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Thursday, November 16, 2017

State Coercion Is Intoxicating, Seductive, and Wrong

Even otherwise good people fall prey to the allure of the easy "fix" of state coercion.

A while ago I met a young religious woman who founded a very successful nonprofit organization all by herself. The organization raises private funds for, and organizes trips to, various important and holy Jewish sites for high school classes. She believed that it is important for young people to know more about their religious ancestral heritage, and she did something about it. But she was not satisfied. She told me that her dream is to get into politics and eventually get appointed as education minister.

“You see, Omer, the fundraising and logistics are not so hard. What drives me crazy are the high school principals. It is so difficult to get them to cooperate! I do all the hard work for them; they don’t even have to pay for the trips! All they need to do is make time in the school schedule and organize the kids, and still, they give me a hard time. When I’m education minister, I’ll make the trips mandatory for all Israeli schools, and the state will pay for them.”

“But eventually someone will replace you as minister and might overturn your policy. Worse, he or she might replace it with another policy you are opposed to! And what about the parents? If you don’t want some minister to force your kids to visit Muslim sites, for example, why force other parents to send their kids to Jewish sites?”

“I’m sorry, but this issue is just too important to leave in the hands of the parents.”

I just could not get to her. She was so convinced of the importance of these trips that she found using coercion as a shortcut, instead of the daily drudgery of the effort of persuasion, to be justifiable.  

The Allure of Coercion

Why is the use of government coercion so appealing to well-intentioned people?

I think one reason is that we lost our trust in civil society and instead placed our hopes in politics.

A year ago, Israel’s Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, spoke in front of the Israel Bar Association. In what was later called “Shaked’s liberty speech,” she made several poignant statements:

Every time Parliament passes a new law aimed at serving a worthwhile purpose…we actually hold a vote of no confidence…in our ability as individuals and communities to manage ourselves…in the people’s wisdom to create and maintain mechanisms more successful than those artificially shaped by experts. 

Shaked also lamented the staggering number of bills submitted to Parliament:

In the last fifteen months…time after time, 1,550 times, we were asked, as the government, to deprive the citizens of just a little more of their liberties…to engineer society in such a way that will only do good and never bad, so they promised…

Israel holds the dubious record as the parliament that proposes the highest number of bills in the world. Between 1999 and 2016, 23,819 bills were submitted. Italy holds second place with 17,800 bills, Austria is third with 6,000; most European parliaments average at several hundred bills. Even worse, Israeli law does not require parliament members to accompany their bills with detailed analyses on their budgetary or legal implications.

Big Government Squeezes Out Private Decision-Making

Shaked’s “every new law is a vote of no confidence in the public” argument is similar to an argument I try to advance as often as I can—the political sphere and the civilian sphere oppose each other, and each one expands at the expense of the other.

This is the real “big government”—the ever-increasing political meddling in civil life. The political sphere is a parasite, feeding on and depleting civil society.

Political decision-making is inherently adversarial. But what is so wrong with conferring politics jurisdiction over aspects of civilian life?

One major reason is the difference between political and civilian decision-making.

For example, choosing ice cream flavor falls, presently, within the civilian sphere. The result? Chocolate lovers can get chocolate ice cream, and vanilla lovers can get vanilla. The market mechanism found a way to satisfy both camps. But what if we delegated this little piece of our life to the political sphere? We would have elections, and all of us would eat either chocolate or vanilla ice cream for the next four years, depending on the majority outcome. And that is assuming the democratic process is “pure,” which it is not. Political decision-making is inherently adversarial, and political solutions are usually one-size-fits-all. Therefore, politics tend to create unnecessary friction and strife while civilian decision-making minimizes them.

Liberty and responsibility are two sides of the same coin—they are inseparable. Some people might find this fact discouraging, but it is a fact nonetheless. Using government coercion as a shortcut to achieving goals is a dangerous temptation, frequently coming back to bite those who seek to use it for worthy purposes.

  • Omer Grigg is a Deputy Director at the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.