Why Government No Longer Protects Us,
Educates our Children, or Balances its Budget
By Harry Browne
Something has gone wrong in the "land of the free." People today are alarmed at a government that has grown too large and too bold -- a government that removes more and more of our choices and demands more and more of what we earn.
The government that was set up to protect private property now confiscates it in the name of preserving the environment or fighting drugs. The government founded by men who warned "Don't tread on me" pries into our bank accounts, harasses us to collect its taxes, and tries to herd us into health-care collectives -- as though we were Soviet citizens.
The government formed merely to keep the peace routinely disturbs it with oppressive regulations and environmental mandates on industry -- running up the price of everything we buy. Government loads payroll taxes, hiring quotas, and other burdens on employers -- drastically reducing our incomes as employees. Government at all levels takes 45% of our earnings through direct and hidden taxes -- cutting our standard of living to only a fraction of what it could be.
Is this the government the founding fathers had in mind? Is this the government instituted among men to secure the blessings of life, liberty, and property?
Most people believe government is supposed to perform certain limited functions -- such as keeping the peace, protecting our borders, operating schools, issuing money, providing roads, and delivering mail -- but government has moved far beyond those functions to meddle in almost every area of our lives. In the process, government has neglected its original functions:
Wherever we look, government has failed to carry out its original functions, but continues to expand into every conceivable area of our lives.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
Once upon a time, government budgets were balanced, our money was sound, the streets were safe, and taxes imposed by all levels of government took less than 10% of our incomes.
Now government's "share" is up to 45%. But that statistic doesn't tell the whole story, because it doesn't allow for the way government regulation has preempted more and more decisions we used to make for ourselves.
Where did it all go wrong? Isn't government supposed to be our servant, rather than our master? Wasn't government supposed to help only those who couldn't help themselves -- rather than the politicians and lobbyists? What happened to the principle that government should do for the people only what they cannot do for themselves?
I think there are answers to these questions. In fact, I believe we can identify the precise turning point that made today's breakdown inevitable. And that is the purpose of this article.
WHAT IS GOVERNMENT?
First, we must identify exactly what government is.
Governments dominate our lives; they are the central topic of the news and public discussion. And yet not one person in a hundred can define what we mean by the word government, and no school or textbook bothers to provide a precise definition.
What is government? How does it differ from IBM or the Boy Scouts or a local security company? What resource does government have that makes it different from every other entity in society?
When people say the government should do something -- whether to provide universal health insurance or enact a family leave policy -- why do they turn to the government? Why not ask the United Way or the Chamber of Commerce?
Is it government's size that makes it different and, thus, better able to handle some tasks? No. For no matter how large the project, a stock offering could raise the necessary private capital, or a joint venture of existing companies could do the job.
Is it that government operates without profit? No. So do the Salvation Army, the Rotary Club, and thousands of other organizations.
Is it that government has a longer view and is more considerate of the future? Hardly. A corporation can last for centuries, and its stockholders monitor the company to assure that its stock retains its value for their heirs or for future buyers -- while politicians look no further ahead than the next election.
Is it that government is the only institution concerned for the well-being of all citizens? No, since government can give to one group only what it takes from others.
It isn't the size of government, its nonprofit status, its perspective, or its scope. The distinctive feature of government is something quite different from all these things.
It is force -- the ability to compel obedience. It is coercion that makes government unique among every agency in society.
When someone demands that government help flood victims in the Midwest, he is saying he wants to force people to pay for flood relief. Otherwise, he'd gladly have the Red Cross handle everything.
Social Security is a government program because such a scheme can survive only if people are forced to join. Otherwise, most people would tear up their Social Security cards and choose from the hundreds of attractive, voluntary retirement plans available -- which have rules and provisions that don't change capriciously from year to year.
And government imposes tariffs and import quotas for one reason only -- to forcibly prevent consumers from buying the products they find most attractive. Otherwise, the companies now protected from foreign competition would simply advertise that their products are better.
No one asks the government to do something that relies on voluntary participation. In one way or another, compulsion is at work: someone is forced to pay for something, someone is forced to do something, or someone is forcibly prevented from doing something. There is no other reason to involve the government.
As Long As You Comply . . .
The element of force is obvious in such government institutions as the police and prisons. But it is there as well in every government activity -- from food stamps to family-leave laws -- although the coercion in many programs often goes unnoticed.
If you don't see the use of force in a government program, it's because you haven't disobeyed the government's dictates. If you had, you'd quickly learn that the program is enforced by a gun.
If that statement seems extreme, you need only follow the workings of any government activity to its logical conclusion.
Suppose, for example, that you're a barber. One day the State Board of Tonsorial Oversight issues a regulation to stop "cut-throat competition" -- decreeing that no barber shall charge less than $8 for a haircut. If your price is $8 or more, you won't even notice the regulation.
But suppose you charge only $6. Perhaps business is slow and you need to increase sales. Maybe you're in a low-income neighborhood where people can't afford $8 haircuts, or perhaps you've just opened a new shop and need to attract customers. For whatever reason, you offer haircuts for $6.
You may be able to do this for a week or two -- or even a month or two. But eventually you'll receive a letter from the regulators, demanding that you raise your price.
If you comply by changing your price to $8, you'll hear no more about the matter.
But if you don't obey, eventually some men in suits will show up at your barber shop to warn you to stop undercharging.
If you continue to ignore the law, you'll receive a subpoena -- ordering you to appear in court. If you don't show up, or if you ignore the court's order to raise your prices, your barber's license will be revoked.
If you defy the law by continuing to cut hair, another group of men will show up at your shop. These fellows may not be in suits, and they will carry guns. They will order you to close your shop. If you refuse, their job will be to remove you by force and take you to jail. If you resist, they will try to take you alive -- but if they find it necessary, they will shoot you.
Then it will be clear that a simple regulation setting the price of haircuts has a gun to back it up -- or the law would be pointless. Laws and other government programs aren't suggestions, they are commands. The gun is always there. Its power to compel obedience is the reason -- and the only reason -- to involve the government.
The IRS likes to say that our tax system is based on voluntary compliance. And that's true -- so long as you comply, the system is voluntary. But the moment you choose not to comply, you will be transferred to a different system.
Trade associations, charities, and service clubs urge people to support some cause. But government help is sought in order to force compliance.
Now, you may believe that the government should set prices for haircuts and other things -- or that it should force people to do what's good for them or what's good for society. But that's another issue. We first need to recognize the simple point that every government program and edict does involve force, because only then will we understand the consequences that flow from government programs -- and how government has come to where it is today.
Think through any government activity. Eventually, you'll identify the coercive element that is the reason the activity has become the province of government.
So what is government? Very simply, it is an agency of coercion.
Of course, there are other agencies of coercion -- such as the Mafia. So to be more precise, government is the agency of coercion that has flags in front of its offices. It's the agency of coercion that doesn't need to hide its activities, because it's bigger than all the others.
To put it in economic terms, government is the monopoly producer of coercion. The Mafia and independent bandits are merely fringe competitors -- entrepreneurs seeking to fill the niches and nooks neglected by the government, which is the dominant firm in the coercion industry.
ATTRACTION OF COERCION
The government's coercion is an attractive tool for ambitious, concerned people.
If you want to feed the homeless, you don't have to persuade hundreds of people to donate money to your project; the government can force everyone to contribute.
If competition is hurting your business, just get the government to impose licensing laws or tariffs to keep the upstarts out.
If you don't want people reading pornography or other vulgar literature, you don't have to lecture them on the evils of bad taste. Simply pass a law to put the smut-peddlers out of business.
Government, with its coercive power, is the grand prize of society -- the brass ring, the pot of gold, the genie of the lamp. It is the shortcut to riches, to social reform, to imposing your personal tastes on all of society. With government as your ally, you can circumvent the tedious process of earning a living, spreading the gospel, or persuading others that you're right.
Government is such potent magic that nearly everyone wants to use it -- hoping it will make one's dreams come true. As Frederic Bastiat said, "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone expects to live at the expense of everyone else."1
CONSEQUENCES OF COERCION
Government is a powerful tool. But it's also an unmanageable one. When government is involved, nothing ever seems to work out the way it was supposed to.
This usually is because people planning a new government program focus only on the immediate beneficiaries of coercion. They fail to see how the benefits will act as a magnet for other would-be beneficiaries, and they fail to consider the reactions of the people whose lives must be turned upside down for the program to succeed.
Where money is involved, for example, the inescapable principles of supply and demand come into play. Because a subsidy seems virtually free to each recipient, the demand for the subsidy is much greater than expected. And since the amount an individual pays in taxes has no bearing on what he receives, few people pay more than they are forced to.
As a result, the cost of a subsidy always far exceeds the initial estimates, while tax increases never produce the revenue expected. The outcome isn't just an unbalanced budget now and then -- but chronic, expanding deficits.
The goals of government are constantly derailed by unforeseen consequences. Poverty programs don't reduce the number of poor people; on the contrary, they encourage more people to become poor and get on the gravy train. (It's not very good gravy, but it's free.) New regulations don't reform society as expected; instead, they inspire new techniques, new products, and even new industries to help people circumvent the regulations. As the War on Drugs expands, drug use seems to grow. And, through it all, the underground economy siphons off revenue the government had counted on.
The unintended consequences lead to calls for even bigger programs, higher taxes, and tighter regulations to solve the problems caused by the government's earlier programs.
Of course, no government ever admits that it caused the problems it now claims it can solve. It doesn't have to -- it can blame everything on the private sector. Thus government control of over half the money spent on medical care has produced an overpriced health-care system -- but government simply blames that on a "failure of the free market."
So the initiation of any government program almost guarantees that other programs will be demanded later to clean up the mess created by the first program. In this way, government assures its own continual growth.
Government grows, too, because the subsidy or privileged status won by one group inspires other groups to demand similar benefits for themselves. When one company or industry gets government to force competitors out of business, why shouldn't others call for the same protection? That's why no government program ever stands still. Once implemented, it inevitably expands to cover wider and wider areas.
Everyone who comes to the government asking for favors has a plausible request. Once it's been settled that it's proper to use government force to solve a problem in one person's life, it's obviously proper to use it to solve any problem in anyone's life. And so no demand is considered out of bounds. The pressure on lawmakers to grant favors is overwhelming.
But, actually, very little pressure is necessary. Lawmakers, bureaucrats, and judges all thrive on a government that grows and grows and grows. The larger the government, the more power lawmakers have to make or break companies and individuals -- and the more people must prostrate themselves at the politicians' feet to obtain favors or just to keep government from destroying them.
So government gets bigger and bigger, because everyone wants the special privileges he sees others getting; the failure of each program leads to calls for new programs; and "public servants" use every event as an excuse to expand their private powers.
Through it all, the so-called "legitimate" functions of government more and more take a back seat to subsidies, protection schemes, and the reorganizing of society through force -- because the latter functions make us more beholden to the politicians.
THE DICTATOR SYNDROME
Government grows also because well-meaning people like you and me believe the government should do some things that seem to be beyond controversy -- find a cure for cancer, stop air pollution, keep violence off television, or prevent Saddam Hussein from conquering the Middle East. Whatever the goal, it's easy to visualize exactly how the government will accomplish the objective.
I call this The Dictator Syndrome. You imagine a reform and visualize the way government will solve some social problem -- without realizing that the program would proceed this way only if you were a dictator who could command everyone involved to act exactly as you want him to. But government doesn't act according to your dictates.
Just for a moment, think about something you wish the government would do -- whether to put more police on the streets, teach good values in the schools, provide health insurance for those who don't have it, bring peace to Bosnia, or whatever. Imagine a goal so important that it justifies unleashing the coercion of government. And now, realize what will happen as you try to make this reform a reality.
To get your program enacted you'll need political allies, since you have no influence by yourself. But other people will support your plan only if you change it in dozens of ways that will encompass their pet goals.
Suppose you amass enough support to get the politicians to approve the amended program. Who will write the law to carry it out? You? Of course not. It will be written by the same senators, congressmen, and aides who created all the laws, programs, and problems you object to now. Each lawmaker involved will compromise your program still further to provide a benefit or exemption for his political supporters.
And if the law is passed, who will administer it? Not you. It will be carried out by many of the same bureaucrats who today are seizing property and trampling on our liberties. They don't care about your objectives; they will enforce the law to suit their purposes.
And, lastly, the new law will generate many disputes. Who will adjudicate them? You? No, it will be the same judges who today decide cases to suit their own values, rather than by any fixed principles of law. A judge may even rule that your law means exactly the opposite of what you intended.
By the time your lofty plan has run this gauntlet, it will be far bigger and far more expensive (in money and disrupted lives) than you had imagined. It will have been transformed into a tool to satisfy the wishes of many factions, but probably not yours. In fact, you may have helped to worsen the very problem you were trying to correct. At the very least, you will have provided a new tool for those who use government for their own ends.
The Civil Rights Acts passed in the last 30 years demonstrate how the political process turns idealistic dreams inside out.
For almost a century, the laws in many Southern states forced companies to practice racial segregation -- in hiring, in the services offered to customers, and in the facilities provided for their employees. Companies weren't allowed to make their own decisions. Civil rights advocates fought to repeal these laws but failed to do so.
So they asked the federal government to overrule the Southern states. But when the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was finally passed, it didn't simply repeal the coercion of the Southern laws and set companies free to make their own decisions. The new law imposed its own coercion -- prohibiting firms from practicing any kind of segregation or discrimination.
The civil rights movement supported this approach, because the new coercion was in the service of a noble objective.
But laws never stand still. Soon it was argued that if it's wrong for an employer, landlord, or organization to discriminate on the basis of race, it was just as wrong to discriminate on the basis of gender. So the law was expanded to cover women -- and then religious believers, and then the handicapped, and then the elderly.
In the meantime, the bureaucrats and courts had taken charge of the law. They enforced it so zealously that employers could avoid charges of discrimination only by, in fact, discriminating -- by using hiring quotas to assure the right mix of races among their employees.
In addition, the Civil Rights laws provide a basis for lucrative law suits. So every imaginable group wants to be covered by them -- to become part of the aristocracy. There are movements to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual preference, weight, looks, drug use, illness, criminal record, and dozens of other categories. Everyone wants in on this sweet deal.
And it is an aristocracy these groups are trying to join. Once they're on the "A List," they possess power that's denied to the rest of us. Anyone who refuses to hire them, rent an apartment to them, or sell his services to them, can be sued -- and perhaps forced to pay a million dollars or more in punitive damages. Obviously, no one wants to risk these consequences by turning away someone who's a member of the aristocracy -- especially when any tiny misstep can be considered proof of discrimination.
For example, six U.S. Secret Service agents sued a Denny's restaurant -- saying they received bad service because they're black. And how do they know their color was the reason? Because a group of white people entered the restaurant at the same time they did, and finished their meals before the blacks received their first course. Obviously, a case of discrimination.2
Now, if you're a white, heterosexual male Protestant, you probably can't imagine this kind of insult. It's true you may have experienced horrible service in a coffee shop -- perhaps many times. A waiter may have refused to give you the time of day, lost your order and forgot you were even in the restaurant, or refused to take care of you until he had phoned his girlfriend.
Sure, you may have had to sit and watch the family at the next table eat their entire meal before you were even asked for your order. But you have to blame it on inefficiency, a bad-tempered waiter, or an overcrowded restaurant. Not being on the "A List," you weren't insulted because of your race (or your religion, handicap, or any other recognized status); you were insulted just because you're you. And your only recourse is to find a coffee shop that will treat you better.
But if you're a member of the aristocracy, you can force the coffee-shop owner to go to court and prove that he didn't discriminate. And so he might choose to pay a generous monetary settlement, rather than go to court. Naturally, with this kind of bait, the worst elements of society exploit these laws to their advantage. And the prospects of such riches mean that the law won't stand still; more and more groups will demand to be covered by it.
The Civil Rights Acts illustrate how the simplest law -- with the most noble purpose -- sooner or later must evolve into an instrument for predators. High drama eventually degenerates into farce -- because once coercion is available for one purpose, it's available for all purposes.
For example, recently a couple were ejected from an airliner (before take-off) because they shouted a string of obscenities at the other passengers. They then sued the airline on the grounds that they were discriminated against because they have a disease that compels them to utter profanities. Has the law really been stretched to such an exaggeration?3
No, it has been stretched even further. In fact, it has gone full circle. The Civil Rights Acts originated when some well-meaning people wanted to end forced segregation of the races in the South. But in 1992 a Florida court used these laws to award a white woman permanent disability benefits -- ruling that her employer should have provided a segregated workplace to cater to her fear of blacks.4
Although the decision seems absurd, something of the kind was inevitable. If government can coerce on behalf of one group of "victims," the billy club will be swung on behalf of almost every imaginable group. You can't limit the coercion to the purposes you think are right.
So don't consider this as an example of a government program gone wrong. It is an example of a government program -- period.
You must understand that your dreams of social reform, whatever they may be, are far removed from what you'll actually get from the government -- even if you win your political battle. Whatever the good purpose for which you want to use the coercive power of government, it will be perverted in the enactment of the program, in its administration, and in the settling of the disputes that will arise. Not only that, the program will expand to embrace far more than you had contemplated -- very likely arriving at a point where it does the exact opposite of what you had intended.
You aren't a dictator. You can't make the government do what you think it should.
The New World Order
The Dictator Syndrome affects political enthusiasts of all positions -- left, right, and center.
Some reformers continue to imagine that confiscating more money and throwing it at the poor will banish poverty from our land -- oblivious to the fact that very little of the trillions already spent has accomplished any good. Other people call for spending more and more money to fight drugs or crime -- even though the money spent up to now hasn't reduced drug use or the crime rate.
Political activists ignore all the failed programs of the past as they imagine that the next scheme -- a new health-care system, an industrial policy, a crime-prevention program, or whatever -- will be carried out efficiently and fairly.
The same amnesia afflicts those who want to make the world safe for democracy. They seem to think the government that has failed to provide peace and justice at home can somehow bestow such blessings on the rest of the world. So they support each new foreign military adventure by ignoring the wreckage and broken dreams of all the previous interventions. As Joseph Sobran has pointed out, they don't realize that war is just another government program.
After the 1991 Gulf War ended, most people continued to support the U.S. involvement. Many of them said, in effect, "Going to war was the right thing to do, but it didn't achieve anything because the U.S. didn't go all the way and remove Saddam Hussein from power."
So, despite the killing and destruction, the war's goals weren't met -- but only, according to its supporters, because the war was poorly administered. Before the fact, the Dictator Syndrome had led them to think the war would be waged their way.
Perhaps such a person thought he would answer the phone one day and hear a voice say, "Hey buddy, this is George. Colin Powell's here in the Oval Office and we've got Norm Schwarzkopf on the other line, waiting for instructions. On this war thing, are we supposed to go on to Baghdad or wrap it up here?"
Not under Your Control
You don't control the government. And the dreams you have of what government should do are just that -- dreams. They have nothing whatever to do with what really will happen.
Even if you could somehow win some political objective -- just as you had imagined it -- what good would it do you? That wouldn't end the matter. Your opponents would struggle to reverse everything you had achieved. To preserve your victory, you'd have to continue fighting the rest of your life.
So long as the instrument of coercion is tolerated, people will try to use it for their purposes -- not those you believe are right.
The government that can protect you from your enemies can be used as easily by your enemies to harm you. The government that's strong enough to give you what you want is strong enough to destroy you.
THE TURNING POINT
Maybe now we can see why and when the government became the monster it is today.
Almost anyone can cite a turning point -- an event in American history he believes caused government to take a wrong turn. The blame is laid on the income tax, the Great Depression, or Reaganomics. Or people personalize it by blaming Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon. Some cite a conspiracy hatched by bankers and the Federal Reserve System. But all miss the point.
The seeds of today's runaway government were planted the first time it was decided the government should help those who can't help themselves.
Between that modest, compassionate decision and today's out-of-control government, there's a straight, unbroken, inexorable line.
Once the door was opened, once it was decided that the government should help people, there was no stopping it. If the coercion of government can endow one person with property he hasn't earned, then everyone will want to use government for the same purpose. So it's not surprising that, over the past two centuries, more and more people have decided that they deserve the government's help.
"Helping those who can't help themselves" is a paraphrase of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." And once that principle is enshrined, common sense tells us that more and more people will want to be part of the needy, rather than part of the able -- because nearly everyone prefers to be on the "to" side of transfers, rather than the "from" side.
You can't give government the power to do good without also giving it the power to do bad -- in fact, to do anything it wants. It becomes a tool for obtaining whatever anyone can't get on his own -- an instrument for every ambition. So it was inevitable not only that the government would grow and become more powerful, but that the growth would accelerate -- perhaps imperceptibly at first, but then faster and faster. Congress, the executive, the bureaucrats, and the beneficiaries all have a vested interest in seeing government get bigger.
And since the politicians aren't personally liable for any harm they cause, there's nothing to discourage them from expanding their own power and wealth by expanding the government. Thus it's no surprise that after stripping us bare, they go on to mortgage our children's future to pay for further expansion.
Nor is it a surprise that people elected to change the system go over to the other side. After all, once elected, these people become the beneficiaries of big government.
And it should be no surprise when every attempt to reform the ills of government simply makes matters worse. You can't "reform" a gorilla into a lamb, and you can't expect politicians with the power to coerce to be efficient and considerate.
Can't Go Back
It's understandable that people believe government can protect us and educate our children, but that something has gone wrong in the system -- that, for some reason, there's been a breakdown of government. So they wish we could go back to some turning point and change the direction.
But the system must go wrong eventually. Any government that can confiscate our wealth to fight foreign villains and feed the poor will confiscate our wealth to reward political cronies, punish political enemies, subsidize industries, create a vast system of welfare clients and voters, and turn government into a free-for-all to be won by those with the most political influence.
If the government has the power to protect our streets, it has the power to subjugate us. And if the educational system is to be run by politicians and bureaucrats (rather than by entrepreneurs trying to please parents), it's inevitable that it will someday become the medium for advancing political ideas, sexual theories, social experiments, and other utopian follies. The government schools have always dispensed propaganda; but as government has become more powerful, the propaganda has become less subtle.
Any system that allows one person to force his will on another -- by confiscating resources or prohibiting certain activities -- will inevitably break down, because everyone has an incentive to try to use the coercion for his own ends. To maintain their tenure and power, politicians have to make deals with more and more interest groups until, eventually, all the government's resources are consumed just to buy votes -- leaving nothing for government's "legitimate" functions.
So it's perfectly natural to reach the point someday, as we have now, when the supposed legitimate functions are shortchanged while the functions that are obviously improper proliferate. If we could somehow turn back the clock 50 years and change something, we would still wind up where we are now.
The government formed to help those who can't help themselves must eventually turn into a government to help those with the most political power. The government formed to be our servant inevitably will become our master. And the government formed to do for the people what they can't do so well for themselves will instead do to the people what they don't want done.
HOW MUCH GOVERNMENT?
What, then, is the answer? How do you keep government reined it?
It may be that you can't. Limited government -- the concept that government should perform certain, specified functions and no more -- is a noble ideal. But I'm not aware of any instance in history when it succeeded. So far, it seems to be an impossibility.
When you empower government to perform the limited functions you believe are proper -- keeping the peace, adjudicating disputes, protecting our shores, whatever -- you empower it to carry out the desires of those with the most influence, and there's no way to stop it.
The Constitution isn't restraining government, because its enforcement relies on the division of powers among the three branches of government. And what we have instead is a division of spoils -- in which the three branches collude to wink at each other's breaches of the Constitution.
A Constitution's purpose is to define government's limited duties. The people say to the government, "We want you to perform these functions but no more." But then the people hand a gun to the government and expect it to live up to the agreement. A Constitution can only spell out good intentions.
But if government can't be contained, what's the answer? What kind of government would work?
Thomas Jefferson is said to have asserted, "That government is best which governs least."
Henry David Thoreau took this thought to its logical conclusion:
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least;" . . . Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, "That government is best which governs not at all;" and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.5
By saying "when men are prepared for it," Thoreau wasn't thinking of some ideal time when humans have renounced avarice, violence, and dishonesty. I believe he meant that government will disappear when people realize they don't need it, that it serves no useful purpose, that they can obtain much more efficiently on their own whatever government is supposed to provide.
Most people fear a world without government -- never stopping to realize that their worst fears are already realized in the present system. We may think we need government to protect us because people are greedy, destructive, and predatory -- and so we allow greedy, destructive, predatory people to govern our lives. The result is the mess we see around us.
As Jefferson said, if man can't be trusted to govern himself, how can he be trusted to govern others?6
Imagining a Free Society
But without government, how would we protect ourselves from bandits and predators? How would money be issued and circulated in a free society? How would we defend ourselves from foreign invaders?
I don't know the answers to these questions -- although innovative, plausible, exciting alternatives to government have been advanced over the years.
Those alternatives serve only to show that a free society can provide whatever we need without government. They don't tell us what a free society will be. A free society isn't planned, it evolves from the wishes and talents of its members. So there's no way to know what system of protection, money-issuance, or road-building would win out in the free market. In fact, most likely there would be many systems from which each of us could choose for himself.
I may not know the details of how a free society would work, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't work. I also don't know how computers will work in the year 2000. I know only that the best minds in that business will develop computers and software beyond my ability to imagine today. They will do this because they'll earn fortunes applying their genius to the needs of computer users. I will benefit from their talents without knowing in advance what they'll develop.
And my inability to visualize how some task would be accomplished in a free society doesn't mean such a task couldn't be accomplished. Today only a few people are developing free-market alternatives to government. What if the best minds in America could make fortunes providing personal protection, national defense, sound money, better schools, and safer roads? The possibilities are far beyond my ability to imagine.
Suppose Federal Express and UPS were no longer limited by law to courier services, and could compete to deliver first-class mail. Who knows how mail delivery would change and improve?
Suppose Bill Gates of Microsoft could make his billions not by creating an operating system for computers, but by developing a system of neighborhood protection. We can't even imagine the possibilities that his genius for innovation and management would lead to.
Suppose America's best entrepreneurs were competing to provide the best schooling, the safest and fastest roads, the most stable money, the best defense. Today the government preempts these fields -- through prohibition, regulation, or subsidy. But once it became profitable for the world's best minds to address these needs, we could enjoy excellence in protection, schooling, and purchasing power comparable to what we now get in telephones, computers, and fax machines.
How would all these things operate? I have no idea, and it would be presumptuous to think that I knew what people would want and what geniuses would create. I know only that market solutions would have to provide what we need and desire -- while today's methods are designed to provide what the politicians and their allies want.
GOVERNMENT DOESN'T WORK
But I'm straying from the point.
The issue isn't how a totally free society would work. It isn't really even whether it would work.
What we must realize is that government doesn't work. Government is the source of most of society's ills. And trying to make it more efficient, more accountable, or more fair won't help anything -- because a system relying on coercion is necessarily a monster.
Government doesn't work. It can't deliver the mail on time. It can't issue a currency that retains a level purchasing power. It can't maintain the roads in a usable fashion, or keep them from being endlessly congested, or reduce a highway death rate that would brand the road managers as criminally negligent if the roads were privately owned.
Government doesn't work. It can't operate the schools properly because the people who work there are government employees -- and so reading and writing take a back seat to pro-government indoctrination and social reform.
Government doesn't work. There's never enough money to keep the cities safe, because politicians will always spend the money first on programs that enhance their own power -- on subsidies, political junkets, spotted-owl nurturing, foreign aid, self-esteem programs, and listening for voices from outer space -- and then plead for tax increases to pay for police and prisons.
Government doesn't work. The government that has pledged to defend us from foreign invaders uses a bloated military budget to draft our youth and send them to die in wars fighting people who pose no danger to us -- in the trenches of France and the jungles of Asia. Our shores have never been threatened -- and yet a million Americans have died in wars, another million have been wounded, and trillions of dollars have been spent on a "defense" force that has never had to protect us from foreign invasion.7
Once we realize that government doesn't work, we will stop dreaming that we can solve this or that social problem by passing a law or by creating a new government program or by electing someone more honest or efficient.
Once we realize that government doesn't work, we will know that the only way to improve society is by reducing the size of government -- by doing away with laws, by getting rid of government programs, by getting the money we've earned back in our own hands so we can take care of ourselves.
And once we realize that government doesn't work, we will know immediately which side of any political issue to cheer for: If the proposal would increase the size or reach of government, it is a mistake -- no matter how lofty its intentions. If the proposal would reduce the power of government, then it's on the right track -- no matter what flaws it contains -- because it can't be worse than what it will replace.
The question isn't whether we'll have a totally free society someday. We probably won't. But if, somehow, tomorrow we have less government than we do today, we're going to be better off. And if, somehow, the day after that we have less government still, we'll be even better off.
We don't know how far we'll get down that road, but the farther we go, the better. Every reduction in government sets more people and resources free to provide more of what we need and want.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO ABOUT IT?
If you agree that government is destructive, what should you do about it?
You don't necessarily have to do anything. To quote Thoreau again, "I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad."8
You may decide that life is too short and too important to spend on the unlikely task of changing the world. There's always so much you can do to improve your own life directly, while you have so little chance to turn the world around. You should struggle to reduce government only if you enjoy doing such things.
If you do enjoy the crusade, it's important to wage it with consistency and principle -- not by acting as though coercion is sometimes good and sometimes bad. If people shouldn't be forced to subsidize farmers, they shouldn't be forced to subsidize schools. If government should let people decide for themselves what they'll read and see, it should let them decide what they'll buy.
Realize that tinkering with coercion won't make it less destructive. Government isn't capable of solving our medical problems or building an information highway or creating a pristine environment, so modifying such programs won't make them workable. They are wrong -- period. No matter how high-flown the intentions, they will fail -- and they will steal wealth from hard-working citizens and destroy the lives of innocent people. To support them in any form is a destructive, self-defeating compromise.
And if you hope to make others understand these things, don't lose sight of the central issue -- the coercion behind a program. It's wrong to force doctors or insurance companies to work under government direction, it's wrong to confiscate what people have earned honestly, it's wrong to try to achieve honorable ends by forcing people to help.
It's wrong because it violates every concept of fairness and justice in our culture, and because it can't possibly succeed. Good doctors won't work for the government, insurance companies will go out of business if they can't make a profit, productive people will stop providing what we need when the confiscation becomes unbearable, and everyone will do what he can to circumvent the edicts.
Always keep your eyes on the principle involved. A government agency isn't a mistake because it's wasteful, inefficient, or even corrupt; it's a mistake because it relies on coercion. A government program isn't bad because it's too big; it's bad because it exists. Government doesn't work.
Dealing with The Government
If you understand what government is, a few simple rules suggest themselves.
Because government is a parasite, what we eliminate may someday grow back. But whatever freedom we gain by reducing it in the meantime is to the good. And once on the offensive -- who knows? -- maybe we'll buy the time to figure out how to tie it down for good or even eliminate it once and for all.
Above all, don't despair. The prospects for the future are getting better, even as government grows bigger and more oppressive. The public has become far more skeptical of government over the last two decades.
We may always be saddled with government, but people less and less see it as a benefactor -- and more and more as the enemy it is. Today more people recognize that government doesn't work than at any time in the past 60 years. And their numbers grow steadily.
It may be that people will always have to pay tribute to Caesar, but the day may come when they stop saluting as they do. The day may come when people no longer think the regulators are the "good guys" and the businessmen the "bad guys" -- when no one will refer to a politician as a "public servant," at least not with a straight face.
The trend toward larger government may be close to being reversed. So, while today's breakdown of government may seem terrifying, it is really the birth pangs of a new age -- one based on the exciting new technology and dreams of people, not government. This is a time to be optimistic, not afraid.
The most important rule is simply to recognize the truth about government, and not to shame yourself by participating in follies and deceits concerning government. It isn't necessary to nod your head in approval when someone says he doesn't begrudge taxes that help the poor, or that he's proud of what "our boys" accomplished in Iraq. Don't associate yourself with other people's ignorance.
Neither do you have to disagree aloud when someone says something foolish. It is necessary only that you not dishonor yourself with false words or gestures -- that you not break faith with what you believe. Your self-respect is far more important than the approval of those who may hold misguided opinions.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, "The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the falsehood. One word of truth outweighs the world."
One word of truth won't outweigh the world in creating public policy -- or even public opinion. But truth does outweigh the world where it matters most -- with the people you respect, the people who think, with your own family and your closest friends.
And where it matters most of all -- in your own heart.
1 From the essay "The State," part of Selected Essays on Political Economy, page 144.
2 San Francisco Examiner, May 24, 1993.
3 San Francisco Examiner, October 22, 1993.
4 The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1992. The case was brought against Fuqua Industries, Inc. in Florida.
5 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, page 1.
6 First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801.
7 The casualty figures are from 1993 Information Please Almanac, page 325, which compiled data from the U.S. Department of Defense.
8 On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, page 8.