The Volokh Conspiracy

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Albert Gallatin on government incompetence


I recently came across this nice quote from Albert Gallatin, the fourth (and longest serving) Secretary of the Treasury: "Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves." Context here.

This strikes me as a very early example of a fundamental libertarian axiom. This is not the familiar philosophical idea that government must be limited vis a vis the natural rights of individuals. Nor is it the political science idea that power tends to corrupt or that government tends toward tyranny. Those ideas, of course, animated both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

In 1807, Gallatin was saying something different. Sixteen years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, he was making the new (?) point that even a benign, republican government should hesitate to regulate-for the simple reason that government tends to be incompetent. In particular, government systematically underestimates costs relative to benefits and systematically misjudges the interests of those regulated.

Does anyone know of an earlier expression of this thought?