A Passage from Plato's Republic

This is for all you libertarians who think that laws and government are shackles. Just remember that society is a contract.

Now that those who practise justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian.

(more below the fold)

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result -- when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this.

Everyone should have freedom, but with unfettered freedom come abuses. Libertarians may think that the government is the only abuser, but with money, power, arms, your fellow citizens will also abuse their own power. To prevent your freedom from impinging on my freedom, and vice versa, we need some laws, we need some reallocation of resources. By being a member of a society you take on this contract. We should not go towards either extreme of total freedom or of a state that regulates every behavior, we need to strike a balance.


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In my opinion (I won't fib and say "humble") Libertarianism is a particularly adolescent worldview. I saw the virtue of it when I was 18. However, ten more years of knowledge about how the world and people work have dissuaded me from the Libertarian philosophy. It just doesn't work for the provision of infrastructure, either physical or social.
Like the ideal of the self-correcting "free market" ... sounds nice, but doesn't deliver, and similarly 100-level undergrad thinking.

This is a reiteration of the ancient position that people are naturally 'evil', selfish etc. Which, if true, supports the argument. I believe it to be mainly true (we could have a separate discussion about whether largely 'just' or unselfish individuals exist, how large a percentage of the population they are, what conditions permit their existence, etc.)
And the point is true about all power and checks on power, there is nothing peculiar to government power that makes it different from corporate power, extreme wealth, or extreme opportunity. In fact, in a democracy, with appropriate oversight, one might expect that that goverment power (representing our social contract more directly) is a more appropriate form of regulation. The trick is in remaining a democracy and maintaining the necessary oversight (transparency, and an informed and educated populace being the main tools necessary)

Using the argument that the only reason people behave in a civil way is that they fear punishment, be it from the government or a god, says far more about the person making the statement than humanity in general.

But I digress.

In what way is society a social contract? At one time, that may have been true, but nowadays, there's no way to opt out of that contract. Being born into a contract that you were never given the choice of accepting sounds more like a prison.

What I fear is exactly what you posted above. Not that humans are inherently evil, but of those that believe the war of all against all is the inevitable outcome of "too much" freedom. There lay the path to tyranny: People must be *saved* from themselves. We can't let them make mistakes that might hurt themselves (hurting others is an entirely different matter)! Nanny state! Road to hell - good intentions! Insert other platitude here.

I find the two comments above rather ironic in their sequence. That Libertarianism (Big "L") is immature followed by the view that the trick is in remaining a democracy (Pedantic aside: We're technically a Federal Republic) and maintaining the necessary oversight."

This rather sweeps past the fact that we haven't. Any concept of State's Rights died quite some time ago. Federalism is a dirty, dirty word. And the government seems to literally be going insane. I would much rather stand alone on my own merit than be judged with such. As Krishnamurti said "It is no great measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick soceity."

But then I can't, can I? I, as a reasonable individual willing to take responsibility for my own actions, must accept any number of ever-increasing, arbitrary limitations on my actions, because my bureaucratic betters know what's good for me. Why must I be punished for the actions of others?

By MysteryFish (not verified) on 17 Apr 2007 #permalink

[Re: social contract] At one time, that may have been true, but nowadays, there's no way to opt out of that contract.

I agree. But we have no choice. Either we live together by these rules or society goes down the toilet bowl. The point of the story is that if given the choice many would abuse their power. Yes the contract is forced on to you, but you benefit from it too. The fact that you have water, a police force, electricity, clothes from China, fruit from Chile, a safe neighborhood, and the NIH are only possible because of the enforced "social-contract". I guess you could always leave the US and go live somewhere else ...

Look I am not saying that we need a nanny state. And yes there are problems with the current federal government. But we need to strike a balance between individual rights and some rules that prevent me from freely abusing you or any one else ... and vice versa. Sure the bureaucrats or government will not always make the right decisions, and in fact will be subject to corruption and the will of bigger forces (such as money etc.) so in the end you need a vigilant public that is willing to punish the government for its misdeeds. Ironically in Canada (what you might refer to as a nanny-leanning state) there is a long history of government punishment but not in the US.

Realistically it is impossible to live in a free-for-all state. We all trade with eachother, we all rely on each other and there will always be those who abuse their powers (i.e. freedoms) we need rules. Sure Democracy and Laws are not perfect, but they are the best solution that we humans have come up with.