Celebrity advice (was: Advice to a Junior in High School?)

Alex Martelli aleax at aleax.it
Thu Aug 28 14:41:19 CEST 2003

Colin J. Williams wrote:
>> " Every political choice ultimately reduces to a choice about when and
>> how to use lethal force, because the threat of lethal force is what
>> makes politics and law more than a game out of which anyone could opt
>> at any time."
> We seem to be straying from Python and/or advice to a your person, but
> the third paragraph is clearly nonsense.

Not necessarily.  I suggest going to essayists on a similar theme that
are of a lesser "polemist" inclination and more of a "deep thinker" one,
such as Economics Nobel prize-winner Friedrich von Hayek: I think he
makes one of the best presentations of the classic theme of government
being about instituting a commonly agreed "monopoly of violence" and all
that follows from it.  Hobbes was the first (IMHO) to state this out
clearly in modern times (although for contemporary readers this more
general theme may be made harder to see by Hobbes' defence of the
specific political form "Absolutism" as THE way to achieve this), and
you can also find some tangential treatments in (e.g.) Betham and
John Stuart Mills (as well as in thinkers of a completely different
stripe such as Friedrich Engels and Mao Tse Tung), but I think Hayek
has the most lucid, "neutral" presentation.

Of course making this argument about POLITICS rather than about
GOVERNMENT does require restricting the meaning of "politics" quite
specifically (and etymologically) -- "office politics" isn't about
government, nor is (e.g.) the kind of organizational politics that
may take you to the top of volunteer organizations such as a
charity or a bocce club.  But if by politics we mean, strictly,
politics connected with determining government and laws, then the
point is well made, if deep.

To see it clearly you have to reason about, what does it mean that
something is LAW rather than just a convention, common sense, or
good manners.  The difference is that, if it's law, then, ultimately,
breaking it carries an implicit threat of potentilaly lethal force 
(in most cases through stages, e.g. you could first be fined, then
if you refuse to pay your fines they could try to take away your
possessions such as a car, if you defend your car they'll try to
stick you in jail, if you resist arrest effectively enough you may
end up being shot in the resulting firefight).

For example, consider the following issue:

> To give an example.  In Canada, over the next year or more, the Members
> of Parliament and the Senators will have to make a choice as to whether
> gay marriage is to continue in this country.  No threat of force exists.
> A decision will be made and the populace will accept it as being more or
> less democratic.

What does it mean for the government to say that the union of two men
can (or cannot) legally be "marriage" rather than "just a de facto
union"?  It means such a union confers rights and therefore obligations
on various parties and that the government implicitly threatens all of
its usual levels of reprisal (ultimately backed by its hoped-for
monopoly in organized use of lethal force) against violators of the law.

Say that A and B are [a] married or [b] just de facto "together".  A
lies dying in a hospital and B wants to visit A on hir deathbed.  In
case [a] the government forces the hospital to admit B; in case [b]
there is no such obligation and most hospitals will in fact not admit
visitors that are unrelated to the patient into some sections in which
close relatives (including spouses) WOULD be admitted (wiht all due
precautions, of course).  So, in case [a] (legal marriage), B can get
a court order if the hospital staff blocks B's entry, and if the hospital
does not respect the court order in the end police will enforce it...
all the way to threat or even use of legal force if necessary.

If a law is not mere words, with no pragmatical side to them, it must
eventually rest on that same implied promise (to the holders of rights
conferred by the law) and threat (to the holders of obligations imposed
by the law, were they to persistently flout and resist the obligations).

Of course, if Hayek is correct, then saying that we do NOT want the
government to have the monopoly of lethal force is exactly equivalent
to saying we do not want effective government (Hobbes would surely
argue that way) -- we prefer deliberately-hobbled government to
government that is maximally effective.  In this day and age it's hard
to make a case for deliberately inefficient arrangements, although it
IS possible to do so (e.g., the mandatory trailing ':' in the head
clauses of several Python statements;-).  People who don't want ID
cards to exist, don't want government DB's to be cross-linked, etc,
plead much the same case -- they prefer inefficient government (whose
inefficiencies may help terrorists and other criminals) to efficient
government (whose efficiency might allow more effective oppression).


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