the perfect amount of government

This essay can also be found at The Libertarian Institute here.


In a broad sense, political philosophy is very simple: if you’re not an anarchist, then everything else is just debating the “ideal” amount or level of government. Conservatives supposedly want the government out of their wallets, while liberals want them out of their bedroom. But to debate the right amount or size of government is an admission that 1) there should be a government, and 2) there is a specific degree of activity and/or range of authority that optimizes its function in society. The textbook characterization of the Republican Party is that they’re the party of limited government and fiscal responsibility, while the Democratic Party is progressive, modern, and a champion of active government. But whether a government is “limited” or “active,” it’s still a government, and presupposes the two assumptions listed above. I wonder whether our government funding the study of the effects of cocaine on the mating habits of Japanese quails falls under “limited” or “active” government.

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So what is the optimal amount of government? When Americans vote in any election they seem to be indicating that they, too, believe there is some ideal level of government, and that whoever they are voting for represents the fulfillment of this ideal. Straight-ticket voters are a great example of this since they suppose all candidates belonging to a certain party hold the same belief about the role of government. As a case in point, consider how large the words “Republican” or “Democrat” are printed on campaign posters. In reality, little else matters to voters except party. “No way we’re voting for some liberal who wants to spend all our money on welfare…we’ll vote for Republicans who only want to spend money on wars, Israel, a multibillion dollar border wall, and the drug war.” How fiscally conservative were the wars started under H.W. and George W. Bush, nearly all of which are conflicts that persist today? Democrats and progressives rarely pretend their party abides by the Constitution. On the contrary, their allure seems to be in flouting that scrap of paper and in appealing to a mass of people who demand the government regulate every aspect of our lives. To them, the government is the great paternal maternal force providing all of our needs and desires, with little concern for how things are paid for. As my new masochistic muse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, no one asks how we’re going to fund Trump’s space force. Presumably, the money is just there. She’s even leading the charge for a Green New Deal. The first New Deal worked so well that now we need the same thing, but for plants. FDR solved the Great Depression by commissioning bridges and slaughtering pigs, and now we can save the planet by having Americans knit booties for rose bushes, all the while getting paid a living wage.

For anyone who cares about logical consistency, there is no “in between” when it comes to degrees of government. If we were to draw a line, and on the far left is Anarchy (no government) and on the far right is a World Government, the U.S. government might be just slightly to the left of the world government. Conservatives say they want our place on this imaginary spectrum moved half a centimeter to the left, and that that would be “minimal government;” and liberals, in the vein of their Founding Father Woodrow Wilson, truly want some form of world government that will give everyone a $15 minimum wage and fund a centrally located multicultural center. Maybe they could use eminent domain to seize Epcot? If we moved leftward from wherever the U.S. government is on this imaginary scale, we would come across decreasingly powerful forms of government such as: constitutional republics, confederations of small states, individual sovereign states, small city-states, community rule, family rule, and eventually rule by individuals (the libertarian anarchist position). So why do I say there is not really a defensible point between anarchy and a world government?

From childhood, most of us are taught what the word “government” means, just like we’re taught what “red” or “table” or “car” means. The government is the collection of people and agencies who make and enforce laws for the benefit of society, or so we are told. But, as Murray Rothbard shows in The Anatomy of the State, governments only have legitimacy by the miracle of our collective imagination. We all believe the emperor is wearing clothes. Just as many never question that a table is a table and a car is a car, many never question the necessity of governments, or its definition as a night watchman keeping us safe. A global force for good, right? By the time we become adults, few will ever stop to consider why some people get to rule over other people; it truly is a miracle that millions of people just assume that because governments have always existed, they always will exist. The French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel said that “the essential reason for obedience is that it has become a habit of the species . . . Power is for us a fact of nature.” What is more nefarious than the supposition that governments simply will be is the fact that most assume the government truly has good intentions. As Rothbard says, the government sells us on the idea that they are we. Afterall, what is a government but a collection of individuals elected or chosen from the very society they are to govern? It stands to reason then that since our mayors and governors and congressmen and presidents are Americans, just like us, that we truly are the government. A government of the people, by the people, for the people, or so we’re told. Maybe someone could update the Gettysburg Address and add “…at the expense of the people.”

But we are not the government. Using Rothbard’s definition of the State as “an organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area,” would anyone not actually in the government consider himself to be the government? How many of us use force and violence on a daily basis with impunity? There have always only been two groups of people in the world when it comes to governments: those actually in the government, and everyone else. We are everyone else, and we are not in positions to raise or lower taxes, to start or end wars, to seize private property for the “public good,” to control what people may or may not put in their body, etc. Rothbard referred to this “we” tactic as ideological camouflage. Conflating our government with us personally means that when the American government goes to war, or passes a law, or, I don’t know, builds a wall, that we are starting wars and passing laws and building walls. But honestly I don’t know the first thing about construction.

Indeed, we are not the government, and since all governments, by necessity, subsist through the production of the governed, there is no perfect degree of government somewhere along the political spectrum. Any point between anarchy and a world government necessarily perpetuates the bifurcated class system of governing and governed, of them and us. Even if there were some ideal form of governance—some political version of “maximum output”—why is it that only some people can calculate it, and the rest of us are then subject to their divine enlightenment? Only Bernie Sanders knows why $15 is the perfect minimum wage, and only Donald Trump knows why tariffs work, despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no in between because all forms of government are constantly swinging on a pendulum between anarchy and a world government. Every action by the government that decentralizes power is a tacit admission that complete autonomy of the individual (anarchy) is the ideal form of social organization. But all of these technocrats and busybodies that sit in their offices and think up new bills and laws and executive orders that expand the power of the state are admitting, conceptually, that “the bigger the better” when it comes to the government. If this is the case, why would we stop at only state and federal governments? Why don’t we establish a world government? Everything in between anarchy and this idea of a world government is either 1) logically inconsistent, or 2) an admission that some people know the perfect amount of government and others don’t. If the latter, then the rest of us must either trust that these guys really do know what they’re talking about, or we don’t trust them and must reckon between anarchy and a global state. For anyone to propose a point between the two is logically inconsistent since he would be admitting that some degree of government is good, but not too much, but not too little, and that only the person proposing their model knows the perfect amount.

To put it simply, if having a government is good (however one defines “good”), then there is no logical limit to how good a government could be if given the chance. But, if having a government is not good, then we arrive at the not-so-radical idea of letting people control their own lives. Anything in between is just window dressing. I say let all the statists come out in the open and admit that a world government (run by them) is what they want. In a way, their pontifications about how much government we should have is even more insulting than a world government since the former implies that they alone have the privileged, divine wisdom to know how much government you and I need.

Many balk at the word anarchy, but why should they? Libertarians need to press the issue and put the onus on statists to defend their position, not us ours. If we truly are all born equal in terms of self-ownership, who or what gives some the right to rule over others? We must disrupt what Rothbard called the chief task of the rulers: to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority. We don’t accept them.