Reap What You Sow


It sometimes happens that a particular incident or statement in the news serves to crystallize one's thoughts on an issue that is only tangentially related to it. For me, the recent revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib is such an incident.

Much attention has been focused on the fact that some of the prison guards attempted to excuse their behavior by saying that they had never specifically been told not to do what they had done. This has, of course, caused many to ask, 'What kind of person needs to be told not to torture and sexually humiliate helpless prisoners?' Initially, this puzzled me as well. Then it occurred to me: Isn't this exactly the sort of mentality that statist paternalism encourages?

It is frequently said, especially by conservatives, that laws against personal vices such as drug use should be maintained, not because they serve to protect the public, or even reduce the incidence of vice or the damage it causes, but because the government must send a message that 'we' (always a slippery word in politics) do not approve of such behavior. Likewise, liberals insist that welfare spending must continue in order to send the message that 'we' are a compassionate, caring society, or that the tobacco industry must be legally penalized to send the 'right message' to kids.

Implicit in all this is the idea that government is, or ought to be, our primary source of moral values. The possibility that families, churches and other social groups, and individual common sense might serve to discourage irresponsible sex or drug use is never broached. The idea that people can care about each other without being forced to, or that compassionate individuals, alone or in groups, can voluntarily work to reduce human suffering never comes up. Statists of this sort seem to lack any sense of a distinction between the state and society: If the law allows something, that must mean it is approved by society. If the law does not mandate something, that must mean it is disapproved by society. The idea of moral beliefs that come from non-statist social institutions and individual moral judgment does not enter into consideration.

Human faculties strengthen with use and atrophy with neglect; this is as true for the mind as it is for the body. The more people simply use the commands of the state as a substitute for their own judgment, the more they will come to depend on the state to know what to do. The same process applies to social institutions: As the people come to rely on the state for all their moral knowledge, they will lose the ability to build the institutions of civil society that encourage moral behavior without resort to the state. A people rendered unable to think about right and wrong on their own is far easier to rule, and as long as the state provides everyone's moral code, people won't even have the mental tools they need to even consider the idea that the state's commands and use of power might be wrong.

I do not claim that this process necessarily caused all the evils documented at Abu Ghraib; there are always people who are quite capable of being vicious entirely on their own. But it is certainly the case that the moral atrophy state paternalism causes can only serve to make such incidents more likely, as more and more people replace real morals with the state's commands and forget how to think about right and wrong themselves. If the state is truly such an indispensable teacher of morality, then claiming that you didn't know you shouldn't engage in torture because you were never ordered not to do it makes perfect sense. The soldier who claims he didn't know any better is not some freakish aberration; he is the natural citizen of a state that tries to cripple individual capacity for moral judgment. Think of him as the model for the ideal statist man: a morally infantilized pseudo-adult who genuinely isn't able to understand any concept of right and wrong that isn't imposed on him by his masters.

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John Markley's picture
Columns on STR: 13

John Markley is a freelance writer and newspaper reporter from Illinois .  He is the author of the political blog The Superfluous Man and has written for sites such as,, and The Libertarian Enterprise.  In his spare time, he also blogs about science fiction and video games.