All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1970

The Laws and Their Uses

One may deplore the harm a per­son does to his own mind and body through addiction to drugs and assorted “pleasures.” But a public problem arises when the addict turns to crime and the injury of others in the attempt to support his expensive habit.

Especially alarming is the grow­ing number of teen-agers and even younger children hooked on drugs. More and more one hears the de­mand that schools “get busy and do something about the drug prob­lem among students.” The pro­posal, in effect, is to convert the public schools into reformatories.

This call for further help from the welfare state illustrates an ad­diction far more widespread and serious than the combined evils of narcotics, tobacco, wine, women, and song. The “something-for-nothing” habit in the United States is now taking from citizens in taxes more than two-fifths of their annual earnings. But that is by no means the full cost. The time and energy spent by government in regulating the lives of peaceful citizens is time and energy that cannot be used to suppress and control criminals and carry out essential functions of government. Whenever government becomes overextended into every aspect of business and private affairs, it in­evitably invites, encourages, and tolerates crime and corruption.

So the citizens face these im­measurable hazards and costs in addition to the direct burden of taxes. All told, the people of the wealthiest industrial nation in the history of the world are spending approximately half of their earn­ings to support the hallucination of something for nothing. Dream­ing up problems for the govern­ment to solve is a debilitating and costly habit.

The industrialization of an economy is a process of specialization and division of labor and volun­tary exchange, each participant devoting his talents and resources in a restricted area of his choice and depending on trade with other specialists to satisfy his other needs. Though government is nec­essary for policing the market and protecting the lives and property of peaceful traders, government basically is a form of coercion as distinguished from the peaceful production and voluntary exchange of goods and services in the market.

In other words, the market does not function coercively; goods and services are traded there in peace on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Coer­cion and violence are not market­able items; rather, they disrupt and defeat the purposes of trade. If peaceful traders need protec­tion from crooks and robbers, this is a “service” that cannot be pro­duced and consumed or bought and sold in market fashion. The market recognizes neither dicta­tors nor customers who want to be coerced. There is no market way of handling the supply of coercion or the demand for it. The govern­mental protection and policing of society is a nonmarket operation. It is an outside force that may be essential to the optimum function­ing of the market, but a force that must be understood and used sparingly lest it plunder and de­stroy those who would trade in peace.

The Policeman’s Lot…

If I appoint a guard and author­ize his use of force to defend me against unwarranted acts of coer­cion by others, then it would seem ill-advised on my part to expect the guard to use his coercive powers to:

feed me
clothe me
bring me water
build my house
clean up my garbage

provide my medical care furnish my recreational facilities
save for my retirement
carry my messages
transport me hither and yon control my working conditions regulate my business activities invent new products for me conduct my research
discover truth for me
train me for employment
pay me when unemployed teach me and my family to read and write

take care of my children improve my morals
ration my consumption of alcohol, drugs, tobacco
censor my news,  iterature, entertainment
limit my spending
support my church
administer my charities
cultivate foreign friends for me
screen out my competitors
hedge me from neighbors
take me to the moon
et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

Tom, Dick, and Harry

Tom, Dick, and Harry are agreed that government is organ­ized coercive power and that gov­ernment is necessary to the or­derly functioning of society. They differ as to what is the proper role of the government.

Tom believes government’s coer­cive powers should be strictly limited to protecting the life and property of each peaceful person against foreign or domestic in­fringement or aggression—to keep the peace and insure that men be­have justly toward one another. Beyond that, he would look to the market processes of peaceful pro­duction and voluntary exchange for the satisfaction of wants, each person’s ownership and command of scarce resources being in pro­portion to his capacity to earn them through service to others.

Dick also wants government to keep the peace, but thinks this may best be accomplished by stamping out any resistance to the wishes of the ruling majority. As Dick sees it, the majority’s shifting stand­ards of right or wrong should pre­vail over any individual’s claim to life, liberty, or property.

Harry is confused. He wants the government to keep the peace and he understands some of the rea­sons Tom offers for respecting and upholding the freedom of choice of each individual and defending his life and property. But Harry also shares Dick’s desire to tax the rich and give to the poor. And he expects government to regulate and control, if not actively man­age and operate, vast business en­terprises supplying goods and ser­vices that “everybody needs.”

So, in our “Small Society,” Tom wants limited government and Dick wants unlimited government; Harry, who agrees with his friends, holds the balance of power.

If Tom adheres to his principles of defending his life and property with a minimum of coercion against others, he can appeal to Harry’s sense of justice but not force Harry to side with Tom and against Dick. Dick, on the other hand, is not deterred by principle from the use of threat or force, as well as argument, to impose his socialistic government upon Tom and Harry. The nature and ex­tent of government control of this society is largely up to Harry and depends upon which way he hap­pens to waver at the time.

The Harrys—for there are many of them and they always outnumber the hard-core Toms and Dicks in any society—are rarely conscious of any principles of action. They merely react to this or that urge or pressure. Yet, by their reactions, they plot the course of government. In a huff of grievances against an inept King George, the Harrys may let Tom constitute a government of strictly limited powers. That is, they do not then react against the principles for which Tom stands. But without understanding or con­viction, the Harrys of another day may just as easily swing behind Dick and his subtle arguments for expanding the government into a full-blown welfare state, riding roughshod over Tom and his prin­ciples. And about all Tom can do under the circumstances is to tolerate the trend and “render unto Caesar.” Not until Caesar’s oppression moves the Harrys to rebel can they again hear the sober admonitions to repeal spe­cial privileges and cut government back to a more limited defensive role.

So Tom and Dick have their respective principles of govern­ment. But the government, in fact, is always a compromise; it’s what the Harrys, by their reactions, say it is.

Because of its coercive nature, government can be a dangerous servant; it can compel productive persons to stop whatever they may be doing and divert their time and energy instead toward the things said by the effective governing ma­jority to be more important. Gov­ernment can protect life and prop­erty against aggression; or, it can take from some to give to others. But these are contradictory be­haviors; the one more or less pre­cludes or negates the other. How clearly one perceives that basic contradiction largely determines his ideal of the proper role of government.

A person of foresight undoubt­edly will see that government ought to be strictly limited to a negative defensive role so as to be the least possible burden upon the constructive and peaceful pursuits of individuals. It is similar to a drug that may be highly effective and appropriate as treatment of a disease. But those who do not foresee the potential tyranny may ask that government apply its coercive powers to all sorts of re­form measures and charities and services to consumers that other­wise would be left to voluntary cooperation in the market. This use of the drug in a flight from reality becomes an addiction that weakens and destroys the indi­vidual. 

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.