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.”