All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

On Misery and Rule

Dr. McDonald, a lecturer in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Liverpool, England, currently is on leave of absence at the University of Rochester, New York.

A social doctrine currently fashionable within the “intellectual community” is that poverty, hunger, and suffering in general are intolerable in a humane society. The implication is that society is not humane if it does not as a matter of course provide for the relief of all types of suffering. Since there is no consensus as to the means or extent of the relief of suffering (otherwise the point taken would be manifestly redundant) it must be left to the government, as society’s instrument of force, to ensure this relief.

Let us look at this principle in the context of the philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that the function of government is to secure the various “inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” To be consistent, we must either acknowledge as one of the Rights that of freedom from suffering, or else append the philosophy of the Founding Fathers with the notion that government has a further function.

On the one hand, it appears that it is not an inherent Right that we be free from suffering. The “inalienable Rights” claimed by the Founding Fathers are those states of being with which men are “endowed by their Creator,” states which are not only possible, but manifest. The thesis that a condition is a Right is thus untenable if, under foreseeable circumstances, that condition cannot possibly be realized. Hence, one cannot claim the right to be President, although he may claim the right to one day qualify for nomination, simply because not every man can possibly attain that position.

Although the Creator is selective when providing men with physical and mental attributes, He is exceedingly impartial with Rights, to the extent that they are equally bestowed upon men. The notion that freedom from suffering is a Right cannot be justified on the basis of any empirical evidence, since it has never been demonstrated that men can be free from suffering.

We are thus left with the alternative the relief of suffering is a function of government in addition to that of securing the “inalienable Rights.” What remains to be shown is that it is not in violation of Rights that government exercises functions beyond the maintenance of Rights. In other words, is there a legitimate social use of force other than that necessary to secure men’s natural rights? We would like to show that in the particular case of relief from suffering the answer must be “no.” We will base our conclusions on the premise that suffering is an inherent aspect of man’s cognizance of reality, and we will consequently try to demonstrate that the suffering experience is a necessary part of the pursuit of Happiness.

Through experience and reason we have come to realize that it is always those conditions which give rise to suffering which we aim to eliminate. Although suffering is a disagreeable experience, which may possibly bring about more suffering, it is not a substantial condition. We may describe “suffering” as the natural response of the body or mind to conditions which are not in harmony with the natural state of the body or mind.

Whereas the state of Happiness may be characterized by the cognizance of the condition of physical and psychological harmony, the pursuit of Happiness must entail the endeavor to eliminate the inharmonious conditions. Apparently the experience of suffering is the indication of sensitivity to such conditions; and, without that sensitivity, it is not clear how those conditions may be remedied. The systematic suppression of the suffering experience must prove a forbidding obstacle to the pursuit of Happiness. Only for those conditions of suffering which are evidently irremedial can we justify systematic relief.

Helpless or Foolish?

Let us look at two types of conditions which give rise to suffering.

One type of suffering is Poverty — a condition symptomatic of the lack of means, will, or freedom to attain a given level of productivity. Poverty itself is a state of inability to attain some level of consumption, and is frequently a source of other types of suffering. Inasmuch as the degree of consumption is determined by appetite as well as by need, we distinguish Poverty solely as a matter of necessity. Hazlitt¹ has suggested that the poverty line be the “level of subsistence sufficient to maintain reasonable health and strength.” One interpretation of “reasonable health and strength” is that condition in which one can be productive to the extent that, relative to the prevailing societal mechanisms which correlate productivity and consumption, he may sustain his physical condition. In this interpretation, a man’s situation is viewed in relation to self-perpetuation, independently of appetite and other arbitrary considerations. The poverty-stricken must somehow attain the necessities for consumption, presumably through increased productivity, or perish. It is for the relief of those who cannot help themselves that Charity is devoted.

In addition to Poverty, various kinds of suffering arise from error and folly. Whether the resultant suffering is of a physical or psychological nature, we are made sufficiently aware of actions which otherwise might pass as effecting harmonious conditions. Whether it is the remorse springing from harsh words to a friend, or a painful sunburn after a day at the beach, we have received a definite signal, a kind of natural chastisement.

Mistakes Become Habits If We Will Not Learn

We then have a choice. We can disregard the causal relationship between certain actions and suffering, and instead regard the pain as a matter of chance. We expect that as time passes we will suffer more and more: not only will we suffer repeatedly from the same type of mistake, but we will no doubt have to suffer from new mistakes. Alternatively, if we conclude that certain types of activities always result in suffering, we can resolve to avoid the suffering by not indulging in those actions. This is just what we mean by “learning from our mistakes.” Only through this process do we have reason to expect that our efforts might become more fruitful and our sufferings decrease.

We could consider other types of suffering as well, but those which we have discussed cover a wide range of possible conditions and should be sufficient illustrations for our argument. In the one, suffering indicates a lack of balance between consumption and productivity, and spurs men to strive for such balance. In the other, suffering indicates that the causative activities are faulty or misdirected.

We conclude that although suffering is disagreeable, it is a natural response to certain conditions of life, which we disregard at our own peril. Life consists of a series of situations which are either forced upon us or are resultant from our actions. If we choose to be insensitive to the conditions which cause suffering, we are opting for ignorance and an endless struggle with a malevolent universe. On the other hand, if we pay heed to our sensitivity to the conditions we experience, we can expect the chance to learn from our mistakes.

It thus seems that any systematic attempts to shield men from the natural responses, including suffering, to those conditions to which their actions have led necessarily deny those men the facility to pursue Happiness. This is just another way of saying that if men are not held accountable for their actions, then they will soon have little way of knowing which actions they should undertake.

It may well be argued that, since government is an institution of force rather than production, it does not command the means to alleviate the conditions underlying suffering. Moreover, it is argued, government is sensitive only to political activity; its response to conditions of suffering must at most be unreliable. What, then, is the point of our argument?

We have shown that the attempt to protect men from the results of their actions, particularly suffering, is a move to deny them their inherent means with which to pursue Happiness. The proposal that a basic function of government is the relief of suffering is incompatible with the philosophy that government guarantee the Right of the pursuit of Happiness. Moreover, such a function is destructive of this end, and it is the “Right of the People to alter or to abolish it….”

In the past forty years, the notion that “suffering is intolerable in a humane society” has been used with increasing effectiveness by those who would have an omnipresent state. We have seen, and are seeing more and more each day, the countless burdens we are having to bear as a result of some foggy theories about misery and rule. If anything, the cry that the government should undertake the relief of suffering has resulted in a gigantic free-for-all for the spoils of power.

If we will, we may learn from these mistakes and proceed on a course which, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, will truly “secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity.” If we won’t, we have only ourselves to blame.


1 Henry Hazlitt, The Conquest of Poverty, (Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York) 1973, p. 39.