Column on Ignorance vs. Intervention

Ignorance vs. Intervention

Tibor R. Machan

Some of the most prominent and influential defenders of the regime of individual liberty, such as F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Richard Epstein, Don Boudreaux and others, have argued that the main reason adult men and women must be left free from others’ interference is that we are all ignorant when it comes to how people ought to conduct themselves, how they should act. So, for example, after surveying arguments for a strictly limited government, English classical liberal jurist F.W. Maitland reportedly concluded: "But after all, the most powerful argument is that based on the ignorance, the necessary ignorance, of our rulers." The ignorance would be about right versus wrong ways to act!

Trouble is, now and then there will be some people who really do know a good deal, at least about some special matters like in the sciences or engineering. And this makes sense–just look around you and see the marvels of human creations and tending (e.g., to the sick or to harvesting nature). Certainly when juries reach a verdict about someone’s guilt, they, too, lay claim to knowing right from wrong, at least so far as how we should act toward one another–e.g., that murderers should not murder, thieves should not steal, etc.

Of course, the kind of knowledge rulers, politicians, and government regulators lay claim to is different–they pretend to know how we, each and every single solitary one of us, ought to live from moment to moment, and this is impossible. Should I eat salty foods? Exercise regularly? Follow a diet? Go green? Drive an SUV? Save my money or spend it? Become a high school teacher or a Wall Street operator?

The little bit of this kind of knowledge that’s available is only local, knowledge that intimates have of intimates (and even then much of it is speculative) and never authorizes people to regiment others’ lives except when it comes to parents vis-a-vis their children and those who have been given the authority by people they might choose to instruct (doctors or trainers from patients and clients, respectively).

Such intimate and rare knowledge by no means implies the usual belief of the totalitarian sort that is so popular with governments, of people’s proper goals in their lives and the means by which to reach these goals. Furthermore, the kind of knowledge one might have of how another should act does not imply that it should be imposed on people by laws and regulations. Simply as a matter of sound reasoning, logic, from the fact that one has knowledge of how another ought to act it does not follow that this knowledge may be imposed, used to justify ruling another. It is a non sequitur to think otherwise; it just doesn’t follow!

So the ignorance-based defense of limited government needs to be supplemented with the rights-based defense in line with which even in those rare cases when others may well know a thing or two about how another ought to act, it is not up to these others to put that knowledge into practice but up to the agents themselves. (My doctor does know a bit about what it is that I ought to do to be well, yet he may only advise me, not force me!)

If all one relies on in the defense of liberty is widespread human ignorance of how other people should live their lives, there are simply too many cases that don’t fit the situation. It is often enough that one knows that a friend or neighbor or colleague is doing something wrong and should stop this. It doesn’t follow that one may do the stopping for another. It at most implies that those who care for their intimates need to try, sometimes persistently, to convince these intimates, to persuade them, to change some of their conduct. Resorting to coercive force is actually being lazy in these matters of aiming to reform people! All those reformers who want to change us need to confine themselves to educating, imploring their fellows and give up their paternalist habits (even if it is just nudging people around).

Attempting to make other people do the right thing, apart from when they embark upon violating the rights of their fellows (in which case it is defensive intervention) is to deny them their moral sovereignty, to treat them as invalids or children instead of grown ups who, admittedly, may sometimes do the wrong thing and need to stop this of their own volition.

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