Big Government

Why State Solutions Always Lead to New State Solutions

If you want progress, stop cleaning up after the elephants (and donkeys).

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If the do-nothing Congress would create an agency big enough to swallow the horse, millions of old ladies could be saved or created.

I detect a pattern in the challenges hurled at (genuine, or classical) liberals on nearly every issue. The opponent of liberalism (the statist) describes a problem, invariably with roots in a government infringement of freedom. In response, he prescribes more government interference with freedom, at which point the liberal interjects that the best and only just solution is the repeal of the culpable state power. The statist replies that this will not do because the liberal's proposal won't solve every related problem and may even reveal hitherto overlooked problems. Undo still more government action, the liberal replies. But this brings the same criticism.

Here's what's going on. The exercise of state power for many years has created gross distortions in incentives, consumer preferences, and investment, leading to the problems under discussion. In other words, the politicians and bureaucrats have made a royal mess of things. Then liberals are faulted for not being able to clean it up tidily with the wave of a hand. That they can't make everything right at once is then held against liberalism.

An example of this is medical insurance. Government has regulated every aspect of medicine and insurance for years. As a result, demand and hence prices have gone up past the point they would have gone in a free market, pricing some people out of the fettered market. When a liberal advocates removing the tangled web of regulations, taxes, and subsidies, and letting the free and competitive market operate, the statist objects that this idea won't immediately enable everyone to have affordable health insurance and medical care. The same argument is made about Social Security. Translation: My side bollixed things up terribly, but since your side can't resolve everything smoothly and painlessly by tomorrow, my side should continue calling the shots.

New Course

This, I submit, falls short in the logic department. If the present statist course is headed toward disaster, then we need a new course. That the freedom approach can't make everything new overnight, or even in the next few years, is hardly an argument against it. The fact is, what we're doing now is causing misery, insecurity, and advancing serfdom. To add insult to injury, that very misery and insecurity are made to justify more measures that will only add to the misery and insecurity, not to mention the serfdom. One of two things will happen: either we'll end up with complete central planning (the abolition of freedom) in which everything not prohibited is required, or we'll settle into a wretched, stagnant social equilibrium short of totalitarianism and muddle along indefinitely. Desiderata these are not.

The only hopeful alternative is freedom, the progressive removal of the many levels of state interference with our peaceful activities. The state's coercion has created untold dislocations, including some as yet undetected. Thus as power is peeled away, problems will be revealed that were not apparent before. It is not liberalization that will have created those problems. On the contrary, persistent liberalization will solve them.

If you want an idea of what to expect, read Henry Hazlitt's novel, Time Will Run Back. In Hazlitt's story, a pragmatist acquires the top job in a worldwide totalitarian state. Seeing that people are inconvenienced by the rationing system, he proposes what looks like a minor adjustment. He had no intention of making any big changes, but, in a reverse of Mises's critique of interventionism, the little change creates new problems that the commissar sees can only be solved by further liberal tweaking. The logical destination is laissez faire.

That is the route we hope to begin traveling as liberal ideas become more prominent in our culture. While we should advocate quick abolition of intervention, abolition all at once is unlikely to happen. (Although we can hope, can't we?) But while liberalization is likely to be gradual, it doesn't follow that we should advocate gradualism. As the great anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison understood, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice."

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared. 

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  1. The government created an extra unnecessary paragraph in this article. We need to create the Federal Bureau of Online Editing to correct this.

    1. There’s a young fellow in the mail room, Winston Smith, I think is his name. He’d be perfect for that job.

  2. The 3rd paragraph is excellent but the 4th I found really convincing for some reason.

    1. How did that happen?
      How did that happen?

      1. Squirrels. In the original, the 4th paragraph was
        “””
        Translation: My side bollixed things up terribly, but since your side can’t resolve everything smoothly and painlessly by tomorrow, my side should continue calling the shots.
        “””

  3. Was William Lloyd Garrison a libertarian? He famously burnt the Constitution… at least he took it seriously and objected forcefully to it’s sanction at the time of slavery.
    He also sold homemade lemonade as a youth.
    Sheldon sums it up well when he says “Translation: My side [the statists] banjaxed things up terribly, but since your side can’t resolve everything smoothly and painlessly by tomorrow, my side should continue calling the shots”. Yes… it does bear repeating.

    1. Lysander Spooner wasn’t a fan of the Constitution, either, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him quoted here.

      1. “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”

  4. There are a few typos in there Sheldon, but your argument is strong. I will be whacking a few people over the head with this article.

    OT – What the hell is this? Am I hung over and cross-eyed or is this the Obama campaign attempting to fool Romney supporters into donating to obama? At first glance I thought it was a ‘donate to Romney’ pitch….but from obama?

    https://donate.barackobama.com /page/outreach/view/ obama-event-registry/ROMNEY2012

    1. Where is my fucking squirrel rifle? Goddamn squirrels. take the spaces out and the link will work.

      Really…obama is so hard up or so slimy that he is getting people to donate by fraud? Isnt there some kind of law or rule forbidding this kind of chicanery? I guess it isnt really any different than anything else he has done.

    2. Couldn’t quite tell if you were being sarcastic or not about the Obama website. I believe they are asking people to register their events (like weddings), and ask for donations to the Obama campaign in lieu of gifts. Pretty gross, huh? Reason covered it a couple of days ago.

    3. This link you posted is just someone being a smart alec and registered a ‘Romney Victory Party’ event. Which is pretty fucking dumb, considering the $ is going to go to Obama (although it does say to go give to the Romney campaign). So yeah, pretty fucking dumb. But I would expect nothing less from a Romney supporter.

      1. OH. Cross-eyed and hung over I guess.

  5. Been reading Reason for a short while, and thought it time to enter the fray…

    Love this article! It succinctly and politely lays out the argument. Definitely going into my arsenal against the zombies 🙂

    1. Welcome, compadre!

      1. Thank you! I’ve really, REALLY enjoyed the comments here over the past several months, and hope I can keep up with the zingers / facts / fiction / all around great time 🙂

        1. Your best bet is to choose one topic/meme/laugh line you’re really good at and stick with it. Or, alternatively, just step in it. The commentariat needs more targets.

  6. OT: Murad Wahba speaks truth to power.

    Why isn’t he running for president of Egypt? Hell, why isn’t he running for president of the USA?

    1. Speaking of which, Morsi (the MB candidate) just won.

    2. The idea that foreign born people can’t be President is racist.

  7. I agree. I’m sick of this nonsense where every bloated stupid-from-the-start government program that fails gives the excuse that it failed due to lack of money and authority. Sorry we couldn’t stop 911, but if you let us invade two countries, double our spending, and let us spy on all communications we’ll catch him next time.

    but yet some guy who is already on the terrorist watch list can get on a plain with a bomb in his pants.

    1. It’s hard to gambol with C4 in your undies though.

  8. Libertarians: Because Trust Fund Babies Need Something To Whine About.?

    1. Right. There are NO “trust fund babies” of any other political stripe. Thanks for pointing that out.

    2. Shut up Mary.

    3. Trust fund babies like the Kennedy clan.

      1. Liberals hate it when their own trust-fund head-cases are pointed out.

        One of them almost became president, which has pissed them off ever since that particular Shit Sandwich v. Giant Douche election cycle.

        THIS Shit Sandwich v. Giant Douche election cycle, in particular, should be just as amusing, if not violent depending on outcome.

  9. Okay this is getting too bad to ignore. You guys need to proof read your shit better. Two paragraphs above that begin with “An example of this” -are repeated. I’d love to be able to email this article but I don’t want to look like an idiot. Fix your shit, please! And for fuck’s sake, somebody proof-read the posts on reason already!

    1. The original article is here.

  10. like a minor adjustment. He had no intention of making any big changes, but, in a reverse of Mises’s http://www.lunettesporto.com/l…..c-3_9.html critique of interventionism, the little change creates new problems that the commissar sees can only be solved by further liberal tweaking. The logical destination is laissez faire.

  11. In other words, the politicians and bureaucrats have made a royal mess of things. Then liberals are faulted for not being able to clean it up tidily with the wave of a hand. http://www.petwinkel.com/pet-armani-c-19.html That they can’t make everything right at once is then held against liberalism.

  12. The problem is the statists have their own definitions of terms like “problems” and “freedom” and such terms, so the argument is not remotely as logical as presented above. Instead it’s just idealists arguing past each other.

    There can be no universally-accepted “good thing”, when some see good as bad. For example if you eliminate the welfare state and everyone’s wealth increases drastically, “modern liberals” would decry the increased concentration of wealth, and fight harder for policies that emulate those of less-wealthy places with less wealth concentration.

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