Column on Misusing Emergencies

Misusing Emergencies

Tibor R. Machan

There are fewer fallacies as widely used as those captured by the saying, "Hard cases make bad law." This includes all the types mentioned by those who would sanction the systematic violation of individual rights just because they can imagine and maybe even find some instance in which strict respect for these rights is pretty much impossible. Even John Locke, the greatest theorist of natural individual human rights in the history of modern political philosophy acknowledged that one may need to disregard rights when "politics is impossible." Such as in the middle of an earthquake or on a raft in the ocean.

The most frequently deployed emergency case involves people who are in dire straits through no fault of their own and only if they gain provisions from others who have them can they survive and flourish, at least for a time. In my career as an academic philosopher these kinds of cases have dominated the political discussions I’ve had, both in the journals and at conferences, with those who reject the principles of the free society in favor of the welfare state or even more draconian regimes that violate individual rights galore. It is always some nearly unthinkable cases, since the actual ones people face or know about are mainly explainable by the very violation of individual rights that are meant to be undermined by them.

Why are so many people in dire straits? Mostly because other people have oppressed or subjugated them, made them into slaves, subjected them to involuntary servitude or serfdom or otherwise refused to respect their rights to their lives, liberty and property. In the modern welfare states which are mainly given philosophical support by reference to such extreme, emergency cases, the major culprit in producing poverty is, you guessed it, government’s immense appetite for people’s resources, taken from them by way of taxation and by the expenses they need to incur from having to deal with government regulations and other interferences in their lives they have no earned at all. And, of course, no matter how long the welfare states have existed (because, supposedly, they are necessary to give support to those in dire straits), the homeless and indigent and unemployed and all others who cannot fend for themselves keep not disappearing, not escaping their bad circumstances.

One reason, of course, is that the administrators of the welfare state are not at all shy about taking their cut from the taxes they collect before they let any of it go to those in whose name the taxes are levied. And as the economists who conceived of public choice theory have demonstrated, these administrators are more likely to devote the resources they take from citizens to advance some agenda of their own than they are to support those who need help. (Needless to say, one reason is that they probably haven’t a clue as to what really would help, what program might actually eliminate poverty and indigence and such! So they just do what they know, which amounts to pursuing projects of their own.)

Now rules, principles and such are discovered to help understand the way things behave normally, or how we ought to carry on in normal circumstances. This is true in medicine, fitness, nutrition, driving, raising children, gardening and anywhere where people need some stable, dependable means for pursuing worthy goals. And obviously, for all rules there are some exceptions–extreme, yet unheard of or similar cases the rules do not cover. But this does not mean the rules are unsound, only that reality is not some geometrical system where no borderline cases, anomalies, or emergencies can be found. Yet, one does not act wisely by abandoning the rules so as to accommodate the rare exceptions, especially when these exceptions can best be understood as the regrettable consequences of violating the rules or principles in the first place.

This is why I am not very responsive when I am told that in some cases may someone’s right to private property may need to be disregarded, even violated, so as to remedy matters. So what? It doesn’t follow from this that well established, tried and true principles should be tossed into the dustbin of bad ideas, that s system governed by them should be abandoned. And since much of the time advocating tossing generally sound principles of liberty goes hand in hand with entrusting certain people with special powers over other people, I am naturally skeptical about what is being advocated. But, yes, now and then these principles may not hold–as when once in a rare while initiating a bit of physical assault against an innocent party can solve a problem (say, of someone who is being hysterical). We aren’t dealing with principles of pure, formal logic, more likely with those of biology and psychology.

So I suggest not to get bent out of shape if someone finds some obscure counterexample to a swell principle of ethics, politics or law. As Aristotle is supposed to have put the point, one swallow does not a springtime make.

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