Since the beginning of the so-called Progressive Era, advocates of big government have been on the offensive. They promised Americans more prosperity, better education, increased security, a cleaner environment, a society that’s more fair, and so on — provided they would allow government officials to wield much more power.
A great many fell for it. After all, wasn’t it desirable to move toward an improved country at what seemed to be little or no cost? Certainly our leaders would do only things that were in “the public interest.”
As those ideas gained ground, interest groups figured out that the expanding state could be very lucrative. They added their voices to the clamor for government to do more.
The Progressives, however, tremendously exaggerated the benefits of big government — an “activist” government rather than the small, defensive one envisioned by the Founders. The visionary laws and programs that were supposed to produce a better society have made matters worse. At the same time, the costs of big government have proven to be gigantic, both in monetary terms and in terms of lost freedom.
As a result, an intellectual counterattack has been building. Many books have been written on particular aspects of the case for restoring liberty and limited government, but in The Libertarian Mind, David Boaz gives readers a wide-ranging manifesto that covers the waterfront. Just about every major problem caused by big government is exposed and the need for America to embrace voluntary solutions is made crystal clear.
Boaz, executive vice-president at Cato Institute, gives us a comprehensive, readable, and highly persuasive book rooted in the principles of libertarian thinking: peaceful cooperation, private property, capitalism, and individual rights. On page after page, he shows why the statism of the Progressives failed to deliver on its promises and why the nation should return to its limited-government roots.
In this perilous election year, it is especially important to remind Americans that freedom works for the benefit of all, whereas big government enriches a few at the expense of the rest of society.
Conceived in plunder
Boaz builds his case by starting with the basic need for and benefits of freedom. He points out, “Freedom leads to social harmony. We have less conflict when we have fewer specific commands and prohibitions about how we should live — in terms of class or caste, religion, dress, lifestyle or schools.”
We wouldn’t have the nasty disputes we do over issues such as the best school curriculum or who may marry whom if government would just leave such matters to individual choice and private contract. The proper role of government, Boaz shows, is to enforce rules that protect everyone’s rights and property, but never to control people with a host of mandates and prohibitions, taxes, and subsidies.
As for government itself, Boaz offers readers an eye-opening (and, Progressives would say, dangerous) view of its origins and nature.
Governments didn’t arise out of social contracts, but instead developed as methods for rulers to extract wealth from the people without the constant need to employ force. Here, we are introduced to German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer’s thesis that governments did not originate in some mystical “social contract,” but rather through conquest and plunder. Conquering rulers wanted to make their exploitation of productive people smooth and easy (repeated use of violence being costly) so they made the people an offer they couldn’t refuse: pay your taxes and we will protect you from marauders who want to take even more; don’t pay and we will use force against you.
Most of what government does becomes comprehensible once you think of it as an instrument of control — physical and mental — meant to enable the rulers and their allies to exploit the productive segment of society.
Boaz drives home the point that government stands apart from the people. “This basic understanding of the distinction between society and the state, between the people and the rulers, has deep roots in Western civilization, going back to Samuel’s warning to the people of Israel that a king would ‘take your sons, and your daughters, and your fields’ and to the Christian concept that the state is conceived in sin.”
Taxes, say advocates of big government, are “the price of civilization,” but that’s simply false. Taxes are not necessary for civilization, but are necessary for ruling elites (whether monarchs or people elected) to maintain power and live well. The book is full of historical references and Boaz notes that the finance minister for King Louis XIV laid out the essentials for maximizing the haul of taxes with the least resistance centuries ago and invites you to compare it with the way we are taxed today.
Libertarian thinking also clashes with other philosophies over the question of rights. Almost everyone claims to favor rights, but Progressives, socialists, communitarians, and others make a terrible mistake by calling many desires and interests “rights.” That’s why we hear politicians clamoring for welfare rights, housing rights, food rights, and so on. Boaz explains that true rights involve the use of our liberty and property, but that all those so-called rights can be given effect only through coercion. Trying to do that starts the unraveling of society.
Welfare and trade
One of the strongest, most memorable parts of the book is the way Boaz contrasts the way people used to form voluntary societies and associations to deal with social problems and the way we now look first to government coercion to help every person or organization in need. Prior to the New Deal, Americans had set up an astonishing array of organizations to help people in need and provide members with services they wanted, including medical care and insurance.
The key thing about them was that they operated on consent and contract and therefore could — and had to — refuse benefits to individuals who were shirking or trying to defraud the system. Those organizations thus helped people to build character. Boaz points out that members in good standing of many lodges could use that very fact to establish good credit if they moved to another city.
Once the welfare state was established, however, people began looking for ways to get unearned, undeserved benefits; the incentives were completely turned around so that the unscrupulous were the winners, the virtuous mulcted to pay for their gains. Once people started expecting government to solve every social need, the voluntary associations began to wither.
At the same time big government enabled the poor to use government to get what they wanted, it also enabled many non-poor people and groups to do the same. Washington, D.C., and the state capitals are overrun with lobbyists who want subsidies, beneficial regulations, and other goodies that come at other people’s expense. The big reason that America has suffered an economic slowdown in recent decades is the growth of what Boaz calls “the parasite economy.”
Americans have lately been hearing a lot of heated rhetoric from candidates about the supposed damage that international trade does “to us.” They would benefit from reading Boaz’s explanation that the idea that international trade must be “in balance” is foolish. If we care about freedom, he notes, all that matters is that individual people are allowed to trade as they think best, with anyone they choose. “A national balance of trade,” he writes, “is just a composite of all the trades made by individuals in the nation; if each of those trades makes economic sense, the aggregate cannot be a problem.”
There, Boaz illustrates one of the hallmarks of the libertarian mind — focusing on peaceful individual action rather than getting mired in misleading aggregates.
Another hot current issue is the minimum wage. The Democratic candidates insist that it must be raised considerably (somehow they claim to know that the correct minimum is $12 or $15 per hour), while the Republicans are content to leave it where it is ($7.25 per hour). Boaz counters with the radically different libertarian concept that contracts for labor ought to be left up to workers and employers, not dictated by the government at all.
Knowing that many readers will be drawn more to arguments relating to justice than to arguments relating to economics, Boaz also shows how libertarianism would eliminate most if not all of their concerns. For example, consider the well-known statistic that the United States has the world’s highest percentage of its population in prison. The main reason that that’s the case, he observes, is America’s war on drugs that has led to the jailing of great numbers of people who wouldn’t be criminals at all in a libertarian society, since what a person chooses to put into his own body is no business of the government.
Nor is the drug war the only reason that there are so many people behind bars. Boaz makes the key point that the vast U.S. administrative apparatus often ensnares people who never intended to do anything wrong, but unwittingly violated some obscure, barely comprehensible prohibition buried deep in thick volumes of regulation. In that vein, he recounts some horrible cases, among them that of an elderly man who sold some orchids that, according to federal officials, had not been correctly labeled. For that “crime,” he was sent to prison and once there he was actually put in solitary confinement by the warden because his lawyer filed a motion seeking his release.
Such injustices would not occur in a libertarian polity.
Only readers who insist on keeping their socialistic blinders on could fail to get the big point of The Libertarian Mind — the government must be and can be cut back to its proper functions. If you desire peace, freedom, and prosperity, libertarian thinking offers the only path.
The article was originally published in the October 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.