Without it, the superhuman state, individuals would have probably never conceived of the means to create and to manage transportation systems, to help the poor, to clean the environment, and to defend against coercion, without a supra-agent present to oversee interpersonal relationships within a defined geographic area. Oh, wait!
The impression that only government can solve large public challenges, called “public goods” in economics lingo, is one of the reasons people will continue to believe an intrusive government is necessary, until libertarians break down people’s reflexive attitude of yielding to authority, that is. The assumption behind this support is that only government can provide these so-called public goods, which some people believe could not otherwise be provided, and thus society would be worse off if government didn’t forcefully compel financial support.
The problem is that people in government don’t really come up with workable, affordable solutions to things like transportation and security. How could they? To quote Frederic Bastiat, “Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?” They have no incentive to solve any problems. Empirically, they have quite the opposite personal incentives, in fact. The government can’t provide lasting solutions because it has no solutions, only force. Force cannot inspire or innovate; it stagnates. When the government steps in to solve a problem, when it applies force, any progress halts and new problems arise. In the late 1800s, the advent of mass government education, teachers wrote with chalk on blackboards in front of classrooms of students who sat in neat little lines. Sound familiar today, one hundred years later? Force is a distraction from real solutions. If the government can’t provide answers to these legitimate questions, then the true purpose in forwarding statism is simply to obscure the question.
By trying to solve the question of public goods with government, greater public goods are created, including the public goods of a well-informed electorate and just laws. Taking the time to become informed on the issues, studying the economic and social impact for each of the differing policies, and investigating candidates’ records, just to know which candidates to support can be very consuming. Yet an individual’s vote makes an insignificant difference in the outcome of the overwhelming majority of races. Cost-benefit wise, it just doesn’t make sense to put that much effort into it. Many times, votes are cast based on some superficial trait or because the candidate confirms a voter’s bias. Even then, voters are inclined to support only someone with a good chance of winning. The second public good of government is the creation of just laws. For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that trustworthy candidates who have the best interest of all their constituents at heart, not just their supporters, are elected. Those lawmakers are beholden to the narrow interest of their distinct constituents. Lobbyists have a much greater incentive to push for special interests that are at the expense of everyone else or future taxpayers. Together, these public goods create a third public good of limiting the power and abuses of government. Of course it would be in everyone’s best interest for government to be restrained to certain powers, but meanwhile private interests are at work to see that government is not limited for long. It becomes socially acceptable to use coercion of government, which subsidizes the use of violence (via legislation and regulation) against competitors.
Maybe business could be convinced that special interests legislation is actually bad for them in the long run. You never know. Maybe voters could be made aware of the benefits of lower taxes and free trade. But the people who have no interest in seeing the government shrink are the government bureaucrats, their families and friends. Including benefits, the average federal worker makes more than twice the compensation as a private-sector employee. They have a big stake in expanding government, all 2.7 million of them.
I also think there is a case that so-called public goods would be significantly less important in an stateless society, where I believe workers would have much greater influence over their working conditions and wages than in limited-liability corporations. Different enterprises would have different aims, not only the maximization of its monetary wealth. It would also be true that in a stateless society individuals would become much more wealthy than they are today and would be more inclined to support environmental preservation. Private property rights would also become better defined because government regulation has often been used by well-connected special interests to lobby for protection from liability where common law tort cases were used to recoup damages. In other cases, governments have simply granted license to polluters.
Most everybody likes to hang their hats on national security. To be considered a credible candidate, even “Internet Constitution Jesus” Ron Paul had to say he supported a strong defense. The fact is that the only security people in government provide is for themselves. They’ve got all the big guns, mind you. There was a case just a few weeks ago of a Northwest Airlines crew that lost contact with ground control for over an hour. No military jets were scrabbled to intercept the plane. We’re talking post-9/11. Nothing. They were luck they were not headed toward Washington, D.C., or New York—else they might have been shot out of the air. To some degree, I understand why people in government would react that way. To conquer a nation, you have to control its capitol. That is the seat of the government, where the main bureaucrats operate, and you can bet the tax records are going to be pretty nearby. Because when nations are at war, they are fighting over who controls the tax livestock in the country. That is one of the advantages of a stateless society; there is no central headquarter on which to lay siege, no infrastructure in place to seize property and taxes.
Besides, if we are to believe that we could cultivate this total activist population, which valued liberty vigorously and made personal sacrifices to secure that liberty for its posterity against an entrenched government, then why would they roll over when an organization a fraction of the size of government with no perceived legitimacy tried to usurp those liberties? It seems to me that if there were such an organization that tried to aggress against others, it takes a lot less effort to prevent. You literally wouldn’t have to lift a finger. You just stop doing business with them.
A Faded Hope
What limited-government activists offer is an uninspiring vision for society, a limited slavery, one in which the best they can hope for is a constant struggle to halt the expansion of the state. It should be self-evident why the “eternal vigilance” struggle is a losing battle. A radical limited-government mindset is neither consistent philosophically nor convenient politically. It does not distinguish itself in principle, as it sanctions the use of violence to solve social problems, and is outside the mainstream of political reality. What are its chances of sustaining a groundswell of support if it is fundamentally no different than other political beliefs yet it hampers the political viability of its supporters? I don’t believe the chances are positive.
Bless those in the battle for limited government. I’ll be cheering for them, no doubt. I’ll be with them 90 out of 100 times. But if I got bribed well enough, I might even starting pitching socialized healthcare when in office. Until then, I don’t feel like idolizing a theoretical government that never existed in practice.