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Home | Blog | The State and the Desire for Certainty

The State and the Desire for Certainty


I've been skimming over the early JLS issues and have particularly enjoyed the articles generated by Nozick's attack on anarchy. One article in particular raises an issue that has bugged me for a long time: Certainty as a goal in social affairs, (e.g. "No Child Left Behind"). Jeffrey Paul in "Nozick, Anarchism and Procedural Rights" (PDF) exemplifies this position in his argument against anarchy (emphasis mine):

...only force which is employed in accordance with rules which restrict it to defensive uses is politically permissible. How to ensure such restriction? In the first place we cannot let the creation of rules be a market function -i.e. certain rules which might be desired by Fabians, for example, must be excluded. But in order to assure their exclusion an ultimate set of rules or, if you like, a framework for rules must be drawn up. And, in order to assure that no other anti-libertarian rules could be applied with impunity within a specific territory some instrument of physical defense must be employed the exclusive function of which will be to prevent anti-libertarian rules from being employed against its clientele. Thus, it would seem that libertarians of the anarchist persuasion must, by their adherence to libertarian principle, provide a vehicle by which the market in force will be strictly limited to libertarian uses.

Against this desire to enforce certainty, I posit the following:

1- Certainty in the arrangement of social affairs is impossible, (utopian).

2- The pursuit of certainty is harmful just as is the pursuit of any goal that contradicts man's nature.

3- An ethical theory that requires such certainty is invalid.

My argument for #1 follows from free will. No institutional arrangement of society, however ideal, is proof against people exercising their wills en masse to turn away from this ideal arrangement. In fact, I would argue that societies turn away from superior social and political arrangements all the time. (I am reminded of Edgar Allen Poe's phrase, "The Imp of the Perverse"). #3 is an application of Rothbard's point that "If a theory is correct, then it does work in practice; if it does not work in practice, then it is a bad theory."

Though I do not think that the certainty we crave is ever achieved it is a powerful tool of propaganda for overlooking what is really going on. For example, earlier in the article Paul argues that "The uses of force according to natural rights theory ought not to be left to human choice." The implication being that if we only adopt the tiny bit of the monopoly state that he suggests, then force will no longer be left to human choice. Whose choice will it be then? Rocks? Trees? The state is made up of humans too. They make choices and mistakes like other humans.

I have observed that the desire for certainty is implicit or, often, rather explicit in numerous arguments for the state. Paul, above, illustrates the desire to ensure that force will never be misused. Others desire to ensure that no one should ever be in poverty, that no child should be uneducated, that no one will experience bigotry, that everyone will be completely safe, etc. Let us put aside these childish, impossible goals and get down to the serious business of finding social and political arrangements that make the best of what we are: humans that make errors and do evil.

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