Bryan Caplan  

In Praise of Passivity

Why so glum?... Henderson and Krueger on NPR T...
"In Praise of Passivity" is another gem from Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher.  Thesis:
Voters, activists, and political leaders of the present day are in the position of medieval doctors. They hold simple, prescientific theories about the workings of society and the causes of social problems, from which they derive a variety of remedies-almost all of which prove either ineffectual or harmful. Society is a complex mechanism whose repair, if possible at all, would require a precise and detailed understanding of a kind that no one today possesses. Unsatisfying as it may seem, the wisest course for political agents is often simply to stop trying to solve society's problems.
Why doesn't this support the status quo?  Because "trying to solve society's problems" is the status quo!  This orientation is both counter-productive and immoral:
Now, one might think that, if we were completely ignorant, our policies would be as likely to increase as to reduce the problem; but as long as we have some relevant knowledge and understanding, and we are aiming at a reduction in the problem, we should be at least slightly more likely to alleviate the problem than to exacerbate it. Thus, even if the government does not know what will solve or alleviate the problem, the government can and should at least make an educated guess, and then implement that guess.

There are at least four reasons why this is wrong. First, any government policy that imposes requirements or prohibitions on citizens automatically has certain costs. One cost is the reduction of citizens' freedom. Another is the suffering on the part of those who violate the law and are subsequently punished by the legal system. A third is the monetary cost involved in implementing the policy. Thus, in the case of laws against recreational drug use, individuals are denied the freedom to do as they wish with their own bodies; those who violate the laws and are caught suffer for months or years in prison; and all taxpayers suffer the costs of enforcing the drug laws.

Second, there is a kind of moral presumption against coercive interventions. Laws are commands backed up by threats of coercive imposition of harm on those who disobey them. Harmful coercion against an individual generally requires some clear justification. One is not justified in coercively harming a person on the grounds that the person has violated a command that one merely guesses has some social benefit. If it is not reasonably clear that the expected benefits of a policy significantly outweigh the expected costs, then one cannot justly use force to impose that policy on the rest of society.

A third, related point is that when the state actively intervenes in society-for example, by issuing commands and coercively harming those who disobey its commands-the state then becomes responsible for any resulting harms, in a way that the state would not be responsible for harms that it merely (through lack of knowledge) fails to prevent. Imagine that I see a woman at a bus stop opening a bottle of pills, obviously about to take one. Before I decide to snatch the pills away from her and throw them into the sewer drain, I had better be very certain that the pills are actually something harmful. If it turns out that I have taken away a medication that the woman needed to forestall a heart attack, I will be responsible for the results. On the other hand, if, due to uncertainty as to the nature of the drugs, I decide to leave the woman alone, and it later turns out that she was swallowing poison, I will not thereby be responsible for her death. For this reason, intervention faces a higher burden of proof than nonintervention. Similarly, if, due to uncertainty as to the effects of anti-drug laws, the government were to simply leave drug users alone, the government would not thereby be responsible for the harms that drug users inflict upon themselves. But if the government maintains anti-drug laws, and these laws impose enormous cost on society, the government is morally responsible for those costs.

Fourth and finally, a policy made under conditions of extreme ignorance is not equally likely to be beneficial as harmful; it is much more likely to be harmful...
As always, Huemer carefully qualifies his position, and anticipates, refines, and replies to all the obvious criticisms.  Still, he could have made his case more concisely.  His position is essentially a generalization of my case for pacifism.  My postcard version:

1. The short-run costs of war are clearly high, and are largely borne by innocents.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.

3. It is wrong to impose high costs on innocents unless the benefits are highly likely to greatly outweigh the costs.

Huemer could have just generalized my argument.  Something like:

1. The short-run costs of government coercion are clearly high, and are largely borne by innocents.

2. The long-run benefits of government coercion are highly uncertain.

3. It is wrong to impose high costs on innocents unless the benefits are highly likely to greatly outweigh the costs.

Read the whole piece, and don't miss the quotable conclusion.  Yes, "Marx's failure to improve society should have been about as surprising as the failure of George Washington's doctors to cure his infection by draining his blood."

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Dylan writes:

The text is superb, as good as The Problem of Political Authority (I really enjoyed the book).

Reminds me a lot to Nassim Taleb's ideas of naive intervention. But, most of all, it reminds me to Taoist philosophy, which was the first philosophy to emphasize the importance of non-intervention and non-action (wu wei).

The constant and unmistakable teaching of the Tao Te Ching is that humans are indeed capable of intervening in life's events, but the evidence of life, which humans constantly ignore, is that such intervention is destructive to all involved, and that we therefore have a moral duty to refrain from taking such actions.

Russell Kirkland, Responsible non-action in a natural world

Brad writes:

Huemer's thesis reminds me of Hayek's Pretense of Knowledge essay.

Gov't officials should take doctor's oath to do no harm.

Jon Murphy writes:

The entire paper, while a bit dense, is very very good.

Well worth a read

Dan S writes:


I think that if you were trying to come up with a process to prevent gas molecules from escaping from a full chamber to an empty one when a gap is opened between them, the process would be something like:

1. Explain to the gas molecules that it would be Objectively Immoral for them to move from one chamber to the other.

2. The gas molecules heed your wisdom and stay where they are.

Problems will get solved, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, depending on the country. The notion that people will just wake up and realize their epistemic limitations is naive to say the least.

I think Huemer's moral objectivity article that you link to is not very good. I even (during a period of strong interest in philosophy) bought his book and read it, and thought it epically missed the point when it refuted subjectivism, nihilism, etc.

Nathan Smith writes:

This would imply that government shouldn't protect property rights, wouldn't it?

Pajser writes:

Most of Huemer's arguments are valid for people who doubt whether they should act but they do not want to make cost-benefit analysis. In that case, I can agree, it is better not to act. But if one is willing to make cost-benefit analysis, and his analysis show that he should act - I see little reasons not to.

Huemer repeats typical libertarian mistakes - he believes that state is coercive more than say, private employer or landlord. In despite of that, Huemer still advocates what he believes to be coercion. Also, he believes that purpose of democracy is to make decisions of high quality, while purpose of democracy is to make decision that will satisfy majority of people.

I agree that pseudo-communist regimes of the 20th century were not good. But these regimes missed essential element of the communist system - collective rule; collective decisions; collective property. Isn't it one of the first thing you hear from every communist? Huemer ignores that. Overall, I'd say that he is not critical enough, at least in this article.

Enrique writes:

Great post, but note that the uncertainty associated with the potential benefits of coercion (in support of a given policy x) is not a binary variable but rather a continuous one. That is, there are different levels of uncertainty or different levels of probability that a given policy x will achieve its desired goals. Given the continuous and probabilistic nature of this uncertainty, we need some kind of sliding scale or other decision rule for deciding when the costs of coercion outweigh its expected benefits, since the outcome of any cost-benefit balancing will depend on how great or small this level of uncertainty is.

John 4 writes:

There is a lot of overlap with ’The Columbus Argument’, a (deliciously written) piece by David Stove, (one of) *my* favorite philosopher(s).

Dylan writes:

John 4,

Thank you very much for your recommendation, I've read it and enjoyed it. But most of all, is one of the most thought-provoking things I've ever read (and I'm an avid reader!).

Sam writes:

It is a brilliant essay and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'm not completely sold on the central thesis, but overall the text contains a lot of good incite.

Martin writes:

I like the medieval doctor metaphor a lot. The first 2 of the 4 reasons "why this is wrong" seem irrelevant to me. He's criticizing a position on government policy and its relation to uncertainty, but only the 3rd and 4th reasons mention uncertainty; the first 2 are presented as predictable costs. Under his assumptions laid out we should already be taking predictable costs into account. Maybe these costs really are uncertain, or not taken into account for reasons, but I don't see his argument.

Floccina writes:


Huemer repeats typical libertarian mistakes - he believes that state is coercive more than say, private employer or landlord.

It interests me that you chose the employer and landlord. If the employer is coercive toward the employee because he can say do x or I will not pay you, then the employee can say do y (generally pay me) or I will not work for you. Same with the landlord he says pay me or I will evict you but the tenant can say fix the plumbing or I will move out and not pay you.

Customers can be quite coercive, "Give me something to buy or I will not pay you".

The state has much more range and latitude and can for example say do x or I will kill you.

Musca writes:

On the postcard version of pacifism, there's an equivocation at best, or a moral error at worst:

1. The short-run costs of war are clearly high, and are largely borne by innocents.

Do you really mean "innocents" or do you instead mean "non-combatants"?

Rand famously noted that "there are no innocents in war." In any conflict, the war is started, driven, and ended not by the combatants but by non-combatant cultural and political figures far away from enemy lines. People "in the street" who are neither intellectual, political, or military figures are never neutral. They either support of the conflict, or through inaction passively support their side; others try to leave or take up active measures against the conflict within their own nation.

As a moral point, those who are passive and within a dictatorship or nation that does not respect rights cannot be regarded as innocents; their inaction gives moral sanction to the government, however unjust that claims to represent them. Passivity is actually immoral here.

More directly, the high short-term costs to non-combatants is what will likely end the war fastest. Sherman in the US Civil War proved the point by taking the damage away from the battlefield and directly to the homes, farms, and personal property of those who did not fight, but financially and intellectually supported the war. Only when its terrible cost was made painfully clear to the non-combatant supporters could the war be ended six months later.

Pajser writes:

Floccina, I chose employer and landlord because they control the territory. So all three can say "my way or go away or I'll use force against you." I think that constitution should guarantee right for exit but also right on self-determination (UN General assembly declaration 1514).

David Khoo writes:

Sorry, I am afraid that the four arguments you quote are rubbish. They confuse visible costs with actual costs and blame with wrong.

1. "Any government policy that imposes requirements or prohibitions on citizens automatically has certain costs" -- but any LACK of government policy also automatically has certain (typically more diffuse and less visible) costs, so we must weigh one set of costs against the other.

2. Laws require coercion from the state -- but the absence of laws abet (typically more diffuse and less visible) coercion from non-state actors, so we must weigh one form of coercion against the other (assuming that you even consider coercion to be negative).

3. This is morally bankrupt. Why should it matter who is "responsible" (blamed, really) for harms? Is the goal not to minimize harm, regardless of whom winds up bearing the blame? I do not even agree with his thought experiment. I believe that if you fail to stop the woman from taking her pills when you had the capability to, and they turn out to be poison, you indeed bear some (more diffuse and less visible) blame for her death.

4. "A policy made under conditions of extreme ignorance is not equally likely to be beneficial as harmful; it is much more likely to be harmful" -- this is begging the question. This is simply a restatement of the point to be demonstrated. If you were truly so ignorant, then how do you claim foreknowledge of its likely result? On the one hand, he claims experts ignorant, on the other hand, he lauds Coase's criticism of regulation. I guess experts are ignorant except when they support his argument.

At its core, the paper suffers from a regusal to address the counterfactual. Yes, the average person is stupid and ignorant, our understanding of social phenomena feeble, our data dubious, our experts fools, our leaders corrupt and our resulting mistakes legion. Now, he must demonstrate that this is worse than the alternative. He fails to do more than insinuate in this direction. He fails to show how the mistakes we avoid with his approach are worse than the (typically more diffuse and less visible) mistakes we cause.

In short, the paper is one fallacy piled upon another. It could only be accepted as valid or, worse, lauded as insightful by people who are already true believers in its premises. It is a disappointing dog whistle libertarian tract, in other words.

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