Over at the Agitator, guest blogger Peter Moskos wants libertarians to explain a few things to him. The Agitatortots have been answering him in the comments, but I thought it would be a good exercise to answer him here. A few days ago, I talked about why calling libertarianism an ideology isn’t helpful. Today, I want to focus on why libertarians so often think less government is the solution.
Here’s what Moskos said:
I don’t like it when people have answers before they know the question. …Perhaps less government is the solution to many specific problems. But I refuse to believe anything is the solution to all problems.
That seems like a sensible position. I don’t think he’d get an argument from any libertarian, because libertarians are not the ones who believe that less government is the solution to all problems. Those would be anarchists.
(There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s a difference.)
However, once you begin to think about government like a libertarian, it’s amazing how often less government looks like a really good idea. It all starts here:
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
— usually attributed to George Washington
Whether or not George Washington ever said those words, they are a summary of the libertarian concept of government: Government consists of the power to force people to do things against their will.
If pirates seize an American ship off the coast of Africa, the U.S. Navy might be called upon to take the ship back by force. If someone is breaking into your home, the police can force him to stop and take him (forcibly) to jail. If you’ve got a few ounces of marijuana in your car, the police can (under the right circumstances) force you to stop your car, force you to let them search, and force you into the back seat of their cruiser. Later, other agents of the government will force you to stand trial, and then force you to spend some time in a cage.
Even the most trivial of offenses is ultimately backed up by force. If you cover your house with a type of roofing tile that is not approved by the zoning board, they will tell you to change it. If you don’t, they will fine you. And if you refuse to pay the fines, armed police officers will come and take you away. And if you resist those officers, they will take you by force. Maybe even lethal force.
(Things rarely get that far, but sometimes they go a lot farther than you’d think, as in the case of the woman who was arrested for not watering her lawn.)
It is important to remember that every time we propose new crimes or new regulations, we are also proposing that these new crimes and regulations will be enforced by the threat of violence. From federal regulations on the volume of a toilet flush to a city’s ban on foie gras, it’s all backed up by the power to send men with guns to put people in a cage and take all their stuff. Every time we give the government more power over people, we’re giving it the power to take away someone’s freedom.
Consider even a seemingly altruistic law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some supporters of this law will tell you that the ADA has created new freedoms and opportunities for people with disabilities. That’s not really true. Except for a some small tax incentives, the ADA does not provide funding for improving accessibility, so all of the new freedoms and opportunities for people with disabilities have come from the businesses that were forced to provided them in order to comply with the ADA.
Actually, even that is overstating the benefits. The ADA does not force people to operate facilities that are easily accessible to disabled people. What it really does is forcibly prevent people from operating facilities that are not easily accessible to disabled people. It’s an important distinction, because the cost of retrofitting facilities (or meeting ADA operational requirements) can sometimes be so high that a firm has to cease business. Thus, rather than opening up the world to disabled people, the ADA sometimes closes the world to everybody.
Finally, and hardest for many people to accept as reality, even government programs that provide services or cash benefits — small-business assistance, aid to poor families, the national weather service, farm subsidies — ultimately depend on government force for the simple reason the everything the government does is paid for by taxes, and those taxes are collected under a threat of force.
Simply put, nearly every single government activity involves, either directly or indirectly, forcing people to do something they don’t want to do. Therefore nearly every single government activity takes away someone’s freedom.
That’s not always a bad thing, of course. Not even a libertarian would object to the government taking away the freedom of muggers to mug, rapists to rape, or murderers to murder. Many libertarians don’t even object to social programs that help the truly needy. Sometimes it’s worth trading off a little freedom to accomplish great social good, but only if there’s really and truly a great social good that will result. That may not be the case, depending on the details of the situation. However, when you give the government power, it there’s always a real true infringement of freedom.
The reverse must also be true. When you shrink the size of government, it might have a real cost, depending on the details, but it always, always has the built-in advantage of increasing somebody’s freedom.
Update: Part 3 is up.
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.