The Out-of-Bounds Dilemma

MAY 01, 1969 by LEONARD E. READ

The citizenry establishes and empowers government to codify the taboos and enforce their ob­servation; certain actions are ruled out of bounds, and govern­ment is given the job of punishing transgressors. In good American theory any action by any citizen is out of bounds if it be destruc­tive: murder, theft, misrepresen­tation, and the like. Stay within bounds or suffer the consequences.

Everything human is subject to corruption; situations get out of hand.

It’s easy enough for the citi­zenry to delegate the policing task to the formal agency of society, but quite another matter for the citizenry to keep the agency itself within bounds. For, short of any­thing yet accomplished in history, the agency will, sooner or later, declare out of bounds not only destructive actions but various creative and productive actions as well. Two among countless exam­ples: It is out of bounds to raise as much wheat as you please on your own land and, in New York City, at least, to mutually agree with your tenant what rental he shall pay. In a word, government, having a monopoly of the police force, will tend to act indiscrimi­nately in its out-of-bounds edicts. And, it has always been thus:

… the greatest political problem facing the world today is… how to curb the oppressive power of gov­ernment, how to keep it within rea­sonable bounds. This is a problem that has engaged some of the great­est minds of the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries — Adam Smith, von Humboldt, de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer. They addressed themselves to this particular issue: What are the proper limits of government? And how can we hold government within those limits?1

The dilemma seems to be that government is something we can’t get along without and something we can’t get along with.

Considering the great men who have attempted to resolve this di­lemma, it seems unlikely that any one of us will hit upon a final solu­tion. But we can and should en­tertain the hope of shedding a bit more light on the matter. My ef­fort is no more pretentious than this.

During the last century, several of the best American academicians and statesmen — in an effort to prescribe a theory of governmental limitation — have agreed:

The government should do only those things which private citi­zens cannot do for themselves, or which they cannot do so well for themselves.

That this is meant to be a pre­cise theory of limitation is conveyed by the words, "do only those things."

This proposal is repeated over and over again and we may there­fore presume that it has a considerable acceptance and is influ­ential in shaping public opinion as to what is and is not out of bounds in governmental activity. If that be the case, in the light of what’s going on, we are well ad­vised to re-examine this proposi­tion. For it is true that all actions are rooted in ideas.

Parenthetically, one may wonder why I choose to pick on a small flaw in what, after all, is little more than an aphorism. It is my contention that this idea of limita­tion "leaks," like a leak in the dike, and if not plugged, the whole countryside will be inundated. A trifle, yes, but as great oaks from little acorns grow, so do great catastrophes from little errors flow:

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe a horse was lost,

For the want of a horse a rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

The aforementioned notion gains acceptance because it is so plausi­ble. The government should, in­deed, do some of the things which private citizens cannot do for themselves. All citizens, except philosophical anarchists — those who reject a formal agency of so­ciety — are certain, in the interest of social order and common jus­tice, that each citizen cannot write his own laws. Man is now and for­ever imperfect and men must now and forever differ as to what is right and just. Codifying and en­forcing an observation of the taboos gives the citizenry a com­mon body of rules which permits the game to go on; this is what a formal agency of society can do for the citizens that they cannot, one by one, do for themselves. Doubtless, this is what the liber­tarian subscribers to this idea have in mind. And no more! They couldn’t concede more and be liber­tarians!

A Leak in the Dike

This proposal is right as far as it goes; but it does not go far enough. It has a loophole, a "leak," through which an authoritarian can wriggle.

One can easily conclude, from the wording, that government is warranted in doing for the citi­zens only those things which the citizens will not and, presumably, cannot do for themselves. What they will not do and, therefore, "cannot" do for themselves is to implement all the utopian schemes that enter the minds of men, things that such schemers think the citizens ought to do but which the citizens do not want to do. Re­form ideas are legion; and these are the things that government is obliged to do for the people, ac­cording to this proposal, as it is loosely written. That’s how per­missive it is; it leaves the door wide open; it’s "only" is utterly meaningless!

Reflect on the veritable flood of taboos — against other than des­tructive actions — now imposed on the citizenry by Federal, state, and local governments. And all in the name of doing for the people what they "cannot" do for them­selves. In reality, this means do­ing for them what they do not wish to do for themselves. Here are but a few of many examples of things now out of bounds for American citizens:

·       It is against the law to grow as much wheat or cotton or peanuts or tobacco as you choose on your own land.

·       It is against the law, regardless of where you live, to refuse to fi­nance thousands upon thousands of local fancies such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Fresno Mall.

·       It is against the law to refuse to finance the rebuilding of urban cen­ters deserted in favor of new and more preferable centers.

·       It is against the law to refuse to finance putting men on the moon or tracing the meanderings of polar bears in the Arctic.2

·       It is against the law to refuse to finance socialistic governments the world over.

·       It is against the law to be self-responsible exclusively, that is, to re­fuse to be responsible for the wel­fare, security, and prosperity of any­body and everybody, no matter who or what they are.

How might we state this idea, then, in a way that will be under­stood and which, if followed, would restore government to its principled, limited role — keep it within bounds? Consider this:

The government should do only those things, in defense of life and property, which things pri­vate citizens cannot properly do each man for himself.

The only things private citizens cannot properly do for themselves is to codify destructive actions and enforce their observance, be the destructive actions of domes­tic or foreign origin.

Maintain Law and Order; All Else Leave to Choice

Neither the individual citizen nor any number of them in private combination — vigilance commit­tees — can properly write and en­force the law. This is a job for government; and it means that the sole function of government is to maintain law and order, that is, to keep the peace. This in itself is an enormous undertaking, requir­ing rare and difficult skills, but it is a task much neglected when government steps out of bounds. When society’s formal agency of coercion moves in and out of bounds, it becomes impotent to keep the peace among its own citi­zenry or among nations.

All else — an infinity of unim­aginable activities — is properly within the realm of personal choice: individuals acting cooperatively, competitively, voluntarily, pri­vately, as they freely choose. In a nutshell, this amended proposal charges government with the re­sponsibility to inhibit destructive actions — its sole competency — with private citizens acting creatively in any way they please.

The objections to this latter pro­posal are legion; indeed, they are almost as prevalent in the U.S.A. today as in Uruguay, England, Argentina, Russia, or any other country one could mention. How, possibly, could we educate our children? Or run the railroads? Or deliver mail? Or put men on the moon? Or secure medical attention or welfare in old age? Or have a Gateway Arch? On and on! Yet, every one of these objections can be and has been answered!

Putting Men on the Moon

The government is engaged in countless out-of-bounds activities, according to our rewritten pro­posal. None of these is more fa­vorably capturing the American imagination than putting men on the moon.3 Even many individuals otherwise sharply libertarian in their thinking are joining in the applause for this fantastic per­formance. And no one can reckon the enormous cost; it is running into untold billions. So, let’s ex­amine this most popular instance of government out of bounds.

It is self-evident that citizens acting privately would not, at this time, engage in this enterprise. This is an example of what private citizens will not do rather than something they cannot do.

Why is it so widely assumed that going to the moon is some­thing private citizens cannot do for themselves?

Is it because they do not have the countless billions required for the project? No, the government gets its resources exclusively from the private citizens; none from any other source whatsoever!

Is it because the skills do not exist among private citizens? No, every last person engaged in this project was a private citizen, many of whom are now on the government payroll.

Is it because a free-market en­terprise is less efficient than a governmental operation? No, in every type of productive effort in which both are engaged, making comparisons possible, the free mar­ket is overwhelmingly superior.

We can only conclude that go­ing to the moon is a project pri­vate citizens could undertake but will not, voluntarily.

Why? Simply because they do not want to. Nor is the explana­tion difficult. I have a thousand and one opportunities for the use of my income more attractive to me than sending men to the moon. This is far down on my priority list, not only as to desirability, but as to the amount I would volun­tarily contribute — about the amount I would pay to see a good show. And I believe that a vast majority of private citizens — view­ing the matter on this basis — sub­stantially share my appraisal. The upshot, if left to private citizens? No trips to the moon! Not now, anyway.

How can we render a judgment as to what private citizens really favor? Surely not by yeas or nays; most of us are too distraction-prone for mere lip service to be trusted. So, let us judge a man’s values by the way he acts: A per­son favors a war if he will volun­tarily risk his life in waging it; and he favors an enterprise if he will voluntarily risk his capital in financing it. Popular acclaim for a war or a moon venture or what­ever, which rests on risking the lives or the capital of others, is unimpressive; it’s only loose talk, detached from realism, and un­worthy of serious attention. Viewed in this light, there are few, indeed, who favor putting men on the moon, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding!

Why, then, are we in this ven­ture? There are numerous reasons.

For one thing, people are dis­tracted and drawn by the glamor of it. Not even the fiction of Jules Verne or Buck Rogers ever re­motely approached this perform­ance. The TV shots of men in space divert attention from the means used to produce this spec­tacular.

Of the millions who do not fa­vor putting men on the moon at the risk of their own capital, many enthusiastically endorse the proj­ect when the risk seems to fall elsewhere. Why do they not see that this is, in reality, their own capital?

Again, because of distractions. Citizens are distracted from re­ality by the false promise that they can spend themselves rich. They will believe such sophistry simply because they want to be­lieve it. Doesn’t the Gross Na­tional Product (GNP) go up $1 billion with each billion spent on the moon venture!4

Then there is the sleight-of-hand expropriation of capital. That portion of one’s capital taken for the moon venture by direct tax levies is so buried in the enormous Federal tax that identity is lost. The remaining portion is equally hidden: inflation. Inflation is a tax on savings of many types.5 The expropriation shows up not on a tax bill from the Internal Revenue Service but in the form of higher prices for bread, butter, and everything else. Who, when spending $10 for groceries, instead of the $5 he used to spend, relates the higher prices to putting men on the moon? This fiscal hocus-pocus is distracting and diverts men from reality. "We do not know what is happening to us and that is precisely the thing that is happening to us."6

But our proneness to distrac­tion, which accounts for popular acceptance of this project, is far from a complete explanation as to why we are in it. The primary rea­son is that we allow government coercively to commandeer re­sources that private citizens will not voluntarily commit to such purposes. In other words, private citizens are forced to do things they do not wish to do.

My purpose in this cursory analysis of the moon affair is not to single it out for criticism but, rather, to raise the all-important question that relates not only to this but to thousands of out-of-bounds ventures by government: Why are private citizens forced to do what they do not wish to do? After all, the formal coercive agency of society — government — is their agency!

We have one test, and one only, for what private citizens really wish to do: those things they will do voluntarily! It is plain that they wish telephones, printing presses, automobiles, air service, refrigera­tion, houses, corn flakes, gas and electric service; indeed, a million things could be listed. And they get them — voluntarily!

But here’s the rub: There are those who believe we do not know of all the things we want or, at least, are unaware of what is good for us. These "needs," invented for us — going to the moon, old-age "security," the Gateway Arch, or whatever — have no manner of im­plementation except by coercion. In a word, these people who would be our gods can achieve the ends they have in mind for us only as they gain control of our agency of force: government.

And the primary reason why they can force upon us those things we do not want is our lack of attention to what are the proper bounds of government.

So it is that great catastrophes from little errors flow!

A Suggestion

Frederic Bastiat, the French economist, journalist, and states­man, must be ranked among the masters in presenting the ra­tionale for limited government. His treatise, The Law, along with Dean Russell’s Frederic Bastiat: Ideas and Influence, are highly commended.

Order from: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533



¹ Excerpted from remarks by Henry Hazlitt. See What’s Past Is Prologue (Irvington, N. Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 14.

2  See "The Migration of Polar Bears," Scientific American, February, 1968.

3 If the defense of our country re­quired putting men on the moon, it would then qualify as a proper function of government. I am assuming that man­ning the moon is not of military value. At least, I am unaware of any persua­sive argument that it is.

4 For the fallacy of GNP, see Chapter VII, "The Measure of Growth," in my Deeper Than You Think (Irvington-on-­Hudson, N. Y.: The Foundation for Eco­nomic Education, Inc., 1967).

5 For example: cash, bank deposits, life insurance, pensions, bonds, mort­gages, loans or holdings repayable in a more or less fixed number of dollars.

6 See Man and Crisis by Ortega y Gasset (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962).  


May 1969



Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)