In Defence of Offensive Government

The Volokh Conspiracy’s Randy Barnett points to an essay by Matt Welch arguing that the more government expends, the more  it gives offence to this or that person or group, because its intervention conflicts with someone’s moral views. It’s not just penal laws and regulatory mandates (which prohibit people doing something they find morally required or require something they find morally offensive); so are various tax breaks and incentives, because “built into each tax or subsidy goodie for Hollywood (or Detroit, or the Farm Belt) is an explicit value judgment: This industry is inherently more valuable, more worthy of support, than” some other one. And that judgment is also bound to be offensive to some. Libertarians come out the worst, it seems: they “have their values stomped on by governments every day.” (Right- or left-wingers, I guess, only every other day, or election cycle.) Mr. Welch argues that we need to realize that “[a]ny power that government has to do something you like will invariably be used for something you abhor.” The way out of this conundrum is to “[r]educe the scope of government,” which limits its ability to give offence and helps “promot[e] true tolerance of diverging viewpoints.”

I have some instinctive sympathy for this argument, but it cannot take us very far. One obvious weakness in it is that government inaction is itself often offensive to lots of people. Government inaction on abortion is offensive to the pro-life crowd; government inaction on inequality is offensive to the “Occupy” crowd (and many others besides). Perhaps less obviously, but not less pervasively, there is widespread (and morally charged) disagreement over how to do even things which (almost) everyone agrees the government needs to be doing, whether its policing, raising money to pay for common defence, or ensuring that every child can and does get some decent schooling.

I don’t think that there is much to be gained by trying to get the government to give less offence. One thing we might do instead is get a little less offended. Perhaps not every disagreement over public policy is, or should be regarded as, morally charged and thus grounds for the losing side being offended. Disagreements over policy are often reasonable; and even when the other side is dumb, it is not necessarily wicked, so that its winning is cause for regret, but not offence. But I doubt that this argument can be taken very far either. Many policy questions do involve moral judgment, and many policies will not unreasonably be seen as offensive by those who disagree with them. For the most part, the only thing we can do is to grow a somewhat thicker skin. Let’s get offended if we like, but let’s try not to get so exercised about it. And let’s try to be polite with each other, no matter how offended we feel.

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