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Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Loophole in a Famous Adage on Limited Government

Ritual obeisance to principles can easily be combined with inflating government’s role to metastasize far beyond general welfare.

Image Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Hinton [Public domain]

In his 2012 State of the Union speech, President Obama said, “I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: that government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” Apparently, he didn’t note the immense irony of those words on the lips of one of American history’s most aggressive expanders of the scope and reach of government.

Ritual obeisance to principles can easily be combined with inflating government’s role to metastasize far beyond general welfare.

Such a huge gap between limited government words and expansive government actions shows how limited is the power of such words alone to constrain centralized power and control.

Ritual obeisance to principles can easily be combined with inflating government’s role to metastasize far beyond even the most fanciful claim to advance Americans’ general welfare. The result is liberty giving ground while being lauded as the moral high ground.

Limited Government Loophole 

Fortunately, this issue has already been considered. A half-century ago, in his 1969 Let Freedom Reign, Leonard Read wrote about the loophole in the limited government formulation that allows the evisceration of any such limitation in practice. His depressingly timely chapter, “Governmental Discipline,” merits careful consideration at a time of drastic changes in the makeup of our “public servants.”

“During the last century, several of the best American academicians and statesmen—in an effort to prescribe a theory of governmental limitation—have agreed: The government should do only those things which private citizens cannot do for themselves, or which they cannot do so well for themselves.”

“The government should, indeed, do some of the things which private citizens cannot do for themselves…Codifying and enforcing an observation of the taboos gives the citizenry a common body of rules which permits the game to go on; this is what a formal agency of society can do for the citizens that they cannot, one by one, do for themselves… And no more!”

“This proposal…does not go far enough. It has a loophole, a ‘leak,’ through which an authoritarian can wiggle.”

“What they [citizens] will not do and, therefore, ‘cannot’ do for themselves is to implement all the utopian schemes that enter the minds of men, things that such schemers think the citizens ought to do but which the citizens do not want to do.”

“Reflect on the veritable flood of taboos—against other than destructive actions—now imposed on the citizenry by federal, state, and local governments. And all in the name of doing for the people what they ‘cannot’ do for themselves. In reality, this means doing for them what they do not wish to do for themselves.”

“How might we state this idea, then, in a way that…if followed, would restore government to its principled, limited role—keep it within bounds? Consider this: The government should do only those things, in defense of life and property, which things private citizens cannot properly do each man for himself.”

“The only things private citizens cannot properly do for themselves is to codify all destructive actions and prohibit them…Neither the individual citizen nor any number of them in private combination…can property write and enforce the law. This is a job for government; and it means that the sole function of a government is to maintain law and order, that is, to keep the peace…a task much neglected when government stops out of bounds.”

“All else—an infinity of unimaginable activities—is properly within the realm of personal choice: individuals acting cooperatively, competitively, voluntarily, privately, as they freely choose. In a nutshell, this amended proposal charges government with the responsibility to inhibit destructive actions—its sole competency—with private citizens acting creatively in any way they please.”

“The government is engaged in countless out of bounds activities…what private citizens will not do rather than something they cannot do…We allow government to commandeer resources that private citizens will not voluntarily commit to such purposes.”

“Why are private citizens forced to do what they do not wish to do? After all, the formal coercive agency of society is their agency!”

“We have one test, and one only, for what private citizens really wish to do: those things they will do voluntarily!”

“But here’s the rub: There are those who believe we do not know all the things we want or…are unaware of what is good for us. These ‘needs’ invented for us…have no manner of implementation except by coercion. In a word, these people who would be our gods can achieve the ends they have in mind for us only as they gain control of our agency of force: government.”

“And the primary reason why they can force upon us those things we do not want is our lack of attention to what are the proper bounds of government.”

Devotion to Limited Government

By asserting devotion to limited government, many who would control that which controls us blunt criticisms of how far from such devotion they truly are. It evokes some of Abraham Lincoln’s other words:

We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different but incompatible things.

  • 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).