Hormesis and Government

In biology there’s a concept called Hormesis.  This is where a small amount of a substance is beneficial but larger amounts of a substance that’s normally considered toxic are actually beneficial while larger doses are harmful.


The basic concept of small doses of something being beneficial with larger doses are harmful is not controversial.  Anything which is beneficial–food, water, medications–becomes harmful or even toxic at a sufficiently high level.  It’s in the idea that things that are normally considered poisons might actually be beneficial in small doses where controversy arises.

The concept can be considered beyond biology.  Consider the field of political philosophy.  As readers of this blog will know I am a strong proponent of individual liberty and of an economy based on voluntary exchange.  From such a position one might consider government to be analogous to a toxin.  There are many in Libertarian circles to believe that any “dose” of government is bad, that government with its coercive power should be completely eliminated and only voluntary transactions of all types are acceptable.

The problem with that is illustrated as follows:

  • Being able to get up on your roof with a rifle to defend your home against barbarians (whether rioters, terrorists, invaders, or whatever) is freedom.
  • Having to spend all your time up on that rooftop because the barbarians are ubiquitous is not.

Having some means of keeping the barbarians pruned back so that you can come down off the roof and do other things, while it may involve some element of the coercive power of government actually increases your net freedom because you are less restricted by the need to spend all your time just fighting off the barbarians.

Now, in principle, people could voluntarily get together and organize to keep those barbarians away.  The problem with that is incentives, specifically the freeloader problem.  Each individual gets the benefit of the barbarians being kept away whether or not they, personally, contribute to whatever is done to keep them away.  The incentive is for a particular individual to have someone else spend the time, effort, or other resources to defend against the barbarians.  And once you have some freeloaders, this leads others to look at them and wonder why they’re working at it while those other folk are reaping the benefit for doing nothing, leading to some of those others washing their hands of it–“if he’s not going to pay then neither am I”–which, of course, makes the matter worse.  It snowballs, sort of a reverse “tragedy of the commons.”

Some small level of government, thus, is necessary to maximize freedom for the people living in it.  This is not to say, then, that if a little is good, a lot is better.  All government is coercive.  That’s pretty much a definition:  government is the license to use force to impose ones will.  It is only when the government is small, and strictly limited to controlling those things that interfere in others liberties–“to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”–that the balance is on the side of greater liberty.  I submit that every government in the world, even in “failed states” where the “government” is simply the local warlord, falls on the high side of that hormesis curve, in the “toxic dose” range.

As things stand now, government interference in people’s lives needs to be reduced anywhere we can manage it.  Exactly how far, where “reduce it some more” interferes with greater liberty is a question we can defer when things are much smaller than they are now.  The question should not be (except as a theoretical exercise) “how small should government ultimately be”? Practically speaking, whatever answer we have for that, we aren’t going to get there quickly.  “Minimum government” is not on the table.  What we need is to consider how we can make government smaller and less intrusive than it is right now and those who think government should be smaller, that individual liberty should be increased, need to put aside their differences over the ultimate end point and work on achievable goals of reducing government intrusiveness.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

27 thoughts on “Hormesis and Government”

  1. Nicely put. Many persons in the anarcho-capitalist wing of the freedom movement are concerned with “the stability problem.” Small governments, historically, have not remained small, but have grown essentially without limit. They reason that if we can prevent government from even forming a zygote, we can evade all the abuses that follow the governmental growth dynamic. This might be true — myself, I don’t believe it — but even if it is, the price is rather high. Rose Wilder Lane also explores this in The Discovery of Freedom.


    1. “Small governments, historically, have not remained small, but have grown essentially without limit.”
      That is very true. But it is also true that stateless societies, historically, have turned into state societies; that is to say: zero government has not remained zero, but has grown essentially without limits.


      1. Unfortunately, zero government is impossible for human beings on any sort of long-term scale – longer than a few days, that is. We are social, tribal animals, we humans. We need a Tribe in order to function properly, and a Tribe needs a leader. And as soon as you have a leader, you have a government. It might not be a very good government, but it is a government.

        Once established, a government grows for two reasons: one, many of those in the government are greedy and want more power; two, it’s natural for those in government to believe they can do more of the work, and take more of the load, off the governed. And it’s damn difficult to shrink government because many of the people in government honestly believe they are more competent than the people they help govern. But they also know how much trouble they have getting things to behave the way they want. That being the case, how can they trust the less-intelligent, less-skilled, less-competent people to do this thing that they, with all their superior intelligence and skill, can’t do?


        1. And it’s damn difficult to shrink government

          Which is why it’s more work to do so. The problem is that many folk are complacent: things aren’t “too bad” for them, so they don’t buckle down to the work required. And the people who do want to reduce the size and scope of government all too often want everything at once, and end up chasing the Will ‘o Whisp of the “perfect” government (or lack thereof) and dismiss achievable progress toward that end as “compromising with evil” and “the lesser evil is still evil.”

          It’s enough to make a man snatch off his hat, throw it on the ground and stomp on it.


  2. It is not just a matter of quantity, but also, for want of a better word, of quality.
    One of several possible examples: small government that prevents us from defending ourselves against the barbarians, while at the same time doing nothing to stop the barbarians, is worse than anarchy: it is anarcho-tyranny.
    (This was implicit in the post, but i thought it best to make it explicit.)

    Any resemblance of the above example to some recent events, is not entirely casual.


    1. Something that’s normally considered harmful can, in small doses, actually be beneficial. Don’t know how to say it more plainly than that. The graph immediately following that second sentence illustrates the concept.


  3. Free people would reject SAUSAGE government if they could see it.
    1. Jury duty generates a 1099-misc but welfare, SNAP, section 8 housing, school lunch… DONT!
    2. Huge bills exceeding 1100 pages appear overnight but not one page has an initial of the author. Make Congress sign their work!


    1. Make Congress turn in ORIGINAL, HAND-WRITTEN copies of bills along with the printed versions, for consideration. No more of this 1100-page crap – unless they really want to sit down and HAND-WRITE 1100 pages worth of bill.

      That should certainly cut down on the whole “Pass it to find out what’s in it” rot…


  4. “Warzone” freedom , where one sits on their roof 24×7 still allows a lot of freedom. Its just not a very prosperous kind.
    So yes, some minimal amount of “government” is always going to come into existence just so people can reliably eat. Everyone will trade some freedom for a basic level of security that allows them to co-exist peacefully and predictably.
    A “government”, after all, is simply a bunch of individuals who voluntarily cooperate to deal with their supporters, the barbarians and non-combatants, fairly or unfairly. What is critical is how those people are chosen, if they act with consent, and if their ability to act is limited by recognition of inalienable human rights.

    Nor is the Tragedy of the Common’s implicit to the situation. Freeloading could be argued to be a form of theft, as one reaps the benefits of another’s labor. Shouldn’t they be punished? Couldn’t the freeloaders simply be taken and handed over to the barbarians outside the gates ? Or if the barbarians are already inside the gates, Maybe simply publish a list of shirkers and make it widely known that the group maintaining the peace will do nothing to protect them.

    And while a Warlord, failed state sort of government falls high on the “toxic dose” side, it may still be better than what we have now….

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals”

    Kings and Warlords unjustly demand tribute, but even the Tyrants of old could only dream 30-50% tax rates now common in Western Countries. Nor are warlord necessarily motivated to do anything other than satisfy their own lust and greed. Given the the modern left is intent on making everything personal, political, and controlling every aspect of a person’s life ( thanks Julia) cradle to grave, I think its pretty obvious that is MORE TOXIC than living under a warlord.

    Finally , “minimum government” is certainly on the Table. It is, in fact, probably inevitable. Trumps growth rates are great.. unfortunately that also requires rates of return to be raised – including the rates on our debt. . Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. With a 21 Trillion dollar debt, Social security and Medicare are 80 Trillion in the hole using standard accounting practices, interest on the debt is about to surpass military spending. Americans themselves are also deeply in debt, Student loans are over a Trillion by themselves. The forces that keep the petrodollar in place are continually being challenged. The world reserve currency is not a matter a of stable well managed currency – if it were the US would have lost it already — its just a matter of sucking the least, and BRICS is slowly working to that end, and China can, by typing a few orders, crash the US dollar on command. They don’t because there is still some utility in maintaining their “Marshall Plan” where they buy US Debt so we can buy their goods.. . but at some point, as the US borrows more and more, and people can buy less and less, that utility ends.
    Meanwhile America’s trend towards further spending and coercion continues , with 1/3 of the country ( and 1/2 of the powerfully connected) looking to impose things like the Green New Deal and gun control by executive order.
    Look to Argentina and Venezuela and you see where this leads: Minimum Government. Law enforcement is paid with Toilet paper and people are forced to sit on their roofs. Now add into the equation the growing political divide ( based on government and large tech supported imposition of a inter-sectional privilege hierarchy – See Captian Capitalism’s article on Outsourced Socialism) and the fact that the people are geographically separated between a leftist ruled city states and vast areas of heavily armed hinterlands used as resource colonies for those city states, and full warzone freedom is a very real possibility. What comes after that…no there is the real question. Plan Accordingly.


    1. Nor is the Tragedy of the Common’s implicit to the situation. Freeloading could be argued to be a form of theft, as one reaps the benefits of another’s labor. Shouldn’t they be punished?

      Congratulations! You have just made an argument for a particular use of the coercive power of government.

      Now, one might argue that it’s “a form of theft” but you may want to consider where that particular road leads. Suppose I set up a projector in my back yard and have people come over to watch movies. My neighbor across the way has a clear line of sight. If he happens to watch look out his window and watch the movies I’m playing, would I be right in demanding he pay me for that? And if he refuses would I then be justified in using force to collect restitution?

      Both the late Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, very strong free market capitalists with a strong libertarian bent, recognized that there were some situations where a system of voluntary exchanges don’t work well. Friedman called them “neighborhood effects”. Sowell spoke of “external costs and benefits” and “indivisibility”. Mind you, they also pointed out that a system of government can do better in some cases than a system of voluntary exchanges doesn’t mean that it will and that great care should be taken in how that is done.


      1. Perhaps I am simply not grasping the distinction you are attempting to make . (Under copyright law, does your neighbor watching constitute a public performance outside your “home use” copy? Its seems like we are already far, far down that road – we live where it leads, and its not sustainable. )

        As a general principle it is immoral to gain a benefit from the involuntary use of someone else’s labor or capital. Government doesn’t come into it until such time as a forceful punishment is dealt out . . So yes, you can certainly argue your neighbor should pay but can’t force him to, or you can erect a barrier to prevent him from watching/hearing the film.. say trees, bushes, or simply the walls of your house. Public areas – which I would argue include the airspace and the line of sight- are poor places for private activity – as they are defined as common to all.

        There are certainly ways to make the effects of watching the movie divisible, and the same goes for National Defense, up to and including allowing the barbarians free passage to invade a slackers home and letting them do their thing. Likewise fire department can show up to a fire in a slackers home and engage their efforts only on preventing the nearby homes of non-slackers from catching fire along with it.

        A good or service is only going to be subject to the tragedy of the commons if its defined and agreed to as a good or service from which everyone may draw benefit.

        If you perform on the street, its expected that your performance is of a donation nature.. there is no government that will arrest people for not contributing after watching the show.. (they may however fine the performer for performing) but most people would agree its very poor form to stand and watch an entire performance and then contribute nothing to the hat as it passes.. its a cultural rule – culturally enforced – by individuals who talk and gossip and refuse their services to disreputable people Many areas of the American West had only a token form of formal government and law enforcement for a very long time, and voluntary systems such as this were used very extensively and to good effect.

        Humans are tribal/cultural creatures.. and Governments are simply an (expensive) formal process of rule making, with an (expensive ) formal process of determining guilt and a (expensive) formal process of doling out punishments. Cultural censure is a far cheaper process and its entirely voluntary – and can be quite effective especially as information gets cheaper, more accurate and easier to access and verify – especially where there is social cohesion… You are put on a list for observed bad behavior. .. You are doxed. The Barbarians know where you live, and your fellow citizens may decide you are not resort of fellow they will befriend , employ or do business with.

        Just watch the left and their social media SJW mobs going out and attempting to use it as a weapon each day. That, at its base, is how a culture war is fought. The real threat is coming form these Corporations that own the virtual public squares ( a private space, like your backyard, where people use their line of sight to the platform as a commons) , censure dissidents, and promote the approved voices, while providing the apparatus to disseminate your “social” score. It is so effective that China is dabbling in deploying such a system as a branch of government.

        It is undoubted that these the tech giants have a right to control their platforms (their labor and their capital) – even when those platforms pretend to be common areas open to all. Citibank has a right to deny gun retailers their banking services.. Patreon can deny services to bloggers .. and so on. Socialism has been effectively outsourced to the entities that can make it happen.. and they will because corporations exist at the pleasure of the government.. He who can destroy a thing controls a thing.

        Yes, some very small amount of government might very well be more efficacious in certain , very limited circumstances where other costs and factors make a certain good or service completely indivisible. However, given that governments inevitably break into other areas , paying higher costs to accomplish those tasks voluntarily may, in the long run, still be worth it.


        1. As a general principle it is immoral to gain a benefit from the involuntary use of someone else’s labor or capital. 

          Let’s explore that. If I decorate my front lawn with plants and statuary is it then immortal for someone to pause to admire the view and take pleasure in that?

          If someone does something for their own benefit and someone else takes a benefit that’s right there because it’s out in the open for anyone to see, can you force them to pay any more than you can forfeit them to pay for admiring a sunset?

          The point being made however is that some things aren’t amenable to voluntary exchange. In order to handle them, some other mechanism is necessary.


        2. To expand a bit on that, we have the current situation where government forces people to pay for myriad “benefits” whether they want to or not, whether they think it’s worth it or not. (Indeed, if they thought it was worth it, they’d pay without being forced, that’s pretty much the definition of “worth it” economically speaking). Continuing in the same vein would be the completely planned economy where every transaction is dictated by some central authority (otherwise known as a more extreme totalitarian dictatorship than has ever existed). The other extreme would be the pure “voluntaryist” (some call that “anarchist” but that term has been so corrupted from its literal meaning from its inception as to cause more confusion than not) where no transaction is forced. All transactions are strictly voluntary and only occur if all parties believe they benefit–the classic “win win”.

          The point, here is that some things simply cannot be handled, or not well, in a strictly voluntaryist fashion. By invoking “punishment” for failure to provide for said defense, you are simply acknowledging that point. Thus the “Congratulations…” of my follow on comment.

          Incidentally, I dismiss the “publish a list of shirkers…” idea since if you think the barbarians would limit themselves to folk on the list, well, it would be amusing to watch the effort if it wouldn’t be so tragic. It’s much</i easier to stop the barbarians at a well defined, relatively geometrically simple border than in the fractal arrangement of shirkers interspersed with paying members of society. The spillover might well have those who did pay wondering what they were getting for their money.

          In the end, it’s pretty clear that the pure voluntary situation that many of the “no compromise with principle!” types insist is the only “moral” way is simply unworkable. It leads to less individual freedom than some small level of government (which is, by definition, the license to use coercive force).

          We are far, far on the “toxic” side of that hormesis curve. Indeed, there may never have been a society in the “beneficial” sweet spot. That being the case, I’m willing to make common cause with most anyone willing to move government back in the direction toward that smaller, less intrusive, more free government regardless of whether I agree with them on where the most desirable end point is. We’re not going to get anywhere close to that any time soon so that decision can be deferred. Just…get things going in the right direction.


  5. Your example of defending the house brings up an important point:

    If the people organize for their self defense, that is “government” — you have to give up some of your own autonomy to meet the obligations (and reap the benefits) of the group.

    IOW, there is no such thing as real anarchy — at least, not that any living human has seen.


    1. “Anarchy” only lasts as long as it takes for some people to agree to organize to take from or harm others, forcing those others to organize (and establish means to enforce that organization) to defend against them.

      Thus “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. For proper cost/benefit analysis of government, we need more than direct, indirect and operating overhead. We must include the loss of price signals from constraints on free markets, as well as impacts on morale and morals.
    Well we can now quantify price signals, by re-tasking equations of thermodynamics, just as Claude Shannon did for pure information.
    That loss of price signal is what doomed the USSR and all similar socialist efforts. It was only because of “blat” that the Soviets limped along until 1989.
    Such quantification validates the intuition that “one drop of oil is good but two drops ain’t.”


  7. Substituting “size” and “amount” for the PRINCIPLES governing a State is the abandonment of principles entirely. You don’t care SHAT the Star does, just so long as it’s size is “tiny” – just so long as it doesn’t steal, rape, and murder TOO ‘much’. The AMOUNT of such violations is the problem, not the violations themselves.

    Talk about an EVIL philosophy.


    1. Or it could be that we’re talking about a specific point for a blog post and not for a comprehensive treatise on the roll and function of government. Indeed, if ones goal is individual liberty, if that’s one of the “principles” then size and scope is an important reflection of those principles.

      Indeed, people talk about “principle” when they play the “there ought to be a law” game or “government should” game. When Samuel Adams (one of my personal heroes, as it happens–for all his flaws) wanted to ban “papists” and use money taken by force from non-Congregationalists to support the Congregationalist denomination “principle” was high in his thinking.

      People often confuse “principle” with their principles. If someone disagrees they “have no principles” when, in fact, they often do have principles, just different ones.

      But the point here is that a large and expansive government will always be bad (if one’s “principles” are “individual liberty” which, a careful reader will note is implicit in my post). A small government, from the perspective of that principle, can (not necessarily will–as noted in one of my comments above) be “good” and, indeed, better than some theoretical no government at all.


  8. This is mostly correct.

    All gov’t uses force — partly to minimize the actual force used.

    This is where a small amount of a substance is beneficial but larger amounts of a substance that’s normally considered toxic are actually beneficial while larger doses are harmful.

    should be
    This is where a small amount of a substance [] that’s normally considered toxic are actually beneficial while larger doses are harmful.


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