All Commentary
Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cutting Government and The Principles of Liberty

“Too much government? Just what would you cut out?” This is an extremely interesting question and is the topic of the Clichés of Socialism number 5. Leonard E. Read counteracts this cliché in a very interesting way, namely by flipping the question upon those who ask it. Read claims the question is extremely tricky because it would take a lifetime to answer the question in detail. And he would not be wrong; the size of government has grown massively since the founding of our country. And has grown considerably even since Read wrote this short piece. There are far too many government programs and regulations which make the choice of just what to cut difficult. Thus, the way around this is to answer on principle rather than with the difficult (simply due to number of choices not in content) details.

Read lists twelve different principles in which government should not interfere with individual’s lives (he could probably have thought of many more). If the person who asked you what you would cut from government disagrees with any of the principles, Read says, let them present their case for why he is against freedom in this specific manner. If, on the other hand, he approves of these principles then he “implicitly approves of the free market, private property, limited government way of life.”

From a libertarian or liberal (classical, of course) position Read is right. The problem is that most individuals will claim to be for freedom but still want to deny some (even many, in some instances) of these principles. Or they accept these principles except in certain instance where it is ‘necessary’ to take them away. In other words, they either want to completely redefine the term or simply pay it lip service.

The current financial crisis has seen many justifications for taking away some of our freedoms. Many who claim to be supporters of liberty are finding government intervention into our lives more and more. Now more than ever people need to be reminded of the principles of liberty. Thus, the question should not necessarily be what would you cut out of government but what principles of liberty do you believe in? What do you think of Read’s strategy?

Download the Clichés of  Socialism number 5 here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.