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.”