I spend a lot of time thinking about the role of the state in my life. I’m interested in the limits on legitimate functions and how far those should extend. For more than a decade, I’ve been thinking about how the state’s role is bigger than I am comfortable with. I’ve concluded that the state itself takes too much and gives too little. Thinking about how to fix that could easily consume the next century of my life.
Luckily, I’m not alone in thinking about the role of the state. Don Boudreaux over at Cafe Hayek is also thinking about government. The cleverly titled Your Dog Does Not Own Your House is well worth reading.
Even if we stipulate, for purposes of argument, that the state is the only possible, or the best possible, supplier of protection against violence and the best possible supplier of dispute-resolution services, society as we know it would nevertheless collapse were it not for farmers, tailors, home-builders, physicians, lawyers, stockbrokers, engineers,….. the list is long. Get rid of any of these producer groups and people die by the millions. And yet, no one proclaims that “Justice is whatever farmers claim it to be” or “Because society cannot exist if people aren’t clothed, then weavers and tailors are the foundation of society.”
What we are thinking about here is how government gets things done. Most of the interactions you have probably had in your lifetime with a government agency have been either banal or mediocre. Think of waiting in line for a driver’s license. For me, the citizenship process is one long blur of answering silly questions and waiting in uncomfortable chairs to be analyzed and judged by people following lists of arbitrary criteria. Someone else may think of an IRS audit.
Few people who don’t work for government think of government without a sense of apprehension, or fear, or mistrust. There are exceptions of course. Sometimes government does good things. Every now and then those good things are conceptions dreamed up by a politician. By and large though, government rules by the gun. That’s what it always comes down to. Government doesn’t create, it distributes after taking a cut.
No politician creates prosperity. It is created by countless entrepreneurs, businesses and workers competing and cooperating within markets. For government to avoid obstructing these markets is indeed desirable — but it does not create the resulting prosperity. To insist otherwise would be no different from my insisting that I, as a driver who did not run over Ms. Jones as she walked back from the supermarket, am responsible for the tasty dinner she cooked that evening for her family. Whenever that rarest of creatures — an honorable politician — manages to loosen some part of government’s grip on us, he deserves acclaim. Even he, however, doesn’t deserve credit for whatever economic growth and cultural flourishing follow. Such credit properly belongs to the many persons who create, innovate, take risks, save and work to produce what consumers want. The idea that government deserves credit for all of the benefits produced by freedom is a special case of the deification of government. When deified, government is mistakenly seen as responsible for all good that happens in society — with all bad things being blamed on devils who, of course, must be banished by government.
Most people, of course, don’t realize this about government. If they did, I wouldn’t have to shut off all the news channels after becoming physically sickened listening to all the lies, false promises and grand schemes coming out of the mouths of the politicians. All I hear is the sound of a gun being cocked and then pointed at my head.