All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1985

Limited Governmentand the Stability of Nations

Mr. Daskal of Annandale, Virginia, is a defense systems analyst and writer.

The importance of limited government to the cause of individual liberty has often been discussed in these pages. In short, limited government allows for maximum individual freedom and self-actualization, free from coercion. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, government is a necessary evil; usually, the less of it, the better.

Limited government is intimately connected with a free market economy, which allows for the ever-changing, infinitely variable nature of human economic activity far better than a series of mathematical predictions, popular “laws,” or bureaucratic regulations. A government that can meddle with market mechanisms has great power, and can always manage to gain even more power through its manipulations. Similarly, a government that is restrained from upsetting the market system is, by definition, limited, since a significant portion of all human endeavor can be classified as economic activity, governed by the market rather than by majority rule or government order.

To illustrate the power government gains over individual freedom through economic controls, consider the possibility in licensing businesses. Most nations, even in “free” nations, require businesses to be licensed, usually as an “innocent” aid in the collection of taxes. However, in many nations, such as Allende’s Chile and Sandinista Nicaragua, these licenses have been revoked in the case of certain non-violent, tax-paying businesses. The businesses thus made illegal (and violently forced out of business) were opposition newspapers. A seemingly harmless government regulation can be twisted to malevolent ends, without a single change in the law. It is safer not to give such power to government than to trust to “traditions” or the “sanctity of human rights.” The freedom to own and use property, without specific government permission, is the ultimate safeguard of political and economic freedom.

Traditions of Freedom

The importance of limited governments and the free market in other parts of the world is perhaps even more critical than it is in the United States and Canada. We have strong traditions of respect for human rights; the American Declaration of Independence holds them to be “self-evident” truths, a basic premise that cannot be challenged by thinking people. Our nations have also been blessed by relative peace and stability. Massive upheavals in government are rare; civil wars and rebellions even rarer. Ethnic and religious chauvinism, though intense at times, has never resulted in major sectarian conflicts.

In other parts of the world, the blessings of internal peace and stability are much less common. Innumerable countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia have been ripped apart by ethnic, religious, or tribal animosities. I suspect that there is something common to all of the nations experiencing this terrible, self-destructive turmoil and the vicious cycle of violence and repression it has created. The common thread underlying much of this chaos and warfare is the failure of these peoples to limit government and allow free minds and the free market to encourage development through voluntary cooperation and the process of supply and demand.

Looking at most developing nations, and even some “developed” industrial nations in the rest of the world, one sees a significant lack of limited government and a coincident lack of free market economies. These states are on the same endless treadmill, outlined below, which can be termed the “revolutionary spoils system” of government.

(1) The poor, the intelligentsia, the workers, the army, or whomever, revolt; they see no hope of the current system addressing their grievances, and are willing to risk destruction and death to put a “more just” system in place.

(2) The revolt becomes a revolution; a new government is created, theoretically or actually representing the group or groups who began the revolt.

(3) To get and keep power, these new leaders plan a new system of laws, reorganize the economy, and often strip the group previously “on top” of their economic and political liberty. Their property is expropriated, they lose their privacy, and their freedom to speak, write, or assemble is limited or eliminated.

(4) This newly disenfranchised, oppressed class, in a matter of years, or at most generations, begins its own revolt . . . returning to step 1.

Most political historians tend to emphasize steps one and two as the most important. We often stress the “newness” of the revolutionary government, often missing the fact that whether they are “left” or “right,” “Islamic,” “Peronist,” or “Communist,” the results are sadly similar. A new privileged elite is created, and is given wealth and power through the forcible theft of the freedom and wealth of other groups of people. The net result is an economic debit, because most revolutions cause massive destruction of economic assets (farms and crops, homes and facto-ties, transportation capital, human workers and inventors) which neither winner nor loser can use again. A corollary result is the growing, continual fear of further turmoil, which leads to faulty economic decisions by both individuals and governments such as investing wealth outside one’s own country, investing in portable wealth (gold, gems, foreign currencies), or investing in weapons and security forces needed to keep the elite in power and protect their ill-gotten gains.

This cycle is repeated with infinite variations in dozens of countries. The refusal of governments to provide every person equal and honest justice and the opportunity of each to make his own course through life inevitably leads to suspicion, animosity, and ultimately violence.

Repeatedly, when the demands of rebels in these countries are heard, they complain that they have been denied equal opportunity, equal justice before the law, equal access to the media, and equal security in their homes and businesses. Whether they be Muslims in Lebanon, Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus, Basques in Spain, Palestinians in Israel, non-Slavs in the Soviet Union, or ethnic Chinese in Vietnam or Uganda, they share common complaints. They are not allowed to speak their languages, build their businesses, educate their children, and be assured of physical security to the same extent that the group in power is. This isn’t surprising, since the group in power is busily taking advantage of the oppressed group to improve their own wealth and position rather than giving equal opportunity and protection to all.

The solution to these problems is so straightforward, it is amazing that it has not been grasped by the United Nations, or the United States government, and shown to the various “leaders” who wish to restore stability to their countries. The basic concepts are nothing new or alien. They are the concepts developed through good sense, intuition, and experience by our own Founding Fathers.

(1) A federal form of national government, allowing for different ethnic, religious, or tribal groups to practice their own cultures without oppression or ostracism within their own autonomous locality, while allowing for easy economic and social commerce between these localities.

(2) A limited government, that cannot and does not attempt to redistribute wealth or direct activities within the localities, except to ensure the basic liberties essential to legal equality, physical security, and honest business practices in a free economy.

(3) A representative government, with appropriate checks and balances, that allows individuals to have their views on national issues heard in the highest levels of the nation, and that allows each group or locality to have equal representation.

It is increasingly urgent in our tense, heavily armed world, that the coercive “revolutionary spoils system” be replaced by peaceful, limited, federal nations with free market economies and free trade. Only through these essentially peaceful, stable governmental structures will the terrible economic and social burdens of the developing nations be able to be corrected through balanced economic development. Strong constitutions, with rigid checks and balances, must be instituted to keep out the “spoils seekers,” and attract people of good sense and good will into the government and into business.

The right of all peoples to maintain their religion, their culture, their heritage, and their language amongst themselves, must be acknowledged by all governments. The right of each individual to seek his or her own destiny, and be allowed to keep the wealth and property accrued through honest industry, must also be made sacrosanct. If the nations of the world fail to recognize these basic realities, they are doomed to endless repetition of the cycle of revolution, destruction, and oppression they have already endured too long. As the destructive capability of Man becomes greater, this cycle puts the people of all nations, even those relatively “free” of the cycle, at ever-increasing risk.