Why Doesn't The Government Order Us Around More?


Economist Bryan Caplan contemplates how government does most of its coercion second-hand:

Here's an odd thought for a libertarian: The government very rarely tells me to do anything…

Dr Case / Foter / CC BY-NC

How is this possible when the government regulates almost every aspect of American life, and takes 40% of GDP?  The government controls the labor market (especially for foreign workers).  The government decides what products I can and can't buy.  The government runs a massive retirement system that I can't escape without leaving the country.  How can the government control me so thoroughly yet so rarely boss me around?

The answer is simple yet shocking: Government controls me by controlling my trading partners.  Government doesn't tell me to pay sales taxes; it just forces every business in Virginia to collect sales taxes as a condition of sale.  Government doesn't tell me who I can and can't hire; it just tells every business I deal with who they can and can't hire.  Government doesn't even tell me I have to contribute to Social Security; it just requires my employer to make contributions on my behalf as a condition of employing me….

He considers, but dismisses, the idea that this is merely because it's cheaper for the government. Then:

Governments rely on indirect coercion because direct coercion seems brutal, unfair, and wrong.  If the typical American saw the police bust down a stranger's door to arrest an undocumented nanny and the parents who hired her, the typical American would morally side with the strangers.  If the typical American saw regulators confiscate a stranger's expired milk, he'd side with the strangers.  If the typical American found out his neighbor narced on a stranger for failing to pay use tax on an out-of-state Internet purchase, he'd damn his neighbor, not the stranger.  Why?  Because each of these cases activates the common-sense moral intuition that people have a duty to leave nonviolent people alone.

Switching to indirect coercion is a shrewd way for government to sedate our moral intuition.  When government forces CostCo to collect Social Security taxes, the typical American doesn't see some people violating their duty to leave other people alone.  Why?  Because they picture CostCo as an inhuman "organization," not a very human "bunch of people working together."  Government's trick, in short, is to redirect its coercion toward crucial dehumanized actors like business (and foreigners, but don't get me started)…

Of course, if the public fully absorbed the implications of common-sense morality, the government's ruse would fall flat.  The public would look at the vast majority of business regulation and say, "So a bunch of people are using their own skills and their own resources to make money.  How on earth does that vitiate your duty to leave nonviolent people alone?"

Caplan has been a pal of mine since the early '90s, and he's a very decent man in my experience. His very decency leads him a little astray here in his assumption that too many of his fellow citizens are similarly decent.

I've learned from years of writing about what I see as horrific government assaults on the innocent that a very, very typical reaction--even among the types inclined to be reading Reason in the first place--is along the lines of: if that person just did what they were ordered to do, they wouldn't have had the government harm them!

Some sick innate desire to see everyone just obey often trumps that moral intuition about not harming the non-violent--even among people who agree with the meta-point that the order shouldn't have been made in the first place.