None of Us Are Angels

An old thought: Were we all angels, we wouldn’t need government. Indeed, were we angels, it wouldn’t matter what kind of government we had.

But we’re not angels. We have limitations. Each one of us judges according to our own context-ridden conception of advantage and value, bound by our differing perspectives and situations. Despite our love for others, that love isn’t infinite and it doesn’t often trump our perceived self-interests, and it certainly isn’t angelically unlimited.

So we need something very much like government, and that government needs limits.

We need protection from criminals, but we also need protection from those who would protect us, who can — with “government power” — usurp their roles and become criminal themselves.

This is, I repeat, a very old thought.

Yet it seemed new when James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock advanced something very much like it with their book The Calculus of Consent, and in the many great contributions of their separate careers.

James M. Buchanan died this Wednesday. Before his contributions, economists typically assumed that public servants would swoop in like saving angels, setting the world aright according to the latest mathematical models, disinterestedly, without partisan passion or individual error.

Naive in the extreme.

Thanks to Buchanan, economists today occasionally go so far to confess that though markets often “fail,” merely appointing government to “fix” markets can put us in a bigger fix, since government failure is rampant. Government isn’t magic. It doesn’t change our natures for the better merely by being instituted, or by being called “government.” Power still corrupts, and economists now have to deal with that ugly but unavoidable fact.

By showing us that we’re no angels, Buchanan put himself on the side of the angels.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Jan
    11
    10:55
    AM
    drrik

    Which is why the 2nd Amendment is specifically NOT about hunting.

  2. Jan
    11
    3:49
    PM
    Paulina West

    The great 18th century scientist, inventor, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg described self-love as the primary motive of the natural human heart – and that that self-love, providentially, is able to work towards the order and help of others in society, because for standing and reputation, many will be willing to appear to do what is just. The motive is in reality personal vanity, but the end result is (through providence), a help to others.

    When the self-love of men is linked with, and benefits from, creating and developing useful inventions and making beneficial discoveries, then it happens that even pure self-love can (through providence) give new powers to man and improve the conditions of life for people. This is something Swedenborg termed “uses.” Bill Gates then makes a fortune, and we do not build a window into his soul over it, we simply buy the gadgets and he makes a profit to spend as he likes.

    But in government, the self-love becomes most staunchly manifested through the will to dominate others, and the will to take the possessions of others. These are the two main infernal delight arising from self-love, or the selfish impulse in the human heart. It may adopt the veneer of doing “public good” or “saving the planet” but it does not create anything, it tends to remove the liberty and property of others, and it increases only the preservation and power of the self-defined elites.

    That is why creators of wealth are selfish but they do benefit others nonetheless, while political power rarely leads to the betterment of individuals, but towards totalitarianism.

  3. Jan
    11
    6:33
    PM
    MoreFreedom

    Government is more prone to corruption than those working in the free market: there’s little accountability and little desire to prosecute fellow government workers. Plus government workers can threaten force against us.

    Which is all a good reason to limit government to dealing with situations in which force has already been used against someone or their property.

    If government force is being used in a situation in which someone hasn’t already been hurt, then that use of force is likely an abuse of power.

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