All Commentary
Friday, April 17, 2009

Government Bias

Anyone discussing social and economic problems with a hardcore free-market advocate hears a string of indictments against the government. Housing bubble and financial disarray? Government housing and monetary policies caused it. Drug-cartel violence? Prohibition is the culprit. Soaring healthcare costs? Government intervention stimulates demand and limits supply. Exorbitant higher-education costs? Government subsidies and loans bid up tuitions. Examples could be listed all night.

At some point the nonlibertarian interlocutor will think he’s figured things out: “I get it. You are biased against government. When you spot a public problem, you assume that government is at fault.”

This is a charge to which I have to plead guilty. I am biased against government, specifically the people who make and carry out its policies. It is to them that I look first for the cause of social or economic problems, although it may not be the last place I look. There, I’ve confessed.

It’s a bias but not a prejudice. A prejudice, as the word suggests, is a judgment made before consideration of evidence. A bias is an inclination, and there’s no reason an inclination against the State can’t be the result of detailed knowledge of its nature.

What’s puzzling is that anyone thinks there’s something wrong with this. What could be more natural than a suspicion of the only organization in society that has the legal authority to initiate force? Initiate force. That means using it against people who have not aggressed against anyone. Two days after tax day I shouldn’t have to elaborate this point. Not paying taxes is a perfectly nonviolent activity, a victimless act. But that will not stop government agents from using whatever violence deemed necessary to obtain what they believe is their due, including imprisonment and lethal force should the tax nonpayer appear to “resist arrest.” Monty Python hit the bullseye when their Holy Grail peasant implored, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” (Follow the link for the best summation of political philosophy in the history of the cinema.)

Whether or not one thinks the power to initiate force is necessary for some worthwhile end, the point is, as George Washington may or may not have said, government is (legitimized) force. That is its essence, the thing that distinguishes it from anything else. Government is in a class by itself, and that warrants a unique attitude toward it.

Since no one else may use force nondefensively, a question arises for which liberals (in the original sense) have long been awaiting an answer: Where do the State’s officers get their authority? In democratic republics we say the people delegate certain powers through constitutions to those hold who hold government office. The obvious problem here is a logical one: The people can’t delegate what they don’t possess.

Why should force summon such apprehension? Because it is the chief means by which a person may be kept from living the life of reason in accordance with his nature and thereby flourishing. Isn’t it curious that so many people who proclaim their commitment to peace and human rights also adore expansive government?

Interferer with Spontaneous Order

There’s another, though related, reason to begin with a bias against government. When one grasps the beneficent nature of human action, peaceful exchange, and spontaneous market order, one is naturally wary of an organization that appears designed to interfere with those things.

Sound economic theory furnishes grounds for this wariness, while the world around us furnishes abundant examples to illustrate the theory. We see that government policy achieves the opposite of its stated goals virtually every time. (Its real goals may be something else.) When it sets price ceilings to make things more affordable, it drives those things from the market, whether it’s milk, apartments, or medical care. When government sets price floors to ensure a living wage, it drives jobs from the market or reduces other forms of compensation. When it tries to bring homeownership within the reach of people with no income and bad credit, it shakes the foundations of the economy. When it sets out to make money more abundant, it robs most people of their wealth before plunging them into depression. And when it embarks on fixing up the mess it has made, things get even worse. If you need an example, see the goings-on in Washington. At a time when people are sensibly consuming less and saving more — permitting a market reallocation of politically misallocated resources – the government is borrowing astronomical sums in their name and consuming resources like mad. (Meanwhile the news media portray the reduction in consumer spending as a problem not a solution.)

So behold the organization that bullies and coerces while disrupting the best form of social organization ever discovered by mankind. (We haven’t even touched on the offenses committed under the rubric “defense.”)

Who wouldn’t harbor a bias against “the coldest of all cold monsters”?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.