One Drop of Government Is All It Takes

Those of us who advocate the complete abolition of forcible government often hear the following sort of objection from less committed libertarians: “But the government must do X, because only the government can be trusted to do X.” “The government must do X, or X will not be done.” These and similar arguments all require that there is some particular area of life, some human need, that cannot be met without forcible government – for example, the X for many involves those functions that require the use of force against the unwilling, as the need arises with regard to crime, foreign invasion, and the like.

The reasoning has been presented in various forms by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, but the final answer boils down to this: Whatever reasons you may have for requiring forcible government with regard to any sphere of activity apply equally to every sphere of activity. Likewise, whatever reasons you have for opposing government in any sphere of activity apply to every sphere of activity.

This is easy enough to demonstrate. All such arguments begin with “government is…,” “government does…,” or idiomatic variants thereof.

When we oppose government involvement – say, in the shoe industry – we note that government involvement always raises prices, limits choices and availability of products, and results in social injustice and economic inefficiency. This doesn’t apply only to government involvement in specific goods such as food products (we pay between four and twenty times the world market price for sugar, for example). With regard to national defense, law enforcement, justice, and roads, government always will produce economic inefficiency, social injustice, lower quality, and unintended consequences. If government is the wrong answer to anything, this owes to the nature of government, not to the nature of the task at hand. Hence, if forcible government is the wrong answer to X because of the nature of government, government is the wrong answer to Y as well.

When we say government is the only entity that can accomplish X, we say this is because there must be the use of force with regard to X; or there must be unanimous societal agreement, even if achieved only at gunpoint, with regard to X (for example, in preventing or punishing theft, assault, etc.). But if government provision of a good or service is preferable to market provision of that good or service, it owes to the nature of government, because government is “fair” or “impartial” or “more capable of handling the provision of this good or service.” If government provides defense, stoplights, or tap water better than the market can, this can only be because government is superior to the market. Government should therefore provide everything else as well.

It is inescapable that government is an all-or-nothing proposition. Examine your own reasons for believing government should or should not do a particular thing, and you will find that those reasons shouldn’t apply only to that thing, but apply equally to everything.

The final refuge of the statist or reluctant libertarian is that some tasks are different in fundamental nature from other tasks, and require forcible government to accomplish them. Regional military defense is a common example. Economists note the free-rider problem: Some will pay nothing yet enjoy the benefits of security at the expense of the others who voluntarily pay. There are two responses to this: First, the market provides its own solutions to the free-rider problem. Assuming providers of homeowners’ insurance take up the task of regional defense, it is true that the defense actions of insurers will benefit everyone within a given area. However, nonsubscribers will not enjoy the benefits of insurance coverage in the event of a successful attack. Second, remaining aspects of the free-rider problem are chimerical. Just as the uninsured enjoy some benefits of the payments made by the insured, your neighbors benefit if you merely keep your home in good condition. Does this mean they should be forced to pay you to mow your lawn? Of course not. Some of the benefits of good behavior spill over to others, and without cost (it is not a cost to you in any way that your neighbors enjoy some benefit from you mowing your own lawn).

Other objections to the private provision of regional defense include that it simply won’t happen unless everybody is forcibly taxed to pay for it. This is nonsense. We all want security, we all are willing to seek expert guidance and service and are willing to pay for it in all areas of life (how many of you pay a monthly fee for home security? Why do you do this, when you’re already paying the taxes that support the government police?), and the market provides it better than the government does, as everyone keeps demonstrating each month they pay the subscription fee. Human needs will be met by other humans, called “entrepreneurs,” whatever the needs.

Finally, some object to giving military power to private organizations because “nothing will stop the strong from dominating the weak.” There are two responses to this: First, with forcible government, the strong always dominate the weak already. This is guaranteed; it is not an accidental result of our particular circumstances. Every time a law is passed, it means those with the most resources to gather votes won, in any democratic government. After passage of the law, government uses its guns against those who opposed the law (the comparatively weak) to force them to comply with the law, however unjust the compelled deem the law.

By contrast, in private industry, there is always competition – other insurance/defense agencies exist to protect their customers from a rogue agency. And if insurers collude to fix prices, an entrepreneur will always arise to undercut them. Entrepreneurs have a hard time getting into business today because the government creates too many barriers to entry, barriers instituted by legislatures at the behest of businessmen of the past who wanted to be protected from competition. The health care business is the best example of this.

If you believe government should exist to do any particular thing, your reasons for believing so are applicable to everything we do in our lives. If you believe government should get out of your industry, your reasons for believing this apply to everything else government does. Government is an all-or-none proposition. Pay your money and take your choice.