A Philosophical Post-mortem
(Any resemblance to real politicians, living or dead, is entirely intentional.)
J C Lester
A PLAY IN ONE ACT AND SCENE. CHARACTERS: TWO MEN IN SUITS: A DEFENCE LAWYER (D) AND A POLITICIAN (P). SETTING: A LIGHT COMES ON. A MAN (D) IS SITTING ON ONE SIDE OF A TABLE, WITH NOTES AND A PEN. AN EMPTY CHAIR IS ON THE OTHER SIDE. A CLOSED DOOR IS VISIBLE.
D: Next please!
BEMUSED MAN (P) ENTERS THROUGH DOOR. DAZED. LOOKING AROUND.
Welcome sir. Please take a seat.
P SITS. STILL DAZED AND LOOKING AROUND.
P: What is this place? It seems vaguely familiar.
D: A conference room.
P: (Reviving somewhat.) For conferring about what?
D: Your trial.
P: (Alarmed) My trial?
P: Trial for what?
D: For your life.
P: (More alarmed.) You mean I might die if convicted?
D: Ha ha! Hardly.
P: What do you mean, then?
D: Trial for the conduct of your life.
P: (Reviving.) What gives you the right to do that? Do you know who I am? Come to that, where am I exactly?
D: He gives us the right. I know exactly who you are. But you are nowhere exactly.
P: Who is ‘he’? And where is ‘nowhere exactly’ exactly?
D: He is the one whom you have always claimed to believe in for electoral reasons. You are in a metaphysical space.
P: (Shocked.) Good God! Great heavens!
D: Right on both counts, more or less. But we do not name Him here and you are only in an antechamber of the heavens.
P: This is ridiculous! I’ve been kidnapped. Are you after a ransom?
D: Let me make this simple: what is the last thing you remember?
P: (Concentrates.) Someone shot me. Yes, that’s it! In the chest. (Holds chest.) The bastard! (Looking down and feeling inside jacket.) But it all looks normal now. That’s impossible.
D: And therefore?
P: And therefore ... I’m hallucinating; in a coma or something. (Looking all around. Double-taking the audience.) That’s what this is.
D: You may find it more comfortable to think that.
P: I assure you that I don’t find it comfortable in the slightest.
D: I assure you that it is more comfortable than the truth.
P: I refuse to take your implication seriously.
D: That hardly matters.
P: What does matter, then?
D: That you discuss your life with me; or rather, some of its more dubious aspects.
P: Why on Earth should I do that?
D: No reason on Earth—but it might at least pass the time here.
P. Can’t you give me a better reason?
D: We need to decide your defence or any mitigation.
P: And who are you so kindly to help me with all this?
D: I’m your defence lawyer.
P: (Suspiciously.) Are you a real lawyer?
D: No, I’m an ideal lawyer. And that is much better, you know.
P: I don’t know anything of the sort. And anyway, what law can there possibly be here? Assuming that ‘here’ is where you say it is—or should that be ‘where you say it isn’t’?
D: I see that some intellectual argument will be necessary in your case. Good. I always enjoy that. Natural law is the law here, as it is the law everywhere else as well.
P: Surely there can be no law without a law-giver. Law is designed and given by a state—or it is given by, er, (gesturing with his head and pointing up) Him perhaps.
D: Wrong on both counts. Law is the system of enforceable rights and duties that evolve in any society to protect people and their property from aggressive invasions by others.
P: Law evolves?
D: Yes. And what evolves is not designed or given and so there can be no designer or giver. It is no more designed and given than is a natural language, or a free market in goods or in money.
P: What is “a free market ... in money”?
D: Money that people freely choose to use because it has a value in use and in exchange, such as gold, or is a token claim on such a thing.
P: Very well, then, I shall play your little game for now as I seem to be stuck here until I wake up. What about state legislation? Come to that, what about the ten commandments?
D: State legislation is an unlawful imposition. There are more than ten commandments in the bible, in fact. However, the valid ones merely report natural law.
P: And the invalid ones?
D: How they got in need not concern us here.
P: Well, I am a lawyer by training and practice, as you may know. And I would say that a law is, roughly speaking, an invented rule backed by ultimate power.
D: So any person or organisation with ultimate power can simply declare any rule to be a law? If I have the power to force you to obey any rule I wish, which I do incidentally, am I your law-giver?
P: No, that is absurd.
D: How so?
P: Because you are not a duly appointed, law-making body; I should have added that. Also, laws cannot be arbitrary impositions: they are there for the good of the people.
D: What makes a law-making body “duly appointed”?
P: It is in accord with the rules of the state.
D: What gives the state the right to make those rules?
P: Because the state is needed to protect people. And the worst state is better than none at all.
D: So if the best state were worse than none at all, then it would not be legitimate?
P: No it wouldn’t. But that is an idle supposition.
D: And if the state were to impose any rules that did not protect people in some way, then those rules would be invalid laws in some sense.
P: Yes, they would be erroneous, or possibly even felonious, rules posing as legitimate laws.
D: Did you know that common law originally evolved without the intervention of the state? And that many legal disputes are still resolved without the state?
P: Ah yes, but the state is needed as the final arbiter to decide disputes and enforce judgements.
D: Private parties often choose independent and binding arbitrators that cannot be flouted with impunity.
P: That might be so, but in any case the state is still needed to create and enforce all the legislation that pursues the public interest beyond mere common law.
D: That is what politicians assert. But all the usual examples either can be provided by voluntary means, and the state has aggressively crowded them out, or they involve dubious activities in various ways.
P: Nonsense. I completely reject that.
D: Of course, and you would be completely honest—in part.
P: Only the state can legislate to guarantee certain vital things to the population. What about education? And literacy in particular?
D: Before the major state involvement in education in England and Wales in 1870, school attendance rates and literacy rates were both above 90 per cent.
P: Then what about healthcare? People can’t simply be left to suffer and die with their illnesses.
D: People weren’t left to suffer and die before the state dominance of healthcare. For instance, there were more hospital beds before the NHS was started than the NHS has today. And there weren’t two bureaucratic administrators per bed.
P: So what about welfare support? The national insurance scheme is a great boon to all.
D: The so-called national insurance scheme is no kind of insurance at all. It’s not merely a Ponzi scheme but a coercively imposed one. In the name of ‘national insurance’, you extort money from people today to spend on whatever you like, and then extort more money for whatever you have promised from completely unrelated people at a later date.
P: But people do get vital welfare support as a result.
D: People would have had a better outcome if that money had properly been invested, as with genuinely funded insurance schemes.
P: Private schemes can go bust.
D: Indeed, that is one of their merits. For that possibility rewards success and penalises failure. But going bust is far more likely when there is political expropriation of their funds and state-imposed inefficient regulations. And otherwise they can be very broadly insured to minimise that possibility.
P: Only the state can offer cast-iron guarantees of these absolutely essential services.
D: State schemes can go bust as well; and that is without the same economic merit. States can also renege on guarantees. In fact, they fail on a daily basis to deliver what they are supposed to. And people often even die as a result.
P: The free market offers no guarantees and is only about making the biggest profit.
D: Businesses in the free market often provide guarantees of one sort or another.
P: That is only in order to attract more profit.
D: More profit earned implies greater service provided. What use are state guarantees that produce worse results? Why is the profit motive a problem when it produces better results?
P: The results won’t always be better.
D The state is a sort of anti-‘King Midas’: everything it touches turns to dross.
P: What do you mean?
D: When food is guaranteed expect only cabbage, and queues for that. When clothes are guaranteed expect only overalls, and queues for those. The market in itself may guarantee nothing and yet it provides a cornucopia of ever-improving choices wherever it is allowed.
P: Surely intentions matter.
D: Surely results matter more than intentions.
P: What about environmental problems, then?
D: What about them?
P: The free market is responsible for them and politics is needed to solve them. For instance, the rain forests are the lungs of the world and a great source of unique species and potential medicine. And they are being cut down by private companies and built on. But with the right political environmental policies we will be able to save vast areas of rain forest....
D: (Interrupting.) How much in terms of Wales?
D: The country. A popular unit of geographical comparison. How many areas will be saved the size of Wales?
P: Oh, many Wales. And we will save many unique flora and fauna....
D: (Interrupting.) How much in terms of whales?
D: The animal. The blue whale is a popular unit of biomass. How much unique flora and fauna will be saved weighed in whales?
P: Oh, many Whales. And with the new medicines we can develop we will prevent a great deal of unnecessary suffering....
D: (Interrupting.) How much in terms of wails?
D: The cries of despair, sometimes accompanied by a gnashing of teeth, that are a popular unit of suffering. How much suffering will be saved counted in wails?
P: Oh, many wails....
D: (Interrupting.) I notice that these are things that politics will supposedly do rather than what politics has actually done.
P: What has politics actually done?
D: It has sold companies contracts to cut down the rain forests. But they are not the lungs of the Earth in any case. That honourable metaphor belongs to the plankton in the oceans and seas.
P: Even if that is so, the rain forests are biologically diverse and unique.
D: Yes they are. Though it is far from clear that all development of them is undesirable: wildernesses are not sacred places, after all. And the tribes who live in them are surely the rightful owners of the parts they are living in, at least.
P: Is that ownership a good thing, though?
D: Of course. All real environmental problems are caused by lack of private property-rights; with owners being able to husband their resources and to sue for any damage that others cause. Politics cannot help in that process.
P: Not even with global warming?
D: Especially not with global warming.
P: Oh dear! I sense that you are dying to divulge your perverse and polemical views on that subject as well.
D: Indeed, I do delight in my duty to correct your common sense ignorance—if that is what you mean. But I am not dying to do it, for I cannot die—as you have.
P: I am not dead! Anyway, please go ahead. For your views are at least somewhat entertaining, however mistaken they seem to me to be.
D: Very well. Even if global warming were real and were manmade and were a bad thing, the political curbing of global economic growth to reduce carbon emissions would do vastly more damage than global warming itself while slowing global warming hardly at all. Geo-engineering would be better: technologies to reflect sunlight or increase carbon storage, and so forth. And there the specific owners who are adversely affected could sue to make those responsible pay for it. But even then you ought to be careful: you are in an interglacial period with the Earth’s next ice age being statistically overdue. And an ice age would be far worse for your species than global warming, so you will need to stop it somehow. In that respect, some global warming looks more like a solution than a problem.
P: Now I know that you are simply mad or mendacious. There is a scientific consensus that manmade global warming exists and is extremely harmful.
D: There was once a scientific consensus that heavier-than-air machines could never fly. In any case, the proclaimed consensus is really a mere majority, and one that is maintained by propaganda and fear of dissent. Moreover, according to official records the last ten years have been cooling rather than warming.
P: Well, if there has not been universal and continuous warming, then still there is definitely dangerous climate change. All agree on that.
D: “Climate change”? What a convenient new slogan: universally uncontroversial and virtually unfalsifiable. Do people really fall for that?
P: All informed and reasonable people know that climate change is real and that political action is absolutely urgent.
D: Despite the view of most of your intellectuals, ignorance has never been your species’ main problem. And nor has it even been knowing so much that ain’t so.
P: What is it, then?
D: Your main problem has always been coercively imposing your ignorant certainties onto other people. And politics is the process by which that is done.
P. So let me get this clear. You are saying that absolutely everything could become private property, and then the owners would look after what they own and sue anyone that imposes on them?
P: Including the whales in the oceans? And the very oceans themselves?
D: Yes. Whether by GPS tagging, satellite demarcation, or whatever; property rights in these, as in all things, can be allocated in one way or another and the owners will then maintain their property.
P: Even air, I suppose? Must those who can afford it buy air in canisters and walk around with their own supplies strapped to their backs in your insane property-rights Utopia?
D: Everyone has a birthright to a supply of air of reasonable quality from the planetary system that produces it: for it was being used, and hence owned, for that purpose as the pre-existing status quo.
P: That sounds like a strange kind of ‘ownership’ to me.
D: Having an ownership right to good air is no stranger than having an ownership right to your own body. If someone damages the air supply of others then he can be sued, either individually or by a class action, by those whose air supplies are damaged.
P: Aha! But that is not private ownership, at least. There is a common air system that no one owns.
D: Wrong on both counts. The right to a supply of air is as privately owned as is one’s right to one’s money in the banking system. You cannot point in advance to particular air molecules and say that they are yours or point to particular notes or coins and say that they are yours. But you can privately own a share of both air and of money in the two systems that you can draw on as required. And the overall air system itself is privately owned in common by humanity.
P: “Privately owned in common”? That doesn’t even make sense.
D: A commune can be privately owned in common by the inhabitants and not outsiders, can’t it?
P: I suppose so.
D: There, I have shown something you thought impossible in five seconds flat.
P: Is that supposed to impress me?
D: It ought to impress upon you the potential fragility of even those beliefs about which you are a priori certain.
P: I do grant that there is an impressive, if ghastly, consistency to your position. But even if such private-property fanaticism would work with environmentalism, which I very much doubt, you have to admit that the market alone cannot prevent inequality.
D: Why should it? There is nothing inherently wrong with inequality.
P: (Incredulous.) Nothing wrong with inequality? It is manifestly wrong.
D: I see no manifestation of its wrongness, and such manifestations are just the sort of thing I usually notice. What is wrong with it?
P: Why don’t you tell me what is right with it?
D: Very well: it is part of liberty and promotes human welfare.
P: I grant that tolerating some inequality, at least, is needed for an economy to work. Prices and incomes offer economic signals as to relative scarcity, show what is wanted, and provide incentives to produce those things.
D: Then when does inequality stop being needed?
P: When the inequalities are so great that state redistribution can improve human welfare.
D: That would appear to be an egalitarian delusion, especially once we look at the disastrous long-run effects of systematic egalitarian interferences by the state.
P: What of those people genuinely in dire need?
D: For the relatively tiny percentage of those people genuinely without the means to look after themselves there is always charity.
P: Charity? Charity is demeaning.
D: Charity means kindness, or even love. I don’t see how kindness is demeaning to either the giver or the receiver. But stealing the money and recklessly doling it out, as you prefer, is bad for both the victims and the recipients.
P: So you believe in kindness and I believe in theft? You have a way of twisting the truth.
D: I rather think I was untwisting your delusion to reveal the truth. You don’t seem to have an adequate rejoinder. However, it does count for something that to a great extent you show that you are genuinely deluded.
P: Counts for what?
D: Counts for mitigation. That is why we are having this conference, you will recall.
P: Well, it’s the oddest conference of its kind I’ve ever heard of.
D: That’s because it’s an ideal conference. We are not merely working out the most plausible story for you to tell in court. We have to confront your theories and your conscience with the facts and sometimes those facts require explanation.
P: And how are you able to be so omnisciently factual?
D: All I say is known on Earth by some people. No unearthly knowledge is allowed. And we can then contrast what you do think true and right with what you reasonably ought to think true and right. And here we see some mitigation in your genuine delusion.
P: Well, I suppose that is something—if we are to play this absurd game of yours. Does my life-long fight against discrimination also count as mitigation?
D: Only insofar as it involves more delusion.
P: What delusion?
D: The delusion that discrimination is immoral and damaging.