The Government as a Necessary Evil

August 2013  |  Status: Second Draft

In “Common Sense”, Thomas Paine writes:

government even in its best state is but a necessary evil, and in its worst state an intolerable one… Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.

I wish people took this more seriously and explored its philosophical implications. Repeat after me: Your government is a necessary evil.

What on Earth is there to romanticize, glorify, glamorize, sentimentalize, and eulogize about the fucking government? The government is a means to an end, like so many other things that we invented to make the harsh reality of life somewhat more tolerable. It’s only raison d’etre is that, after years of experimentation, we have yet to find a less bad alternative as Churchill famously noted.

What Churchill didn’t mention is that we’ve only been experimenting with governments for a few thousand years, with democracy for a few hundred years, and with universal suffrage for a few decades. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only just started to look for a solution. So much for the End of History, Mr. Fukuyama!

When, after only so little experimentation, people cannot bear to admit that their current government might not be the best thing evaaaaar, it’s a sign of a serious problem: confusion between means and ends.

Programmers who cannot bear to admit that their pet program has massive security holes tend not to produce secure software, and arguing with them often results in hilarious threads that we see here from time to time under headings like “How not to respond to a bug report”. Similarly, people who equate any criticism of or harm to their country with the murder of their firstborn tend not to produce a good country.

As Paine says in another part of the article:

any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.

Implication: Don’t get too emotionally attached to a government. Especially your own.

But Paine was not an anarchist. Neither am I. Just because people refuse to romanticize the government doesn’t mean that they’d rather get rid of it. The definition of a necessary evil is that although it is evil, it is also necessary under present circumstances. Anarchists are senseless, they don’t understand necessity. Sensible people do. But although sensible people don’t destroy things they need, they are always willing to ditch one and get another if the alternative turns out to be a better fit for the job and the benefits outweigh the cost of transition.

237 years ago, Paine ditched Britain in favor of a new country. Perhaps 23.7 or 237 or 2370 years from now, sensible Americans may need to ditch America for something else. Throw around big words like “treason” all you want, but at the most fundemantal level it’s just common sense. Countries just tend to be more difficult and costly to switch than your mobile phone contract is.

Discussion in this HN thread.