Not surprisingly, Gene Callahan did not care for my novel analysis of General Zod’s (brief) domination of planet Earth. Yet in his attempt to show how much I was misconstruing the average person’s support for the State, Gene seems to give away the whole game. Here’s Gene:
Bob Murphy claims “Thus, the average person defends the existence of the State not for principled reasons but instead as the lesser of two evils.”
This is true only by equivocating on the meaning of “the lesser of two evils.”
In one sense, we use the phrase all the time for things we don’t really think are evil, but that, if reality were different, and they became unnecessary, we would not engage in just for the heck of it. So, one might say “working out is the lesser of two evils” (when compared to getting fat and out of shape), or “paying those hospital bills is the lesser of two evils” (compared to dying of a heart attack). In cases like these, the person using the phrase “the lesser of two evils” does not actually think that exercising or paying for medical treatments are evil at all….They just are not pleasant things.
The other sense of the phrase indicates that one is stuck with two possibilities, both of which one considers to be actually evil: for instance, one believes one is faced with the choice of bombing the site of a nuclear weapon, killing innocent people nearby in the process, or allowing a nuclear launch from that site to destroy in major city, killing far more people.
If the average person says government is “the lesser of two evils,” they clearly mean it in the first sense: if they magically could have civil peace without having to pay taxes, they would prefer that to civil peace plus taxes. But not being in the thrall of an ideology, the average person is sensible enough to recognize that without a government, there is no civil peace. Given the nature of reality, government is not a “lesser evil,” it is a positive good.
I agree that there are two senses in which people often use the phrase “lesser of two evils.” I agree with Gene that picking something like exercising to lose weight is a good example of one sense of the term (where “evil” is just rhetorical), and I agree with Gene that killing innocent people because that seems to be the only technological method of preventing an even greater number of innocent deaths is a good example of the other sense (where “evil” is meant quite literally).
Where Gene and I disagree, is in classifying the State as something akin to working out, and not as an institution that inflicts very real injustices on innocent people. For one thing, in the real world, States kill innocent people all the time in order (their officials claim) to prevent greater deaths. So it’s weird that Gene’s very example shows that the State is a necessary evil in the second sense he lays out.
Now I suppose Gene will come back and say, “Oh come on, we’re talking about the State per se, not any particular State that happens to exist.” OK, and the State per se takes money from people who don’t support its activities; if it were truly voluntary, it would be a club, not a State. Taking money from people against their will is not akin to getting on the treadmill; it is akin to killing people against their will. It is an evil, that at best could be justified because it is necessary to avoid even greater evil.