Violence is the least civilized and most extreme reaction to any problem or situation. Even if you believe it warranted in some cases, it is universally seen as a last resort when all other methods have failed. Even then there had better be a really good reason to use violence. A mere, “Because I wanted something and couldn’t think of a better way to get it”, or, “Because she wouldn’t do what I said”, or, “Because I’ve done it that way before” don’t pass moral muster.
The one distinguishing feature of all governments is the use of force. Every other function and activity governments engage in are not unique to governments. Only the formal monopoly on the initiation of violence sets governments apart. There is nothing a government does that is not backed by force. Government is force. Whatever ones belief about the necessity or goodness of government, this definition is not controversial.
Given our two premises above, a very simple conclusion follows: Any government action ought to be viewed with extreme caution, skepticism, and as a last resort for the most pressing and important problems. The burden of proof should always be on advocates of government action to prove it superior to any and all other scenarios. And that should be a weighty burden.
This burden of proof is important not only because is government action is at bottom violent action, but especially when we consider that government has worse incentives than other institutions to get and keep things right. (See Public Choice Theory). Everything we know about the history of government plans and programs and laws, and everything we know about politicians, bureaucrats, and the political process ought to add to our caution and skepticism.
Note that this is not an ideological argument. I am making no claims about the number of things that warrant government action. You may believe it is a great many things while I believe it is nothing at all. The only case I’m making here is about where the burden of proof should be when discussing any government law, regulation, tax, expenditure, or action of any kind.
We see the opposite more often than not. A new regulatory apparatus or war or program is proposed and who is placed immediately on the defensive? Nine times in ten the burden of proof is placed on those who oppose the action. Surely this is an illogical and dangerous default.
I’ve been particularly surprised to see this in the case of proposed ‘Net Neutrality’ regulations. This is a special case indeed, because it is a solution for a mostly nonexistent problem. It’s not a time of crisis where people are so scared and desperate for any action that they suspend skepticism and gobble up whatever is proposed. Internet users aren’t experiencing some kind of widespread horrors that have them storming the gates demanding change. The proposed body of regulation would do nothing for consumers in any way easy to identify, and doesn’t even pretend to solve any kind of major, commonly felt problem. It’s inside baseball among tech companies jockeying for position and running to that state to do it. It will without question make the internet less dynamic and slow innovation, but even if it only did what advocates claim it would still not be any wonderful change from the status quo. Surely this is a case where the public at large would respond with, “What is this new set of government activities and regulations being proposed and why should we listen?” Surely the burden of proof is on those proposing this vague and confusing web of regulations. Apparently not.
The conversation seems to have taken on a decisive tone. Everyone knows NN is needed and warranted. Any objectors must make an airtight case and must be highly credible persons. Only then, maybe, can we discuss it being tweaked or slowed, or possibly stopped. There is an air of inevitability about it, as with many major government actions, and skepticism isn’t aimed at the policy, but of anyone who doubts it. Be skeptical of the skeptics, not the proposed action.
Worse, the skeptics themselves seem to accept the burden of proof as rightly belonging to them. Those who best understand problems with government and are most skeptical of it are busy policing each other, trying to ensure everyone makes the best possible case. They have to be sure not to offend. They have to be sure to address every possible angle. They can’t have a single weakness in their argument or thinking. They can’t afford lazy logic. But if we stop and consider what’s being proposed – an increase in government action (by definition violent action) – why should skeptics have to prove themselves? The burden of proof ought to be entirely, squarely on advocates of the action.
Notice that I am not advocating for status quo bias. I don’t think anything new or different in society ought to be treated more skeptically than the status quo. It’s not about the newness of ideas or actions. It’s about the type of action proposed. When a raw exercise of force is the solution those advocating it ought to have the burden of proof. This goes for existing instances of force-backed solutions as well as new ones proposed.
What reasonable person would say that force should be the first resort, or that action backed by it needn’t be considered or scrutinized more than any other?