The Governmental Habit
SEPTEMBER 01, 2006 by SHELDON RICHMAN
In 1977 the late economic historian Jonathan R. T. Hughes published a book called The Governmental Habit (updated in 1991 as The Governmental Habit Redux). It showed how pervasive government intervention in the economy has been since colonial times. The title captures an important phenomenon. People are in the habit of looking to government—the only agency that may legally wield or threaten force against non-aggressors—to get what they want. While earlier generations of Americans were hesitant to ask the local, state, or national government to do certain things (although perhaps not as hesitant as we thought), few modern Americans have any such scruples.
Americans of all classes expect the government (translation: taxpayers) to pick up the tab for services. People even want the government to do things that are outright dumb, such as compel us to conserve energy. What’s so funny is that the greatest outcry for mandatory conservation comes when prices are rising. It would be foolish enough to compel conservation when prices are falling. But when they are rising? What can the government do that the discipline of the price system wouldn’t do?
When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s my father’s voice would often boom through the house with the words, “Why are all these lights on?”—his response to finding rooms in our home brilliantly illuminated but unoccupied. (It’s one of his habits I picked up.) I don’t recall if he did this only when electricity prices were rising, but I doubt it. He was being a conservationist, although not in the way the George Bushes and Al Gores want us to be. He wasn’t thinking about unborn generations or the health of the planet. He was thinking about his family. It was his own money he was conserving. He understood that money spent to light up empty rooms is money that couldn’t be spent to buy his children clothes or to send them to college. He was a businessman, not an economist. But it takes no special knowledge to understand that wasting one’s own money is unwise.
Isn’t it slightly silly for the first reaction to rising gasoline prices to be, “The government should increase the mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles”? Leaving aside that the CAFE standards encourage driving by increasing miles per gallon and kill people by encouraging the production of lighter cars (see page 36), why would it be necessary for the government to force us to buy higher-mileage cars? Won’t we think of this as we look out for our own financial interests?
If some of us decide against trading in our cars for more fuel-efficient ones, it means we have higher priorities than saving money on gasoline. Maybe we’ll cut expenses elsewhere so we can continue driving less-efficient, bigger, heavier cars. People without the governmental habit would understand that freedom means the right to set one’s own priorities, regardless of what the neighbors or the politicians think. After all, “waste” is a meaningful term only in reference to specified objectives.
Energy conservation is just one example of the governmental habit. It is hard to think of any area of life where someone doesn’t want to call in the constable to have his way. Don’t like smoky restaurants? Fast-food joints offend you? Radio is raunchy? The wrong people want to marry? A company’s wages are too meager? An American’s prices are too high? A foreigner’s prices are too low? The wrong people want to migrate here? Some folks use strange drugs? Online gambling is too popular?
For too many people the answer is the same: there oughta be a law. We’ve got to break this habit before it breaks us.
* * *
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