Monday, 5 September 2011

Penicillin and Anarchy

Anarchists tend to assume that the utilitarian argument goes their way.  The sheer number of deaths caused by wars between states is viscerally convincing: how, we ask, can anyone think that the modern state fixes more harm than it causes?  There’s a simple response to this.

What about penicillin?

The number of lives that penicillin and associated cheap antibiotics have saved is spectacularly high, especially in Third World countries.  You could mount an argument – not knowing the facts, I’m unsure as to the outcome – that penicillin, in some sort of macabre utilitarian calculus, is somehow worth the Holocaust and Hiroshima combined.

I’m not saying this poses an intractable problem to anarchism – after all, most anarchists don’t base their position on utilitarian grounds.  Autonomy is sacrosanct, a life saved does not outweigh a life taken, etc.  Still, it’s an interesting point, and one that robs the most confronting anarchist argument of some credibility.

Perhaps it’s possible to argue that most of the lives penicillin saves are endangered by state policies in the first place; that our modern state apparatus tends to fix some of its own problems and use that as justification for existing in the first place.  Without armed policemen, who will save us from thugs and bandits?  And so forth.  This seems more tenuous though.  There’s something about a list of the dead that brings out the rebel in all of us, the voice that says ‘this cannot stand’.  It’s harder to bring that rebel out in a debate about economic policy in the Third World.


  1. Your thinking is too statist. You assume that the state produced penicillin not the individuals involved. Fleming would have existed with or without the UK or Scotland.
    Another way to look at it is that the evidence that without the state penicillin would not exist is just as strong as evidence that without the state more antibiotics would have been discovered earlier or distributed wider. Both have no evidence and are just conjecture.

  2. well the idea that we can reasonable asses the utilitarian scale of suffering is a non starter. Take a non-example. Bill Clinton launches air strikes on Rwandan Hutus in '94 killing 756 men, women, and children. Oh the hue and cry, well you can imagine. Oddly though it forestalls genocide because so much international attention is focused on the place. You see where I'm going; we can rarely know the suffering averted by an action so how can we compare it to the suffering caused by the same action. The allied bombing of german cities is the classic, people argue about it still, rightly so.
    By the way 'commend' is a synonym for 'praise' and one does not have to 'commend to' , although your comment on Crispys blog cracked me up, I love that Orwell essay, I wrote the original comment, and I know, I know, I butcher the language all the time.

  3. Thanks for your comments! First Anonymous, you make a good point that penicillin may well have existed without the state. However, I've got to take issue when you say it could have been 'distributed wider'. While there's no actual evidence, the state has spectacular transport and delivery systems (globalisation etc) that it's hard to see how anarchy could match.

    Second Anonymous, you're dead on! I'm actually writing a paper at the moment about just that kind of problem with utilitarianism; there's probably another post in there somewhere. Your comment chez Crispy was actually pretty clever, too - if I'd had more time I might have made an actual response instead of taking the cheap shot.