This article first appeared in the December 2000 Freeman.
Dear Statist Friends:
I know, I know. You’re already objecting to my letter. You don’t like the label “statist.” You don’t think of yourselves as worshipping government; rather, you think of yourselves as simply wanting to help people, with government being your preferred means to achieve what is usually a very worthy end. “Statist,” you say, is a loaded term—a pejorative that suggests more than you’re willing to publicly admit.
Well, let’s wait and see how the term stacks up after you’ve read my whole letter and answered its questions. If you have any doubt about whether this missive is directed at you, let me clarify to whom I am writing. If you’re among those many people who spend most of their time and energy advocating a litany of proposals for expanded government action, and little or no time recommending offsetting reductions in State power, then this letter has indeed found its mark.
You clever guys are always coming up with new schemes for government to do this or that, to address this issue or solve that problem, or fill some need somewhere. You get us limited-government people bogged down in the minutiae of how your proposed programs are likely to work (or not work), and while we’re doing the technical homework you seldom do, you demonize us as heartless number crunchers who don’t care about people.
Sometimes we all get so caught up in the particulars that we ignore the big picture. I propose that we step back for a moment. Put aside your endless list of things for government to do and focus on the whole package. I need some thoughtful answers to some questions that maybe, just maybe, you’ve never thought much about because you’ve been too wrapped up in the program du jour.
At the start of the 1900s government at all levels in America claimed about 5 percent of personal income. A hundred years later it takes more than 40 percent—up by a factor of eight. So my first questions to you are these: Why is this not enough? How much do you want? Fifty percent? Seventy percent? Do you want all of it? To what extent do you believe a person is entitled to what he (or she) has earned?
I want specifics. Like millions of Americans planning for their retirements or their children’s college educations, I need to know. I’ve already sacrificed a lot of plans to pay your bills, but if you’re aiming for more, I’m going to have to significantly curtail my charitable giving, my discretionary spending, my saving for a rainy day, my future vacations, and perhaps some other worthwhile things.
I know what you’re thinking: “There you go again, you selfish character. We’re concerned about all the people’s needs and you’re only interested in your own bank account.”
But who is really focused on dollars and cents here, you or I?
Why is it that if I disagree with your means, you almost always assume I oppose your ends? I want people to eat well, live long and healthy lives, get the prescription drugs and health care they need, etc., etc., just like you. But I happen to think there are more creative and voluntary ways to get the job done than robbing Peter to pay Paul through the force of government. Why don’t you show some confidence in your fellow citizens and assume that they can solve problems without you?
We’re not ignorant and helpless, in spite of your many poorly performing government schools and our having to scrape by with a little more than half of what we earn. In fact, give us credit for managing to do some pretty amazing things even after you take your 40 percent cut—things like feeding and clothing and housing more people at higher levels than any socialized society has ever even dreamed of.
What Have You Learned?
This raises a whole series of related questions about how you see the nature of government and what you’ve learned, if anything, from our collective experiences with it. I see the ideal government as America’s founders did—in the words attributed to Washington, a “dangerous servant” employing legalized force for the purpose of preserving individual liberties. As such, it is charged with deterring violence and fraud and keeping itself small, limited, and efficient. How can you profess allegiance to peace and nonviolence and at the same time call for so much forcible redistribution?
Don’t invoke democracy unless you’re prepared to explain why might —in the form of superior numbers—makes right. Of course, I want the governed to have a big say in whatever government we have, but unlike you I have no illusions about any act being a legitimate function of government if its political supporters are blessed by 50 percent plus one of those who bother to show up at the polls. Give me something deeper than that, or I’ll round up a majority posse to come and rightfully claim whatever we want of yours.
Why is it that you statists never seem to learn anything about government? You see almost any shortcoming in the marketplace as a reason for government to get bigger, but you rarely see any shortcoming in government as a reason for it to get smaller. In fact I wonder at times if you are honestly capable of identifying shortcomings of government at all! Do we really have to give you an encyclopedia of broken promises, failed programs, and wasted billions to get your attention? Do we have to recite all the workers’ paradises that never materialized, the flashy programs that fizzled, the problems government was supposed to solve but only managed into expensive perpetuity?
Where, by the way, do you think wealth comes from in the first place? I know you’re fond of collecting it and laundering it through bureaucracies—“feeding the sparrows through the horses,” as my grandfather once put it—but tell me honestly how you think it initially comes into being. Come on, now. You can say it: private initiative.
I’ve asked a lot of questions here, I know. But you have to understand that you’re asking an awful lot more in blood, sweat, tears, and treasure from the rest of us every time you pile on more government without lightening any of the previous load. If anything I’ve asked prompts you to rethink your premises and place some new restraints on the reach of the State, then maybe the statist label doesn’t apply to you. In that case, you can look forward to devoting more of your energies to actually solving problems instead of just talking about them, and liberating people instead of enslaving them.
Lawrence W. Reed