All Commentary
Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Government

To "liberals" of today, "freedom" means not freedom from coercion, but freedom from want.

“In the beginning, the universe was created,” explains author Douglas Adams. “This has made a lot of people very angry, and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Hyperspace Bypass

Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a classic work of farcical and absurd hilarity. The small volume is also possessed of no small degree of brilliance. Adams notes, rightly, that discontentedness is endemic to existence, and goes on to demonstrate (even more rightly) that humanity’s collective attempts to rectify its malcontent are usually for the worse.

Discontentedness is endemic to existence.Put briefly, the protagonist (an exceptionally average man named Arthur) has his house demolished by the government to make way for a bypass. Shortly thereafter, the story takes an intergalactic twist when the Vogon aliens demolish Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Adventures ensue, but here we are concerned with only the first part – humanity’s discontent and its failed attempts at satisfying itself.

The reason we are so often indignant at life, the universe, and everything, is that we feel cheated. We each want something, and yet external forces continually thwart our objectives. To escape the state of nature in which, as Hobbes would say, our lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” we collectively organize our species into civilization.

Setting Men Free

John Locke describes in his treatises on government the nature of civilization: humans forge an implicit agreement, called the social contract, in which some liberties are surrendered for the sake of acquiring more liberty in the long run. I, for example, surrender my right to dispose of dangerous chemicals on my land, not only because they will be hurtful to me, but also because, without proper containment, they will destroy my neighbor’s property.

Ayn Rand summarized it best: “Civilization is the process of setting men free from men.” We submit to society in order that we might escape the depredations of the savage.

Yet, as Douglas Adams so astutely notes, civilization seems at times to be a complete failure, utterly destructive of the end to which it was first organized. While lying in front of the bulldozer in order to prevent the driver from knocking his house down, Arthur asks, quite sensibly, why the bypass must be built. “It’s a bypass!” Mr. Prosser, the driver, yells back. “You’ve got to build bypasses.”

How elucidating.

Unfortunately, this philosophy is all too prominent in the modern West: “It’s health care! You’ve got to have health care.” “It’s social security! You’ve got to have social security.” “It’s car insurance! You’ve got to have car insurance.”

I would be the last to dispute the value of insurance and retirement savings. However, the question we must ask is, “At what cost?”

What must we pay for these things? Each individual must ultimately decide for himself where it is worthwhile for him to invest his resources. Arthur has nothing against bypasses personally. He simply values his house more.

The sole object of civilization is to set man free, and we find that the collective power of humanity, while capable of exponentially greater good than the isolated bohemian, is likewise capable of exponentially greater evil.

Freedom’s Ambiguity

To “liberals” of today, “freedom” means not freedom from coercion, but freedom from want.There is a very simple reason for this: the logical fallacy of equivocation. We have equivocated our term “freedom” to mean a variety of terms. We remember that our ultimate objective is “liberty,” but to the “liberal” of today, “freedom” means not freedom from coercion, but freedom from want. Society wants bypasses, so let us build them! Society wants medical care, so let us provide it for them!

But any attempt to ensure freedom from want results in arbitrary coercion. Arthur’s house has to be removed, for the benefit of the culture. Suddenly, as he powerlessly watches the destruction of his home, he realizes that the state of nature has been replaced with a far more coercive tyranny.

Civilization’s Despotism

Of course, those in charge aren’t likely to see their actions as despotic. “It’s not as if it’s a particularly nice house,” Mr. Prosser attempts to console Arthur. And when the Vogons train their cannons on Earth, they patiently explain, “There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All of the planning charts have been on display for 50 years, in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge a formal complaint, and it’s too late to make a fuss now.” And then the Earth goes the way of Arthur’s house – obliterated in a casual puff of bureaucracy.

Defending the South’s practice of slavery, John C. Calhoun said, “We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both.”

Calhoun identifies two goods: peace and happiness. These public rights, he claims by inference, are more important than the fundamental, more individual human rights of the African. He was right, too, at least in part – doing away with slavery required the destruction of his ultimate value of peace.

In the USSR, the demand for national security was naturally quite high. The resulting trade-off was that uranium mines were given free reign to dump their waste wherever they so desired (thus they could produce more uranium, which would in turn contribute to Russia’s arsenal of ICBMs). The town of Oberrothenbach was so badly contaminated by nuclear waste that, as Richard Maybury wrote, “unknown to the residents, homes were built of radioactive slag.”

Price controls in Venezuela were instituted to make food more affordable. Health care in Sweden was sponsored by the government to give the poor insurance. Tariffs in India were established to prevent job loss. And yet Venezuelans are starving, Swedes in need of urgent surgery have visited veterinarians, and, until the repeal of tariffs in the 80s and 90s, Indian automobiles sold at a far higher price and a fraction of the quality of the cars in the rest of the world.

The Coercive “Public Interest”

Again, to quote Rand, “Since there is no such entity as the public, since the public is merely a number of individuals, any claimed or implied conflict of the public interest with private interests, means that the interests and wishes of some men are to be sacrificed to the interests and wishes of others.” Any “need of the public,” therefore, results out of a conflict of interests between individuals. And preference to one group is left up to the subjective biases of a determining agency.

Civilization is our greatest achievement, but only so long as it is about setting men free from men, not from want.Discontent with our world, we have set about improving it. We have made tremendous progress. A great many obstacles to our ends and objectives have been removed by our industry.

Yet we run the risk of creating a great many more. So long as laws and government are constructed to benefit the public interest, as opposed to the rights of individuals, then only a lucky few can ever be free. Civilization is our greatest achievement, but only so long as we remember: it is the process of setting men free from men. Not setting men free from want.

If we mistake civilization for something inherently valuable, instead of as the means of reducing coercion, we will destroy the end for which it was originally intended. It may seem good, at first. We may alleviate some want. We may lift up some downtrodden spirit.

But when the Vogons come, espousing our own philosophy – our own arbitrary value of the public’s interests, which have supplanted rights – we will realize the despotism that we have championed.

  • Tegan Truitt is the author of the small blog, A Shortage of Sand, which deals with economic philosophy, and a sometime speaker for the homeschooling company Classical Conversations.