December 25, 2013
The Asylum Theory of Government

Thurman Arnold was a Yale Law School professor who became the chief trust buster in Roosevelt’s Justice Department and later a founder of the Washington law firm now known as Arnold & Porter. Along the way he was also a Wyoming legislator, the mayor of Laramie, and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He published The Symbols of Government, excerpted below, in 1935.

Those being times very much like ours it might be of some interest to see how things looked to Arnold back then. Not that we can do much more to fix those things than he could, this still being a nation populated by Americans rather than, say, Swedes, Costa Ricans or Finns. Different strokes for different folks.

Anyway, Merry Christmas and here’s Arnold:

From the humanitarian point of view the best government is that which we find in an asylum. In such a government the physicians in charge do not separate the ideas of the insane into any separate sciences such as law, economics and sociology; nor then instruct the insane in the intricacies of these three sciences. Nor do they argue with the insane as to the soundness or unsoundness of their ideas. Their aim is to make the inmates of the asylum as comfortable as possible, regardless of their respective moral deserts … No psychiatrist today attempts to differentiate the content of foolish ideas, and of insane ideas. It is equally possible to adopt a point of view toward government where ideas are considered only in light of their effect on conduct…

The advantages of such a theory for purposes of thinking about government is that we escape the troublesome assumption that the human race is rational. We need not condemn policies which contradict each other solely on the ground that the action of government must be logically consistent. We need not constantly worry about permanent cures, and discard day-to-day policies because of their effect in the future on the morale of the irrational people we are governing. We need not delay such necessary undertakings as public relief because we are worried about their effect on the character of the recipients. We need not compel persons on relief to pauperize themselves and surrender the insurance policies which may afford future relief to their children because of a moral notion that no one is entitled to relief who is not a pauper…

Russia under Stalin is not so far from Russia under a benevolent despot as we may imagine. It is true that the notion of equal distribution of goods to the proletariat as the chief justification for the exercise of governmental power, contains ideals which appear to be new; but if we examine them we find that they are at least as old as Christianity…

The concept of government as an insane asylum liberates us from the notion that wise men think up principles and schemes of government for their duller fellows to learn and follow, and that thus social change is accomplished. It frees us from the notion that “thinking men” decide between the relative merits of communism and capitalism, and choose the better form. Finally, the theory is based on a humanitarian ideal which seems to be indestructible in the march of society — the ideal that it is a good thing to make people comfortable if the means exist by which it can be done.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at December 25, 2013 09:39 AM
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