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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Clenched Fist and the General Welfare

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the chapter “The Love of Liberty and the Limitation of Government” in Gary Galles’s new book The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read (Laissez-Faire Books, 2013).

If we asked what we want government to do to advance the general welfare, the answer boils down to determining what advantages accrue from organizing people and resources via government power as opposed to allowing them to organize voluntarily. Of course, government has no resources it has not first taken from citizens. Because such organization creates no additional resources, the State can only advance the general welfare—that is, benefit any given person (not one group at another’s expense)—by making more efficient use of existing resources. 

So where does government have a comparative advantage over other organizations?  

Because almost all citizens’ arrangements must be voluntary, government’s only comparative advantage comes in the use of coercion. Then the question becomes, When does government’s ability to coerce improve the well-being of any given citizen? To unpack this question a little more, try asking people whether they would be better off if others told them how to dress, what to eat, where to live, what employment to choose, how long to work at that employment, and so on. Almost invariably, when they are the ones for whom things are being chosen, the answer to such questions is generally “no.” Of course, if they are to be the ones choosing for others, their answers often change.

Leonard Read asked us to think about this question in terms of a symbol:

Let’s symbolize this physical force by the clenched fist. Find out what the fist can and cannot do and you will know what government should and should not do…

Why is the analogy to a clenched fist helpful? 

When you make a fist, what can you do more effectively than before? Not much. With your hands in fists, you can’t type your magnum opus, perform your award-winning music, paint your Mona Lisa, manufacture something, or shake hands, among many other things. But making fists can allow you to more effectively enforce your decisions on those who would choose differently—that is, to more effectively coerce others.  

What can the fist do? It can inhibit, restrain, prohibit, and penalize. What—in all good conscience—should be restrained and penalized? The answer is to be found in the moral codes: fraud, violence, misrepresentations, stealing, predations, killing—that is, all destructive activities.

What can the fist, this physical force, not do? It cannot create.

We all gain from the government’s fist when used to restrain destructive acts. That expands our ability to cooperate peacefully with one another. But that fist does not create the ideas and innovations that make possible the advancements in the quantity and quality of goods and services available for others. So as government expands beyond restraining destructive acts, it increasingly contracts its citizens’ sphere of creative action. Fewer useful new ideas will be imagined and implemented.

Our creative and cooperative endeavors, on which citizens’ general welfare is built, are reduced. And liberty—not just a means to that valuable end, but an extremely valuable end in itself—is reduced, as well.

When government grows beyond its one comparative advantage of limiting destructive behavior, both our liberty and our jointly productive activities suffer. So why don’t those adverse consequences suffice to eliminate the problem? Because the more the payoff of controlling government’s fist grows for those who control it, the more the government expands beyond its legitimate role. The winners can impose more and more of their decisions on others. That, in turn, attracts power fetishists—those who wish to control others—to the political arena. As government does worse by its citizens, it intensifies the efforts that cause the worst to rise to the top, as Friedrich Hayek described in The Road to Serfdom.

The one-sided liberty by which some expand their ability to dictate to others is inconsistent with our shared, inalienable right to equal liberty (and justice) for all. It is merely domination, enforced by government coercion. And that domination expands along with government.

That is why, despite the Obama administration’s recent political stagecraft surrounding the sequester, not everything Washington does is “essential.” Indeed, most of its actions are indefensible when it comes to the general welfare. Any just reform will require restricting government—that is, moving the State back to its sole defensible role as defender against destructive actions, as Leonard Read suggests. 

In other words, it requires extending the Golden Rule to government as well as its citizens:

Do not do unto others [even via government] that which you would not have them do unto you…expect not from others that which you will not happily, graciously, intelligently accord to them! This is how the lovers of liberty may experience what they love. There is no other way.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).