Megan McArdle has a new post on the auto bailout that is 95% dead-on. In short, she is less than impressed with its impact and notes that “We could have given each of the autoworkers $100,000 to go start over somewhere else, and still saved money on the deal.” Of course, this is besides the point for the architects of the bailout since it wasn’t rational policymaking for the general interest that motivated the deal in the first place but politics pure and simple (involving what McArdle argues was “a pretty blatant handout to a powerful Democratic interest group.”)
But the 5% in her post that is a bit off is her strange argument about the proper role of the state. Namely, McArdle argues that “The role of the state is to prevent human suffering.” Really? There are a lot of different arguments a libertarian or conservative or anyone else could make for the state, but this seems like an odd one. Even utilitarianism (the frequently hidden ethical structure behind the policy prescriptions of “objective” economists) doesn’t give this role to the state since it aims to maximize general welfare (which could imply some very serious suffering as long as it is outweighed by utility gains).
And if “preventing human suffering” is the proper purview of the state, McArdle’s state would be quite expansive, especially since she didn’t say “minimize” suffering but “prevent” it. Actually, I’m not sure a state could actually do that no matter its size given the less than ideal world we live in (in that sense, she would be trying, to use Voegelin’s phrase, “to immanentize the eschaton”) and the fact that governments would still be faced with trading-off the suffering of some to prevent the suffering of others.
Update: I should also mention that suffering itself might not be something we want to prevent entirely. Don’t tell Virginia Postrel this, however. She has argued: “Contrary to what you may have heard, the only sort of character suffering builds is the ability to suffer–a useful ability in a world where suffering is the routine nature of life but not a virtue that makes the world a better place.”