The Leviathan in the Magic Box
Governor Asa Hutchinson propelled Arkansas, and of course himself, into the national headlines by scheduling eight people for execution within 10 days this April.
As Arkansas slouches closer to the mass-executions of Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, it’s worthwhile to ask why most people will not consider Hutchinson guilty of murder. If a mafia boss ordered his lieutenants to kill eight people, he’d be a murderer regardless of circumstances. Why are governors morally immune for killing people in cages?
Asked this question, most people would reply something like “well, he’s Governor, so it’s his job.” There’s more to this response than the fallacy of appeal to authority.
People carve out a special moral sphere for activities done by their government. Asa Hutchinson can kill eight people in his government role, and most people will not hold it against him, but if he guns down eight people in his personal time, people would decry the massacre.
Are these executions a massacre?
The Magic Box
How can we explain our moral compartmentalization?
Mr. Hutchinson is as morally accountable as any of us, until he steps into the governor’s office, which might as well be a magic box where certain moral standards don’t apply. Inside this magic box, you can kill people and not be guilty of murder.
In most human cultures, members of the military may kill certain other people. Indeed, failing to kill other people when ordered to do so may get you court-martialed. Yet demobilized soldiers exit the magic box and return to moral accountability.
Police officers are permitted to detain people, but when anyone else does the same, it is the crime of kidnapping.
Tax collection authorities may demand your property, and if you fail to give it to them, they may impose punishments such as seizing even more of your possessions or locking you in a cage. When the local mafia does the same thing, we call it extortion.
Thomas Hobbes published The Leviathan in 1651. In it, Hobbes argued that the default, natural situation of humanity is a perpetual war of all against all. We form a social contract to cooperatively escape this miserable state of nature. The social contract forbids the violence seen in the state of nature, but requires an enforcement system to prevent breaches of the contract. That enforcement system is referred to as the Leviathan. Hobbes borrowed his term for government from the fearsome biblical sea monster.
Effective social contracts provide the Leviathan with powers to dole out severe punishments to those who breach the contract and cause harm. Thus, the social contract forbids its signatories from harming each other, but explicitly allows the Leviathan to inflict harm upon violators of the contract. The people who comprise the Leviathan, including the king, in Hobbes’ description, are the only people who are allowed to inflict harm upon others.
Here we see the essence of the morality-free magic box. Government workers may inflict harm to enforce the social order, but the rest of us may not. An economic equilibrium is reached, where we tolerate this inequality rather than risk a return to the more-horrible state of nature.
The Magic Box Expands
The problem with giving government agents permission to do otherwise immoral acts is they tend to expand the scope of their privilege beyond what is required to enforce the social contract.
Sometimes, police officers authorized to use force when apprehending suspects end up using force to discriminate against minorities, suppress dissent, or torture people. Sometimes militaries authorized to kill enemy soldiers instead massacre civilians or commit war crimes. Sometimes, politicians authorized to oversee law enforcement oversee the jailing of their rivals and critics.
Moral immunity in some areas puts the Leviathan in a position to seize moral immunity in others. The same weapons, tactics, information sources, social authority, and organizational structures used to enforce the social contract can be turned on the innocent.
The moral inequality between government agents and the rest of us inspires anarchists to propose a stateless society. There are many flavors of anarchism, but all assume a stateless society could depend on its inhabitants to voluntarily cooperate for the collective good, without the need for coercion from a Hobbesian Leviathan.
Taxes would be paid voluntarily. Soldiers would volunteer to defend the country. Decisions could be made collectively, rather than by authorities.
Of course, the stateless society remains a hypothetical. No nations bigger than a few indigenous tribes have pulled off this organizational model for a sustained time. For now, we are stuck with the task of controlling the Leviathan.
A Libertarian Freethought Ethos?
Hobbes’ Leviathan influenced the founders of the United States over a century after its publication. Whereas Hobbes tried to explain his monarchy, these rebels were trying to engineer an enduring escape from the tyranny of the monarch.
Thus, much of the U.S. Constitution constrains the powers of government. Examples include the Bill of Rights, separation of powers, the judicial system, and of course voting. The Constitution created a Leviathan whose agents were in perpetual conflict with each other, and at the mercy of voters.
The founders reflexively kept the Leviathan’s magic box as small as possible. However, laws alone cannot constrain a Leviathan. A citizenry informed by a free press, allowed to organize, speak, and assemble, and empowered with the vote becomes the enforcer of the Leviathan’s own social contract with the citizens. The job of constraining the Leviathan is yours!
Response To Mass Executions
If you happen to obtain an audience with governor Asa Hutchison, ask whether he believes moral standards are universal and applicable to everyone.
Upon his positive response, ask if he can justify his moral immunity for killing eight people. Ask him to justify it without appealing to the law, his role, or popular opinion.
The conversation will be short, but if people would at least think about the moral voids we take for granted, that would be progress.