A Sickness in the People
MAY 16, 2011
Economist James M. Buchanan used to ask his Ph.D. students the following question, “It is said that a fly that grew 9 times its size could no longer fly. What does that imply for the fiscal dimensionality of the state?” This question is one of scale in relation to the size of government. If the state grows too large it will no longer be able to do the functions it is supposed to, just as the fly would no longer be able to fly. There is, however, another issue that should be addressed, namely, the scope of government activities. Asking the state to do more than it should, to function in roles that it is simply not capable of performing, is setting it up to fail with disastrous consequences.
The example with the fly tells us that the state should be restricted to those tasks, and only those tasks, that it can do well. It is up for a debate, even amongst libertarian/classical liberal circles, just what these tasks are but what is clear is that there is a limit. For example, some libertarians believe the state is not necessary at all. The provision of law and order and defense should be left to the private market. Other libertarians/classical liberals believe in, what has become known as, the night-watchman state, where the role of government is limited to the provision of law and order, defense, and possibly providing some public goods. Still, no matter what anyone’s position is, we must admit that the state is not capable of doing everything. There will certainly be many functions the state simply cannot perform well, or at all, and thus we should never ask it to.
Forgetting the past is a very dangerous thing. It can lead to the Cliché of Socialism number 48, “There ought to be a law.” As William C. Mullendore explains the growth of government, in terms of both scale and scope, grows out of this often well-intentioned phrase. A certain situation will attract the attention of sympathetic or disproving citizens, who then turn to legislators to fix the problem. Soon this becomes a rally cry for all our problems.
It is rarely asked whether this is something the government should be doing and instead is simply assumed it should. More often than not the government’s legislation would fail to achieve its intended ends and instead of repeal, new laws (that also are unlikely to work) would be enacted to fix this, costing us more and more freedom.
In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville titled one of the chapters, “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” The answer is majoritarian despotism, and this is exactly what we have today. Tocqueville warned that an intrusive government in attempting to protect and relieve its citizens “from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living” would create a sort of “orderly, gentle, peaceful slavery.”
By crying, “there ought to be a law” at every problem, we have given the state parental authority. The result has removed our personal responsibility and also has led to the surrender of many of our freedoms. For freedom and personal responsibility are two sides of the same coin. By turning to the state, instead of finding ways to voluntarily interact and solve our problems, we are reducing ourselves into a condition of perpetual childhood.
This is not the way of a self-governing society; in fact, it is a means of destroying our ability to self-govern. If we truly wish to be a free society, we must learn that the state is not capable of taking care of others or ourselves. The state is not a substitute for personal responsibility. At best the state is a coercive tool that is easily abused. As the founders of our country realized, the larger the state grows the more dangerous it becomes to a prosperous society. The point of our constitution was/is to restrict and constrain the government but it hasn’t worked. Maybe Leviathan cannot be constrained. Perhaps the state can only institutionalize predation. Even if this is the case, if we have any hope for a solution, it must start within ourselves. We must learn to be a society of free and responsible individuals.