Government: Head or Hand?

We Have Given the Government an Inch and It Has Taken a Mile

Nicholas Kyriazi is a biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh.

A collectivist strain in Western thought envisions society as an organism, with government as the head and the population as the body controlled by the head. This is certainly not what America’s Founding Fathers had in mind, however, and this way of constituting society has created many problems that, if not altered, will aggravate the difficulties plaguing Western civilization.

The proper constitution for a free society, which has no analogy in nature, is one in which government serves as a hand controlled by many heads. Since multiple heads can rarely agree on things, however, the number of issues brought before them to decide is best kept to a minimum. Two things that most everyone can agree on are that no one has the right to initiate force against someone else and that people should honor their commitments. Government should limit its role to these two areas; any more than that and instead of being a referee, government begins to favor one citizen, or group of citizens, over the others. And that is the root of most of society’s present problems, because no one wants to be forced to support a government that picks favorites, unless it’s him.

Government favoritism is impossible to avoid when the state strays from being protector and enforcer. From funding the arts in the United States and giving government jobs to Protestants instead of Catholics in Northern Ireland (or to Serbs instead of Croats or Bosnians in Yugoslavia) to forbidding women from exposing their faces in Afghanistan, government is the unseen instigator in many conflicts throughout the world. Instead of attempting to end the favoritism by withdrawing government from such areas of intervention, people fight for control of the power. This is certainly understandable, since the bearer of gifts (stolen or not) is popular and powerful, and forcing others to behave as you wish is a potent lure. But the solution to our problems is not to wrest control of government from those who oppress us so that we can oppress them. The solution is to reduce government to its most basic role: protecting its citizens.

In a free society, Jews and Arabs, Catholics and Protestants, or Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians would not be fighting for control of land to guarantee that they were not unfavorably treated by those in control of government. In the United States, government favoritism does not usually result in such life-threatening conflicts, but forcing everyone to pay for something used by only a few (economic coercion) or forcing everyone to behave in a manner favored by the group in power (behavioral coercion) is just as wrong. Whether it is welfare for the poor or the rich; grants to orchestras or sports teams; subsidies for farmers of peanuts, sugar, cattle, or tobacco; repeated disaster assistance for earthquake-, tornado-, hurricane-, mudslide-, or brushfire-prone areas; or restrictions on behavior such as prostitution, gambling, drug use, or biblically proscribed sexual acts, government has no authority—constitutional, moral, or divine—to intervene. However, the U.S. government has for so long exceeded its authority, and to such an egregious extent, that few people even think to question it. Perhaps when the police walk into our houses some night and tell us to turn off the TV and go to bed because it’s late and we need to be rested for work tomorrow, perhaps then we will rebel. Or perhaps we will go to bed.

Government Expansion

It’s not difficult to understand how government has gone from being our servant to our master: “government” is such a nebulous term that its duties are not well defined in anyone’s mind. The duties have become virtually whatever any legislature decides them to be.

Over the past 200 years in the United States we have given government an inch and it has taken a mile. This is also not difficult to understand. Imagine that you have authorized your bank to permit utility companies to directly withdraw payments from your checking account. Now imagine that the bank is approached by a nearby daycare center seeking funding to pay for puppet shows for the children in its daily care. The bank president thinks that this is a good idea, and you get a notice in the mail that the bank is now deducting $5 a month from your account. If you complain, you are reprimanded: “You support the children, don’t you?” If you have children in that daycare center, you may not mind that others are paying for their entertainment. Or if you work for the puppet-show company, you might also support it. As George Bernard Shaw said, “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend upon the support of Paul.” Of course, you could always withdraw your money from a private bank that proposed such a ludicrous policy. With the government, you cannot. What the statists fail to understand is that if it’s not voluntary it’s not charity. It’s theft.

This type of situation, multiplied many times over, in many different ways, reveals how we got to our present state. Everyone is forced to throw money into a big pot, and then everyone tries to get out more than they put in. Libertarians, however, see through the charade and believe that everyone should directly pay for what he uses. You get exactly what you want for a competitive price, and the politicians don’t take a cut for deciding how to spend your money.