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The Utilitarian Argument for a State and where it Fails

Most arguments for the existence of a State structured society boil down to a single premise - through the existence of a State, violations of Natural Law can can be minimized. For instance, “there will be less theft,” “there will be less murder,” and so on. On the whole, it is argued that, folks will be better off. This is the Utilitarian Argument for a State. Let's explore.

The following figure demonstrates the proposition. In the absence of a State, society would arrive at a Natural Equilibrium where the inherent – yet informal – organization would result in some baseline level of violations against Natural Law – which can be assumed to be measured in some arbitrary units of value (i.e. money, emotional value, etc - shown as blue).

When a State is put in place, money, sweat, tears, etc must be extracted from the populace to sustain its existence. Under the influence of a State, by Le Chatelier's Principle, the equilibrium level of Natural Law violations will be shifted – for the better or for the worse. Under a State, both of these must be assigned a value and, subsequently, added together. If the summed value falls below the Natural Equilibrium, the State could be said to be ”worth it” (shown in dotted green) from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis – whereas the red dotted line represents the case where the sum exceeds the Natural Equilibrium, and so, is ”not worth it”.

In other words, if the State costs more and/or causes more harm than otherwise would be experienced by the People in its absence, it is not worth having.

[Note: The plot is normalized to the Natural Equilibrium level – such that “worth it” appears as a reduction in cost (a negative number) and “not worth it” shows up as an additional expense (a positive value).]

The Utilitarian Argument contends that the State can be kept on the green side of the Natural Equilibrium. I turn to the words of Common Sense:

"How came the king by a power which the people are afraid to trust, and always obliged to check?

...the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a Felo de se: for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern: and through the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavours will be ineffectual: The first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time."

~ Thomas Paine, February 1776

It's a striking result to plot the US Incarceration Rate versus the Gross Federal Debt.

However, the criticism goes philosophically deeper than the question - “Can the State be limited?” Fore, before a State is established, the questions must be answered: 1) Are the objectives sought to be achieved by establishing a State worth taking people's money, often involuntarily (by theft), to fund said objectives? 2) Does the group of people seeking to establish the State have the authority to subject the remainder of the population to its rule?

The first question can be restated as - “Is it acceptable to violate Natural Law in order to potentially prevent violations of Natural Law?” - or - “Is it acceptable to steal from your neighbor because, otherwise, some “other people” would have stolen more?” This is a question that you must answer for yourself - but please take into account the words of Frederic Bastiat:

”Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

~ Frederic Bastiat 1850

And, a play on Gandhi - When everyone seeks to screw everyone else through use of the State, in the end, everyone ends up screwed.

In any case, the second question still must be faced - Does the group of people seeking to establish the State have the authority to subject the remainder of the population to its rule? This question is not that different than that faced by the likes of Isaac Newton, John Locke, and later, Thomas Paine concerning the issue of divine right. Amanda Read wrote at washingtontimes.com:

Newton observed that when it comes to dispensing with laws, the king has no authority to ignore laws which are against mala in se (that is, laws against crimes that are wrong in themselves based on absolute principle). “The King cannot dispence with a law made for securing the liberty or property of the people,” wrote Newton.

This realization, if taken to its logical conclusion - that the king has no inherent right to do away with those of the people - leads one to conclude that - a king is no better than a common person - and for politicians, the same necessarily holds true. This question has been answered before.

While some may contend that a group of adults can get together and establish a State under a unanimous contract that binds a community to its rules, and while adults can certainly engage in binding contractual agreements among each other, at what age, for instance, does such a community define an age of consent whereby any individual younger is subject to its rule against their will? Mind you, this is not simply a question of parental authority over children born to them. Hardly so.

Once a contract is established through the unanimous consent of the adults in the community, would the contract be changeable? Or, would it be permanent? If it's changeable, who would have the power to legislate? For example, would unanimous consent be required for every change? Or, would majority consent suffice? Or, would an elected group be trusted with that power (I mean responsibility)?

Whether he said it or not, the quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson rings of truth:

”A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

If the contract is permanent, well, there arises another serious concern. Consider a youth one year younger than the age of consent established by the adults of the community. Now, suppose one year passes and the young one – while of consenting age – is still early enough in years to still be dependent on his or her parents. Is such a person that does not consent to the permanent rules established the prior year bound to follow them? In reality, if the rules were permanent, it would not matter if the child was one year younger than the age of consent or still yet to be born during passage. They would be reduced to nothing more than the slaves of their forefathers.

I'll leave you with Jefferson's words to Madison in a letter, September 6, 1789:

The question, whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here, on the elementary principles of society, has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be transmitted, I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severality, it will be taken by the first occupants, and these will generally be the wife and children of the decedent. If they have formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the deceased. So they may give it to its creditor. But the child, the legatee or creditor, takes it, not by natural right, but by a law of the society of which he is a member, and to which he is subject. Then, no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come; and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which is the reverse of our principle.

The Utilitarian Argument for a State fails to hold up to scrutiny – not only in a practical sense, either, but in a very human sense. For instance, how long will divine right be allowed to persist?

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Heisenburg was an important man...

Not only did he discover the Uncertainty Principle, but he also was one of the main contributors to the formulation of Matrix Mechanics.

I watched Breaking Bad, as well. I guess, as far as most of the television watching population goes, that may have been the only place they've heard the name (and possibly made the same assumption as your friends).

The Uncertainty Principle - in its more general form - gives a rule to determine what pairs of quantities can be measured simultaneously with no theoretical limitation on the accuracy. Mathematically, it's a commutation relation among things quantum mechanics calls operators. These operators, in most cases, correspond to measurable quantities (observables) such as position, momentum, etc. If the operators commute, the quantities may be measured simultaneously with no theoretical limitation on the accuracy, but if they do not commute, there will be limitation on the accuracy of the measurement.

For example, the position and momentum operators do not commute, and so there is a limit on how accurately they may be measured at the same time. This leads to, for instance, the idea of zero-point energy - that is, even at absolute zero, quantum particles jiggle about - since, if they did not, if they were to sit still, one could exactly specify the position and momentum simultaneously. This would be a violation. Similarly, you can imagine that, in order to measure the position of a quantum particle, some type of detection device must first interact with it - whereby the interaction imparts (or absorbs) some amount of energy to the particle, thereby changing its momentum. As one, measures the position more and more accurately, the uncertainty in momentum tends to infinity.

I guess there is some parallel with the market, but it's really not a measurement issue, per se. For instance, if I go ask the butcher what sales are currently like in his shop, he can give me an exact answer, and it should have no effect on anything else. However, if one looks at the market itself as the quantum particle, if the market is perturbed - say a new butcher opens a place across the street - then, last months sales will likely not be a good indicator of this months or those to come.

In the same way, people use historical observations to guide their market decisions, but with manipulation, those observations may likely be an invalid indicator of what is to come - that is, as the manipulation becomes greater and greater the uncertainty involved in historically extrapolated predictions will tend to infinity (ex. sentiments like "No one knows what this market is going to do").

And just like in any other science...

any model used to fit the data will always be subject to the error associated with the underlying approximations.

Imagine if, when the birds started flying south for the winter, a group of people felt that they had a better flight plan and attempted to herd & drive them with a fleet of 747's. Would probably just end up with a lot of birds in turbines.


With regard to nature, we have an amazing (amaxingly sad) example in South Florida. Some idiots felt they could regulate the waterflow in the Everglades. As a consequence the current "Everglades" are less than 3% of what they once were.

This, I think is a slightly different phenomenon, but certainly also a good opportunity for people to develop a little bit of humility.


This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Hayek: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Andrew Napolitano for President 2016!

"Patriotism should come from loving thy neighbor, not from worshiping Graven images." - ironman77

Oh indeed!

Hayek's knowledge argument was the first I ran into. It was only later I ran into Mises' calculation argument.

Hayek's argument is however harder to explain and Hayek himself had some questionable ideas about the acceptability of the welfare state.

Dr. Block calls Hayek a pinko:)

But then I call Dr Block a pinko:)

That's true...

Hayek didn't seem to understand the full impact of what seems to be a fundamentally correct observation. A lot of people have that problem with revolutionary ideas.

They see the truth but soon run into the...

interior wall of their comfort bubble where they stop and feel around like a mime for a while.

Not too many people were comfortable with not having a king, either. They get past it after a while.



You weren't expecting me to

You weren't expecting me to disagree?;)

Not expecting you to disagree...

Thought I might have gotten a bite from someone supporting the "Natural Law upholding city-states" that have been being discussed lately.

I will take their silence as acceptance - much like a State would.

When I run across...

....a direct call out, I shall respond!

I'm not a utilitarian, and I reject all utilitarian arguments, I certainly don't make any utilitarian arguments for a "state",nor have I not will I ever argue for a "coercive state", as most here would define "state".

I don't even "argue for " city-states", but rather the right of free individuals to create them using their own property.

Do you argue against that right? Or do you claim they do not have that right?

That is the core of the issue.

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*


I think consequences and principles are both important.

A pure conseqeuntialist hasn't an ideal to measure consequences against.

A pure idealist takes it on faith that his ends will be met by some action that he thinks is according to principle.

So i don't eschew utilitarian arguments, especially when they appeal to a different principle. In any case some people understand appeals to principle better and some understand appeals to consequences better so I think understanding both is important.

For me the fact that the state only exists by violating rights is important. That's the principled case.

But it is at least as important that the state violates rights progressively more and more the longer it exists. That is the consequentialist case.

If it were the case that accepting some minimal and limited evil ab initio would lead to less over all evil later, I would have to re-examine my position.

But sadly it is abundantly clear this is not the case.

People can do as they wish...

as long as they don't force me to be part of their club. I think I've said this before.

However, once laws are spelled out on paper (and, then, necessarily defined by man), they can no longer be considered Natural Law. Calling a cat a cow doesn't make it a cow.

On another note, although I'm not a fan of labels, you've said that you're not an anarchist (correct me if I'm wrong). So, how do you justify a "organization" that can use force to enforce their man-made rules?

I don't classify myself

As such, no. Though I a likely in agreement with many principled anarchists, my contention with many is with the terminology, which many will blow off as "mere semantics" , as if the words we use to communicate ideas are meaningless.

When you say "their" , you are acting as if it is some sort of separate entity. I speak only of voluntary groups, so any man-made rules are not backed by "force" per se, but by contractual agreement.

And in that context I've never so much as suggested any group that can force others to join it land follow man-made rules.

Q: do you believe an individual has the right to enforce man-made rules on his own property? (Granting that these rules are clearly stated and understood by those entering the property.)

An example would simply be "no smoking in my house" a rule that I enforce.

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*

Your question deals directly with individual property rights...

Enforcing "community rules" is an entirely different beast altogether.

It is, and it isn't

It is an "entirely different beast" if, by "community" we mean, "whatever people happen to live in the area or area we decree we have jurisdiction over".

So you agree man can enforce man-made rules on his own property...

The next step would be to ask if two men, living next door to each other, may join together and jointly enforce man-made rules on their property?

*Advancing the Ideas of Liberty Daily*