Here is a hypothetical situation.

There is a project only the state can handle. This project, if it is made, will have a positive impact for everyone. If it is not made, the current situation will not change. But the state is a democratic state, and the vast majority of the population is against this project.

Should the state do this project against the will of the people but for their own good ? Even if this will make the state exist ?

In the contrary, should the state not do this project ? Even if the goal of a state is to take care of the population of the country ?

We can even extend this question by changing the state in a entity with power (for example a boss in a company), or by changing the consequences if the project is not made (for example a war happens).

  • 1
    There are possibilities like referendum but, in general, the "power" in a modern state is articulated: government, parliament, and not every decision must be directly "verified" against the population will. In general, direct democracy is not the way modern state works. Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 9:54
  • This is too vague. Depends on the issue. The politics of the state. & even then the answer is opinion-based. Nearly all democracies are (mainly) representative rather than direct, exactly so people who've undergone a selection process can take tough decisions for the longer term vs the mob. The UK ended the death penalty against majority sentiment, based on evidence. Citizen Assemblies are like a large representative jury who sit through policy evidence, & increasingly being used for tough decisions like on abortion law in Ireland, to negate flaws of referendums & politicians populist biases.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 16:09
  • 1
    Gadamer I think would say we better know the history and traditions of the people before we shove some scientific solution down their throats, or a shot into their arms; other more religious philosophers may say we need a philosophical anthropology of man. Know who man is and what he would tolerate.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 20:45
  • I’m still studying Gadamer so don’t consider what I say as final. The warning in the background is the danger of scientism.
    – Gordon
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 20:49
  • 1
    "This project, if it is made, will have a positive impact for everyone." Can you give an example of a government action that would have a positive impact for everyone? Even a hypothetical example.
    – user4894
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 21:05

3 Answers 3


That heavily depends on the urgency and necessity of the project and how that "state" is organized.

Like "the state" is usually not an entity independent of "the people". It's rather that "the people" make up "the state". So if you have a conflict of interest between "the people" and "the state" that is already kind of weird.

It can and does happen that you have a conflict of interest between "an individual" and "the collective", meaning a small sacrifice of the individual might have a huge benefit for the society as a whole, which includes that individual but which might have a high upfront cost for the individual or might be a small but still net negative for that single person.

And then it's basically society passing judgement weighing what is more important the right of the individual (if they were in that situation) or the good that it does for society. However regardless of the outcome one should point out that society could also just ask the individual for their consent. Like before you pull a power move and override consent you might just explain your plan and motivation and might even get it approved or approved under conditions.

But something benefiting a majority without a cost, yet being rejected by a majority sounds kinda weird and you probably need to supply some details. Like that sounds like a lack of information or some sort of misinformation or different perception of the information available. Also what part of the majority would act as "the state" or would that state be an external minority? As said those are usually conflicts of interests so you either need to show why it's not or you seem to miss an important perspective in your scenario.


Oh, yummy. Another disguised "life boat ethics" question. Let's see what shipping company's name is on the lifebuoys of this boat.

Line up the unlikely here.

  1. The project will have great benefits.
  2. The population is against it.
  3. Only the government can do it.

The question of "benefit" implies other questions. To whom and for what? If people are against it then this implies that the benefits do not accrue to them. The project is not generally beneficial. So 1 and 2 are contradictory.

As to 3. Why can only the government do it? We frequently hear about a "Manhattan project for X" and a "moonshot for Y." A "Manhattan project to cure cancer." Or "a moonshot to cure poverty." Or "a Manhattan project to solve global warming."

There are currently three billionaires doing space launches. One of them is doing so at a pace massively in advance of anything NASA ever achieved. SpaceX did 31 launches last year, and is on pace for 60 this year.

Oh, but NASA created all that tech. Did they? There is some argument that NASA of the early 1960s was a net benefit with regard to tech. And there is some argument that the excitement of the space program encouraged large numbers of school children to become scientists and engineers.

But from the 1970s on, NASA was a net drag on tech and space. They sucked up all the energy for space and did it not very well. The equipment SpaceX is using is largley created in-house. Research and development are far better off out of government hands, as shown by Terence Kealey in the book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, funding from private sources is 50% higher, and has far less strings attached, than does government funded research. Tech advances faster without government. (So too does research of all kinds, including non-tech things like philosophy, the arts, history, etc. But that's another post.)

So the idea that only government can do it implies there is something unusual happening here. One might expect such a condition to arise if there was crash urgency or some need for secrecy. As in the real Manhattan project, which was developing a nuclear weapon during WWII. Or if there were overriding priorities that influenced the government to perceive benefits. Such as during the real Apollo project, which was driven by questions of prestige and surpassing the USSR.

That is to say, the lifeboat we are in is some sort of government need, not a benefit to the general population. The name on the lifebuoys is Big Government.

And the iceberg we hit is almost certainly one that was produced by government action in the first place. Possibly not the same government, as in the case of the Manhattan project.

Now, that is not to say that the situation could never arise. Or that it should never be considered for the government to do some project. Just that the result is going to be what we have today. We are digging ourselves out of 50 years of being held back by NASA. We are dealing with a nuclear industry that uses Uranium reactors because they are what the weapons program wants.

But we must be aware of the cost and evaluate it correctly. Maybe the project is not really worth the cost of two generations of people not believing that space flight can be done any other way than through gargantuan government expenditures. Or that nuclear reactors cannot be improved because funding for their improvement depends on the weapons program that does not care about improving reactors.

And if it is worth it, and it's not during a war, then the government can stop and explain why it's worth it. And if their explanations are valid then rational people will agree with them.

And if people are not rational? Well, you have exactly one place to look for that. But public education is yet another post.

  • I agree with you that both Government and private funding is appropriate for research depending on the nature and context of the project. But big companies, big individuals and big government all share the downsides (for the rest of us) of being big. But they have to be big to pay the bills. What counts most is focus and plentiful resources. There are many examples of research (besides the atom bomb) that started under government auspices and were taken up by private companies later. The computer, radar, the jet engine, the internet all come to mind.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 10:09
  • I cannot resist adding that it seems to me very odd to start developing space tourism when the rest of the world is trying to cope with climate change. Government intervention to check such projects would be of great benefit to everyone else. Space rockets dump huge amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. Space flight at scale won’t be sustainable until non-polluting fuels are developed. Even the air travel industry has begun to accept that.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 10:12
  • @LudwigV Yep. Big Government Shipping Co. Every single one of the things you mention was SLOWER becaue of government involvement.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 15:33
  • It would be interesting to know your evidence for that claim. But this isn't helping to answer the question, so perhaps we shouldn't pursue it.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 9:59

I know this is hypothetical but there are so many aspects to this question. Firstly, a democratic state would not take on a project that would positively impact its people behind their backs. The way that the democratic system is set up now, it's all for looks and posturing, if real hard work does not garner attention and praise from the population then it will be overlooked for something more favorable in the eyes of the people, by whom, the votes are cast. Also, I find it questionable whether the state really does know what would benefit the people. The people know what would benefit the people. If that means that we peel off from the cult of progress

  • I have my doubts whether the people always know what would benefit the people. Certainly, there are examples in history of the people getting what they think would benefit them and then realizing that it doesn't.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 8:08
  • "the people" in a broader sense including experts in specific fields surely can sense what is wrong and what must be improved. the government should really only be there to work out specifics
    – s.hugdaddy
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 11:18
  • I'm not in favour of final decisions in the hands of any one person or any group of people. That's tyranny. "Experts" and "the people" are both groups of people. In practice, neither group will reliably deliver a unanimous or even a consensus decision, never mind both together. "Let the people decide" is a political and rhetorical slogan, not a sensible policy. A sensible policy would be far too complicated to be summarized in a slogan. In my opinion. In practice, sensible policies are delivered by a long and complicated process of negotiation and persuasion. In my opinion.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 11:35

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