing the state to corporations via the analogy of state charter to corporate charter. But I feel confident I was not making such an analogy. Indeed, you seem to be conflating “corporations” and “capitalism”. But when I refer to capitalism, I am not referring to corporations. I see capitalism as a system. Corporations certainly play a role in capitalism. As, I believe, the state does. But capitalism is a system, not any organization or group of organizations.

      You say that I make the mistake of thinking that, because the state is influenced by capitalism, that is economic functions must be its only role. But my point was to the effect of showing how ALL of its traditional functions are either complicit with capitalism or else superfluous in the absence of capitalism. Do you have a counterexample. My list of state actions was fairly comprehensive.

    • I want to make another point, here. You take umbrage at my supposed conflation of the state and capitalism, but here I am merely echoing Amy himself. Amy concedes that capitalism is not possible without the state. Given the fundamental role that government plays in defining and sustaining property rights, it is difficult to see how anyone could believe that capitalism could exist sans the state.

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