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Limited Government—A Moral Issue


The 1980s, economist Milton Friedman writes, witnessed “a sea change in the direction of public thinking about government’s ability to solve economic and social problems.” In fact, the idea of getting government off our backs became a live issue, worldwide. Although there was little change in the size or power of government “The prospect is bright,” Friedman observed, “but only if we continue trying to spread our ideas and persuading ourselves, more importantly than anyone else, to be consistent with the beliefs we profess.”

This matter of beliefs and consistency leads us directly to the vital question: Are we simply uneasy about big government in a general way, or do we see it clearly as a real threat to individual freedom?

Most freedom devotees share a concern about big government but there is very little agreement about the proper role of government in society. Why is this so? Are there no acceptable criteria for resolving this important issue of what government should do and should not do? And, without visualizing an ideal role for government, can we ever hope to approach “limited government”?

Some people seem to want this issue resolved by majority vote. But doesn’t this mean that might makes right — that we should just take a vote to see which gang is biggest and then let them enforce their ideas on the rest of us? This surely is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind nor, I am sure, is it what those who advocate limited government really want.

It may be helpful to rephrase the question by bringing into the center of this analysis our own personal commitment and integrity. The question then becomes: Which functions of government are so unquestionably proper that l, personally, would be willing to support and enforce them? Mind you, not hire and pay someone to collect tax money, for example, but personally force those who oppose the law to pay their tax.

Isn’t it the delegation of this unpleasant duty that has clouded the issue of how much government we really believe in? I may be sincere in my belief that food stamps, for example, are a necessary governmental “safety net.” But my religious friend who believes that it is God’s design that individuals should be responsible — voluntarily — to help the unfortunate, and whose experience tells him that those who are thus helped will do more for themselves, tells me that he will not support involuntary “charity.” Now, back to the question: Will I force him to pay his tax? Furthermore, can I escape this question by closing my mind and letting my delegate perform this ugly task?

This whole matter of enforcement — with all its implications of violence — needs to be examined for its full meaning. The force that will ultimately be legally applied to collect the tax is rarely seen. But it is there! It resides in the government and is potentially brutal. Because if a man of principle absolutely refuses to pay — and then resists arrest by defending himself and his property when the agents of government come to take him from his home (which they will) — he will be dealt with violently, probably shot! His crime will be recorded as resisting arrest, but he will have actually lost his life because he stood by his moral principles and refused to compromise.

This violent result of holding fast to principle causes us to understand the true nature of government and why we should fear it. As George Washington warned, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

Purely and simply then, government is organized force; it has a monopoly m legal coercion; and it can do more than voluntary groups only because it can force its will on those who disagree.

Those of us who are serious about sorting out our own ideas about movement — and being consistent in our beliefs — find ourselves facing a chain of personal decisions:

a. Am I concerned about big government and the loss of individual liberty? Yes? or No?

b. If “Yes,” how do I decide whether or not I approve of specific governmental functions and actions? Do I judge them by the same criteria for right and wrong as I do individual actions? Yes? or No?

c. If “No,” I must face that fact that either (1) I have no standard for judging the proper functions of government or (2) I have another standard which I can define. Note that (1) in effect endorses majority rule. — that is, that might makes right!

d. If, however, my answer to b. is “Yes,” and assuming I understand that government relies on force to function, can 1, logically or morally, approve of government functions that I would be unwilling to enforce personally by using force if necessary.? Yes? or No?

This very personal self-assessment may fortify our understanding of the true nature of government. But equally important, it should also help us to recognize that governmental acts which we support are really an extension of our own views and actions.

Where does all of this bring us in our concerns about government today? What chance do we have of bringing about an evolution — or revolution — in the way people think about the proper role of government in society?Keep in mind that only in the last few years have we even come close to a consensus that government handles economic and social problems very poorly. And recent revelations of the pitiful conditions in the over-governed nations of Eastern Europe confirm the validity of this consensus-the inevitable result of a growing dependence on government is not only less freedom, but moral and economic deterioration as well.

This awareness, then, is itself a big step forward. But emphasis on efficiency does not get at the source of the problem — which is governmental power. And it does not go to the heart of the problem — which is individual, moral responsibility for those actions of government which we support.

As long as politicians can bombard us with their platitudes about “doing good” — and never be challenged on the immoral means they use — the size and power of government will never be controlled. For there can be no decline in the calls upon government to “do something” about such things as poverty, the homeless, the aged, and the sick until the force and violence that must support such government actions are recognized — and morally condemned.

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    Mr. Anderson, a retired businessman, serves on the board of trustees of The Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.