Can the State Care About People’s Lives?
The reaction of a French voter to the good showing of the party of extreme-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon against the “centrist” president Emmanuel Macron’s party in the legislative election illustrates how some people have an angelic view of government. The Wall Street Journal reported (“France’s Macron Lost Grip on Parliament Amid Russian Squeeze on Energy Prices,” June 20, 2022):
Marie-Claude Dautricourt, 76 years old, was worried about the impact the rising cost of living is having on young families. The retiree no longer goes out to eat at restaurants because it is too pricey. On Sunday, she cast her vote for a candidate in Mr. Melenchon’s coalition. “Melenchon cares more about the everyday lives of people than Macron,” she says.
Why would we expect the state to care about the everyday lives of people? Because politicians (or the right ones) and government bureaucrats are an especially altruistic class of people? Even if this answer were admitted, how can the state care for the everyday lives of people when there are millions of individuals with different lives, preferences, and values? The state can care about some people, but it is only, or at least typically, by harming others. It can care equally about all only in the limited and abstract sense that it protects the equal liberty of all individuals. James Buchanan would say that it is only when the state enforces rules that meet the consent of all individuals (which is not a less abstract criterion).
Once this is realized, the question becomes: How can the state and the incentives of its agents be structured in such a way (if anyhow possible) that it protects the equal liberty of all individuals, that it does not discriminate against some citizens if favor of others? This is, I think, the basic questions that different schools of classical liberalism have tried to answer.