I’m a libertarian in part because I see a false choice offered by the political left and right: government control of the economy -- or government control of our personal lives.
People on both sides think of themselves as freedom lovers. The left thinks government can lessen income inequality. The right thinks government can make Americans more virtuous. I say we’re best off if neither side attempts to advance its agenda via government.
Let both argue about things like drug use and poverty, but let no one be coerced by government unless he steals or attacks someone. Beyond the small amount needed to fund a highly limited government, let no one forcibly take other people’s money. When in doubt, leave it out -- or rather, leave it to the market and other voluntary institutions.
But this is not how most people think. Most people see a world full of problems that can be solved by laws. They assume it’s just the laziness, stupidity or indifference of politicians that keeps them from solving our problems. But government is force -- and inefficient.
That’s why I argue in “No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails -- but Individuals Succeed” that it’s better if government didn’t try to address most of life’s problems.
People tend to believe that “government can!” When problems arise, they say, “There ought to be a law!”
Even the collapse of the Soviet Union, caused by the appalling results of central planning, didn’t shock the world into abandoning big government. Europe began talking about some sort of “market socialism.” Politicians in the United States dreamt of a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, and of “managed capitalism” -- where politicians often replace the invisible hand.
George W. Bush ran for president promising a “lean” government, but he decided to create a $50 billion per year prescription drug entitlement and build a new bureaucracy called No Child Left Behind. Under Bush, Republicans doubled discretionary spending (the greatest increase since LBJ), expanded the drug war and hired 90,000 new regulators.
Bush’s increases in regulation didn’t mollify the media’s demand for still more.
Then came Barack Obama and spending big enough to bankrupt all our children. That fueled the tea party and the 2010 elections.
The tea party gave me hope, but I was fooled again. Within months, the new “fiscally conservative” Republicans voted to preserve farm subsidies, vowed to “protect” Medicare and cringed when Romney’s future veep choice, Rep. Paul Ryan, proposed his mild deficit plan.
It is unfortunate that the United States, founded partly on libertarian principles, cannot admit that government has gotten too big. East Asian countries embraced markets and flourished. Sweden and Germany liberalized their labor markets and saw their economies improve.
But we keep passing new rules.
The enemy here is human intuition. Amid the dazzling bounty of the marketplace, it’s easy to take the benefits of markets for granted. I can go to a foreign country and stick a piece of plastic in the wall, and cash will come out. I can give that same piece of plastic to a stranger who doesn’t even speak my language -- and he’ll rent me a car for a week. When I get home, Visa or MasterCard will send me the accounting -- correct to the penny. We take such things for granted.
Government, by contrast, can’t even count votes accurately.
Yet whenever there are problems, people turn to government. Despite the central planners’ long record of failure, few of us like to think that the government which sits atop us, taking credit for everything, could really be all that rotten.
The great 20th-century libertarian H.L. Mencken lamented, “A government at bottom is nothing more than a group of men, and as a practical matter most of them are inferior men. ... Yet these nonentities, by the intellectual laziness of men in general ... are generally obeyed as a matter of duty (and) assumed to have a kind of wisdom that is superior to ordinary wisdom.”
There is nothing government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals -- and as groups of individuals working freely together.
Without big government, our possibilities are limitless.