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Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish & Short

October 21, 2010
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The choice between safety and freedom is one that everyone must make – whether it is because they are founding a nation, going to vote, or deciding whether or not to drive a car.  In the inevitable ensuing trade-off it is very important to know the pros and cons of each.  First I will isolate the two poles of this great equation, that of total control and that of absolute freedom.  Then I will attempt to define the characteristics that would point people on the path to finding the appropriate middle ground.  

So, what is worse – total anarchy, or absolute rule by a dictator?  I would argue that it would be better to have no government than an oppressive and totalitarian one.  Due to man’s great potential for organization, cooperation, and leadership humanity is prone not only to great acts of progress and success, but also to unspeakable horrors which would be impossible without a strong central power, that of a omnipotent sovereign. 

            Let us take for example the great genocides of the 20th Century.  In Nazi Germany, around the turn of the forth decade of the century Jews and various other ethnicities were persecuted and killed in the event know as the Holocaust.  The exact numbers are unclear, but it is estimated that one third of those of Hebrew descent in Europe were killed, six million people.  The inclusion of other groups targeted would elevate the number to about 15 million.  Not commonly known is that the number of people killed in other parts of the world is much higher.  From 1917 to 1953 the various leaders of the Soviet Union killed 20 million people of their own citizens.  However, it is Mao Zedong who tops the charts, having killed 30 million Chinese across his temporal span of rule.  All in all over 50 million people have been murdered by their own governments in the 20th Century – people murdered by their own governments.

            The number of those killed by other governments (war) is even higher.  World War I is said to have claimed 28 million lives and World War II 55 million.  These numbers are being presented to show the amount of lives affected by organized government.  However, this is not an argument for anarchism.  It would be a presumptuous to now conclude that the organization of government and the subsequent control of conflict is inferior to living alone in the proverbial woods and not having any government whatsoever.  As Mr. Hobbes so eloquently put it, there has never been, nor will there ever be a perfect state of nature on this earth.  Without any numbers to support the claim that anarchy would be better it is foolish to argue for it, and personally I believe that the death toll in such a world would exceed that of the greatest war.  Furthermore, since we do not measure the quality of life merely be being alive, but by the richness of life, it would be insurmountably foolish to say such anarchy could be preferable to an organized society. 

            Instead, people must band together to make life better for everyone.  The “size” of government must be decided upon n an organized manner by the citizens of a commonwealth and when such citizens decide they must understand the trade-off between freedom and safety.  They must give their government enough power to protect them, from other nation and from other citizens, but at the same time restrict their leviathan so as to secure the freedoms for themselves which make life worth living.

2 Comments
  1. Will Butler permalink
    October 22, 2010 9:13 PM

    I think that your points are very interesting and well articulated. At face value, I disagree slightly taking a more Hobbesian viewpoint that even an oppressive government would be better than a state of nature. However, this of course is a difficult point to make because, as you point out, we have never seen a real state of nature. But after reflecting upon your point that we judge life not by actually living, but the richness of a life, it made me rethink my position. However, I do wonder how religious (pro-life groups, religious and non-religious as well) would react to this point that life is judged by its richness.

    I also wanted to make a point that in more modern times, the equation of smaller to bigger government is no longer adequate. I would argue that it is possible to have a large government that can also not infringe (within limits) of freedom, while also protecting safety. In the end, I think the equation becomes less about bigger or smaller government, but more about how to make better government.

  2. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    October 25, 2010 4:40 PM

    I also believe that you have some very good points within this argument. The examples of genocide used were an interesting choice of support. However, to a certain extent, I do agree more with your counter argument in which you state that anarchy would lead to a ” death toll in such a world would exceed that of the greatest war.” Although a lack of government would most likely not lead to one uniform state of nature consisting of chaotic, brutish behavior across every community in the world, I do think that without a stable governing body, humans will most likely resort to primitive “darwinistic” behavior. In a world where survival of the fittest is the closest thing to a law, humans will suffer, because social interaction and community are both imperative to the advancement of a people. If two heads are better than one, how can a society thrive if everyone looks after their own self-interest.

    The only one of your arguments that I really disagree with is your claim that freedom and safety are a complete trade off, in which one can only exist in the absence of the other. As mentioned in lecture, complete freedom cannot exist without a certain extent of safety (usually implemented by government). How can one be free to do what they want, if they do not feel safe to do so. For example, if one does not go to the store in fear of the journey where others a free to harm them, how are they not constricted by the potential actions of another? One must feel safe in order to be free to do what they please, making freedom and safety a single entity within equilibrium, not a trade off.

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