That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
November 12, 2001


The State and the pretense of knowledge



"The world is full of people who can't mind their own business and who think they know what's best for the rest of us. If only we'd be smart enough to put them in charge, they figure, the world would be a better, more rationally planned place. Things would run more smoothly and efficiently, and nobody's greed would be satisfied at anyone else's expense. The world's scarce resources would be husbanded for the benefit of all.

"Yeah, right.

"Where have we heard such nonsense before?"

Thus began Lawrence W. Reed's Ideas and Consequences column, "Don't Bash SUVs," in the October issue of Ideas on Liberty (p. 16-17).

Reed was getting set to thrash anti-SUV do-gooders, but my own idea on liberty prompted me to answer aloud: "From people who write constitutions."

I know, because I used to be one. Everyone who believes in constitutional government sooner or later has to write a constitution. Or imagine one. Or think of ways of modifying the existing one. Whenever a constitutional amendment is proposed, debate ensues about whether it is a good idea or not. Moreover, anyone who likes to think about what the ideal government would be like is implicitly writing a constitution for an entire country.

From whom else do we hear such nonsense? From anyone who proposes a new piece of legislation, from anyone who supports it or opposes it, and from anyone who votes for it or against it.

What makes such projects nonsense, and arrogant nonsense at that? The fact that anyone who engages in them actually thinks that the subject addressed by the specific constitution or legislation is suitable for all 280 million people in the country, all of them individuals, all of them unrepeatable in their individuality and circumstances.

Yet a handful of people routinely claim to have an idea of exactly what laws or legal structure every one of those 280 million people needs. It's easy to see the absurdity when we talk about minutiæ, such as how much water a toilet tank should hold or how much an airport baggage checker should be paid. But the absurdity holds, too, in the larger matters — in the macromatters.

In this country, there is only one way legislative matters can be resolved: by majority vote (except in the rare matters where larger, precise fractions are required). It's never by a 55 percent majority; never by a 63 percent majority; never by a 90 percent majority. There can be no more than two houses of legislation: there is never any use for a third house or a fourth house. Each house passes legislation. Never is there a body whose sole purpose is to review and repeal legislation.

There can be only one system of courts, presided over by judges all chosen in one or two ways. There can be only one system of appellate courts.

To think that all the affairs of 280 million people — or even the affairs of any one of them — can be served by a system of government established without reference to the needs and circumstances of any of them is to say that the designer of any particular government plan knows what's best for the rest of us. It is tantamount to a claim of omniscience.

I am not speaking here of the problem of "unconstitutional" legislation. I am speaking of any legislation, any constitution. Any of them carries the implicit pretense of knowledge that no one can possess. Indeed, if anyone were so careless as to explicitly and publicly assert such knowledge, he would be pitied, and his relatives and friends would cart him off somewhere where he would pose no danger to himself or others.

It's bad enough that there are people who implicitly make such claims, and that they are respected for making them, and that they are actually rewarded for making them. What is worse is that there are so many who seem to be champions of liberty who, being advocates of government, perforce echo those claims and say that the world cannot get by without people who will make a single determination for 280 million strangers.

© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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