Front Page Titles (by Subject) Unintended Effects of Producing Interpersonal Utility and Justice - The State
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Unintended Effects of Producing Interpersonal Utility and Justice - Anthony de Jasay, The State 
The State (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
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Unintended Effects of Producing Interpersonal Utility and Justice
The constraints imposed on people by the state do not merely replace private constraints.
If people must always be bossed about and put upon, does it matter who does the bossing?
Whether it is conceived as pursuing interpersonal utility or distributive justice, the state provides a good for some of its subjects. Stretching words a little, it can be said that this good is the intended effect the latter were aiming at when lending their support to its policies. In the process of helping some (perhaps most) people to more utility and justice, the state imposes on civil society a system of interdictions and commands. This operation has inherent self-feeding characteristics. People’s conduct will get adjusted, habits will be formed in response to the state’s aids, interdictions and commands. Their adjusted behaviour and new habits create a demand for additional aids, needs for commands and so on, in a presumably endless iteration.29 The system becomes progressively more elaborate and requires an increasing apparatus of enforcement in the widest sense. Regularly or spasmodically, the power of the state over civil society will increase.
Incremental power accruing to the state in this way is a kind of second growth, over and above the accretion of state power engendered by its expanding role as the producer of more putative interpersonal utility and justice. These servitudes impinging to varying degrees on all subjects, and the enfeebled relative position of civil society as a whole, are the unintended effects of the state promoting the good of its subjects.30
This observation is not original, the less so as the rise of state power, the modification of people’s behaviour towards it (and towards each other) and the mutually reinforcing character of some of these developments belong to that momentous class of unintended effects which are not wholly unpredictable, yet remain largely unforeseen. The process is typically one within which prophecy has every chance of being disbelieved. Tocqueville saw it before any of it really happened, and Acton saw it about as soon as it started to gather momentum. When it was going strong, the liberal ideology had to find a place for it.
It did so by nurturing three separate strands of argument. The first basically denied that anything untoward was going on, that there were large and possibly ominous unintended effects piling up both in front and in the wake of social progress. The truth of this argument is an empirical question, the answer to it seems to me tediously evident and I do not propose to discuss it.
The second is that the hypertrophy of the state, while possibly real, is not malignant, at least not per se. It is what the state does with its increased weight and power that should condition our judgement of it. The view that great state power is intrinsically bad because it magnifies the harm individual subjects, or all of civil society, would suffer if the state chose for whatever reason to use it harmfully, is arbitrary and biased. The correct liberal view must be that democracy ensures that state power will not be used in ways harmful to the people. As the source of the increase in state power is precisely the extension of democracy, the very mechanism which breeds the unintended effects the reactionaries pretend to fear also breeds the safeguard against their purported dangers.
A priceless instance of this argument, unearthed by Friedrich von Hayek, figures in an 1885 speech by the very liberal Joseph Chamberlain: “Now government is the organised expression of the wishes and wants of the people and under these circumstances let us cease to regard it with suspicion. Now it is our business to extend its functions and to see in what ways its operations can be usefully enlarged.”31 The validity of this argument, like all arguments using the idea of a popular mandate, depends on the proposition that the state securing the consent of enough people to its tenure of power is tantamount to the people having instructed the state to do what it found expedient, necessary or desirable to do. If someone can see the popular mandate as corresponding to this equivalence, he can at least hold that democracy is a safeguard against the state’s power harming its own supporters, say the majority, whose will and wish it was that it should act in certain ways and adopt certain policies.
The corollary of this is that the greater is state power, the more exacting the demands of the majority can become and the greater the harm the state may have to do to the minority in conforming to the popular mandate. Along this route, we thus finally reach a perfectly Actonian conclusion about the morality of majority rule, with which liberals could not possibly agree.32 This is perhaps why the argument about democracy being the ipso facto safeguard against the dangers of overmighty government is not, as a rule, pressed too hard.
The third liberal argument in defence of the state doing interpersonal good despite unintended effects which may be bad, is more viable but also more sombre. It does not seek to deny that liberal policies do cause a continuous increase of the state, of its bulk, power and penetration of many aspects of the life of civil society. Nor does it contest that being surrounded by the state on all sides can be a bad, a disadvantage to some or to all to varying degrees, primarily in terms of lost liberty but, at least for some, in terms of utility or justice, too. It would assert, though, that this ought not to deter us from soliciting the state to maximize “total,” “social” utility or justice or both. For the loss of liberty, utility and justice which is its unintended side-effect is not a net loss.
The interpersonal balances of utility and of justice produced by state intervention are ex hypothesi positive, after all effects are duly accounted for, if they are being maximized; all the losses, including unintended ones, must be outweighed by the gains if the hypothesis of the state producing interpersonal good is to hold. But if liberty is a distinct end, separate from, say, utility, its loss may not be taken care of by the maximization of utility. It may also be that unintended effects are by their nature ill-adapted to be included in any utilitarian calculus (cf. pp. 101-2), because they always have a dimension of unpredictedness. Be that as it may, it would be foolish to deny that some liberty may be lost through the multiplication of the state’s commands, its widening coercive intervention in arrangements people reach among themselves and its substitution of just terms for negotiated ones in their contracts.
What the more sophisticated versions of the liberal ideology intimate is that this is not really the replacement of freedom by unfreedom. It is, instead, the substitution of rational and systematic interference for the arbitrary, random interference with people’s lives occasioned by “the social Darwinist sweepstakes that masquerade as a free market-place.” The saving difference is that while the “social sweepstakes” occasion interferences “inadvertently,” the state causes them “intentionally” which, it is implied, is for some reason less bad.33
Some care is needed in handling this argument, which is less transparent than it looks. It would be invalid if it meant that because people are being bossed about anyway, a bossy state cannot be all that objectionable. This would be like saying that since people keep getting killed in road accidents, we might as well retain or restore the death penalty (which is at least intentional). It may be valid, however, if it means that by submitting to systematic state interference (say, the death penalty for careless driving), people escape from chance-directed private interference (say, road accidents). Three conditions must be used to make it valid.
One is empirical. Greater state interference must, as a matter of fact, lead to lesser interference by the forces of unplanned chance. Enlisting as a soldier, with all found, for instance, must mean that in the barracks one is really less exposed to the accident of circumstance and the whim of others than if one were picking up a living in the bazaar. Those who hold that this is in fact so usually have, in the forefront of their minds, the pursuit by the partisan state of diverse egalitarian objectives, whose realization reduces the material risks and rewards of life relative to what would prevail in the state of nature, or in my hypothetical “policyless” capitalist state.
The second condition is that people should effectively prefer systematic interference by the state to random interference by the chance interaction of circumstances and other people’s whim, provided they know both from equal experience. This must be so in order to ensure that life has not biased their preferences, inducing addiction or allergy to the situation they know better. Plainly, this condition is rarely if ever satisfied, for soldiers know the soldier’s life and street traders know that of the street trader, but seldom each other’s. If one prefers the barracks and the other the bazaar, we might want to say that each would have preferred the other place if only they had had a broader experience. Similarly, if the welfare state breeds people dependent on state welfare, and if given the chance they ask for more of the same (which seems to be a standard finding of contemporary opinion surveys), we might contend “dialectically” that they never had the chance to develop their “real” preferences.
Finally, the “if we must be interfered with, better let the state do it” argument must meet a third condition. Granted that state interference can replace and relieve private interference, the rate at which it can accomplish this must (in some widely acceptable sense) be “cheap,” a favourable one. If it takes a crushing system of state coercion to get rid of a mildly irritating dose of private arbitrariness, the state coercion would not be worth accepting, almost regardless of people’s preferences between a safely regimented and a chance-ridden life. The converse is obviously the case if the rate of substitution works the other way. A formal bit of theory could be made to rest upon this condition, along “diminishing returns” lines borrowed from economics. At the start of the liberal state, a “small amount” of public constraint could liberate people from a “large” private one, with the rate of exchange between regular and irregular constraints steadily worsening as more and more private arbitrariness and accidents of circumstance were eliminated by the state’s pursuit of interpersonal utility and distributive justice until, with every nook and cranny of social relations combed for arbitrary inequalities, the unintended effects of the state doing good became excessively large and only a tiny amount of further private servitudes and unfreedoms could be got rid of at the cost of a large extension of public constraints. At some point, the “amount” of additional public constraint needed to replace a marginal “amount” of private constraint would, as a matter of social and historical fact, become equal to the “amount” with which a given individual would only just be prepared to put up, in order to be relieved of a marginal “amount” of private constraint. We might, for a guilty moment, suppose that the individual in question was representative of his whole society. Feeling by definition more comfortable at this point of the liberal evolution than at a more (or less) “advanced” point, society would choose to stop awhile. Such a point would stand for the stage of social progress where we would wish the state to pause, the equilibrium “mix” between public direction and private liberty, public goods and private consumption, mandatory price and income “policy” and free bargaining, public and private ownership of the “means of production” and so forth. (Cf. also pp. 264-6 on rolling back the state.)
Before investing the least mental effort in thinking in terms of such a construction, one would have to feel confident in assuming that people really have some substantive choice in the matter. The idea of “stopping the state” at the equilibrium point, or anywhere else for that matter, must be a practical one. On both theoretical and empirical grounds, it looks sheer fancy instead. However, if it were a practical possibility, one would have to give up the artifice of a representative man standing for society (which corresponds to the very special case of unanimity). We should have to admit the general case where at a given time some people want a more- and others a less-extensive state. Failing unanimity, what do we make of the amount of state bossiness which “people” are only just prepared to accept in exchange for reduced private arbitrariness, especially since some people are liable to get more of the relief and others to bear more of the cost?
Like any other attempt to construct a collective choice theory on the back of heterogeneous preferences and interests, the problem has no spontaneous solution. It requires the assignation, by some sovereign authority, of weights to the diverse preferences in place, to enable an interpersonal balance to be struck. There we go round and round, falling back upon the state (or an authority very much like it) to decide how much state would suit people best.
Whichever way the resultant of these arguments is taken to point, there is always a fallback position which would simply maintain that since people differ, no advice can be tendered on whether “on balance” they feel better or less put upon in the barracks than in the bazaar; hence, if there is something in the very mechanics of consent to state power which makes their life progressively more like the barracks and less like the bazaar, so be it.
There is, nevertheless, room here for a prior consideration, on which prudential advice may not be out of place. The problem of putting up with the unintended effects discussed here bears some analogy with the problem of the intentional bargain the political hedonist, seeking to escape alleged Hobbesian lawlessness, concludes in entering into the social contract (cf. p. 47). Mutatis mutandis, it also resembles the abdication of power by the capitalist class to the state for a more efficient oppression of the proletariat (cf. pp. 58-60). In either case, the contracting party is relieved of conflict with his like, man with man and class with class; his conflict is assumed, his battle is fought by the state instead. In exchange, the political hedonist, whether a person or a class, is disarmed and in this helpless condition is exposed to the risk of conflict with the state itself.
In conflict with his own kind, he would have the faculty of appeal, of recourse to a superior instance. Freedom from conflict of like with like, however, puts him in potential conflict with the higher instance. In opting for the latter, the possibility of recourse is given up. The state cannot be seriously expected to arbitrate conflicts to which it is an interested party, nor can we invoke its help in our quarrels with it. This is why accepting private interference, no matter how much it resembles “Darwinist sweepstakes,” is a risk of a different order from that of accepting state interference. The prudential argument against putting public in place of private constraints is not that one hurts more than the other. It is the somewhat indirect but no less powerful one that doing so makes the state unfit to perform the one service for civil society which no other body can render—that of being the instance of appeal.
[29. ]I am indebted to I. M. D. Little for the suggestion that “endless iteration” is not the unavoidable fate of this social process. Convergence towards a state of rest is logically just as possible. Nor is there an a priori presumption that endless iteration is more likely to be the case. However, the historical experience of actual societies supports the hypothesis of endless iteration and does not support that of convergence towards an equilibrium where no new state commands, prohibitions and aids are forthcoming.
[30. ]The reader may think that between the above lines there lurks a dim shadow of some “social trade-off between justice and liberty” which, side by side with the other trade-offs between pairs of society’s plural ends, is at the base of “pluralist” political theory. No such shadow is intended. As I fail to see how a society can be thought of as “choosing,” I would object to a social trade-off intruding its woolly head here.
[31. ]F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 1960, p. 444, my italics. The quotation repays study. First, we learn that what may have been true then is not true now that we control the state. Second, we are encouraged to embrace unintended effects, to make them into intended ones, positively to will second, third and nth rounds of state expansion and deliberately to push along the process of iteration engendered by the self-feeding feature of these effects. Used as we are to the contemporary state being overwhelmed by demands for “extending its functions” and “enlarging its operations” to help deserving interests, it may well strike us as funny that Joe Chamberlain saw a need for whetting people’s appetites for the state’s benefactions.
[32. ]The corollary could, for example, take this form: “The stronger the blows it can deliver to smash the class enemy, the better the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat can fulfil its historic function.” Needless to say, the liberal ideology is quite unready to accept a corollary of this sort.
[33. ]Benjamin R. Barber, “Robert Nozick and Philosophical Reductionism,” in M. Freeman and D. Robertson (eds), The Frontiers of Political Theory, 1980, p. 41.