Limited Government – A Moral Issue?

by Chet W. Anderson
From Number 57 – August 1992

“The 1980s,” according to economist Milton Friedman, witnessed “a sea change in the direction of public thinking about government’s ability to solve economic and social problems.” In fact, the idea of getting government off our backs became a live issue, worldwide. Although there was little change in the size or power of government, “(T)he prospect is bright,” Friedman observed, “but only if we continue trying to spread our ideas and persuading ourselves, more importantly than anyone else, to be consistent with the beliefs we profess.”

This matter of beliefs and consistency leads us directly to the vital question: Are we simply uneasy about big government in a general way, or do we see it clearly as a real threat to individual freedom?

Most freedom devotees share a concern about big government, but there is very little agreement about the proper role of government in society. Why is this so? Are there no acceptable criteria for resolving this important issue of what government should do and should not do? And, without visualizing an ideal role for government, can we ever hope to approach “limited government”?

Some people seem to want this issue resolved by majority vote. But doesn’t this mean that might makes right – that we should just take a vote to see which gang is biggest and then let them enforce their ideas on the rest of us? This surely is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind nor, I am sure, is it what those who advocate limited government really want.

It may be helpful to rephrase the question by bringing into the center of this analysis our own personal commitment and integrity. The question then becomes: Which functions of government are so unquestionably proper that I, personally, would be willing to support and enforce them? Mind you, not hire and pay someone to collect tax money, for example, but personally force those who oppose the law to pay their tax.

Isn’t it the delegating of this unpleasant duty that has clouded the issue of how much government we really believe in? I may be sincere in my belief that food stamps, for example, are a necessary government “safety net.” But my religious friend who believes that it is God’s design that individuals should be responsible – voluntarily – to help the unfortunate, and whose experience tells him that those who are thus helped will do more for themselves, tells me that he will not support involuntary “charity.” Now, back to the question: will I force him to pay this tax? Furthermore, can I escape this question by closing my mind and letting my delegate perform this ugly task?

This whole matter of enforcement – with all its implications of violence – needs to be examined for its full meaning. The force that will ultimately be legally applied to collect the tax is rarely seen. But it is there! It resides in the government and is potentially brutal. Because if a man of principle absolutely refuses to pay – and then resists arrest by defending himself and his property when the agents of government come to take him from his home (which they will) – he will be dealt with violently, probably shot! His crime will be recorded as resisting arrest, but he will have actually lost his life because he stood by his moral principles and refused to compromise.

The violent result of holding fast to principle causes us to understand the true nature of government and why we should fear it. As George Washington warned,

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

Purely and simply then, government is organized force, it has a monopoly on legal coercion; and it can do more than voluntary groups only because it can force its will on those who disagree.

Those of us who are serious about sorting out our own ideas about government – and being consistent in our beliefs – find ourselves facing a chain of personal decisions:

  1. Am I concerned about big government and the loss of individual liberty? Yes? or No?
  2. If “Yes,” how do I decide whether or not I approve of specific governmental functions and actions? Do I judge them by the same criteria for right and wrong as I do individual actions? Yes? or No?
  3. If “No,” I must face that fact that either (1) I have no standard for judging the proper functions of government, or (2) I have another standard which I can define. Note that (1) in effect endorses majority rule – that is, that might makes right!
  4. If, however, my answer to b. is “Yes,” and assuming I understand that government relies on force to function, can I, logically or morally, approve of governmental functions that I would be unwilling to enforce personally by using force if necessary? Yes? or No?

This very personal self-assessment may fortify our understanding of the true nature of government. But equally important, it should also help us to recognize that governmental acts which we support are really an extension of our own views and actions.

Where does all of this bring us in our concerns about government today? What chance do we have of bringing about an evolution – or revolution – in the way people think about the proper role of government in society?

Keep in mind that only in the last few years have we even come close to a consensus that government handles economic and social problems very poorly. And recent revelations of the pitiful conditions in the over-governed nations of Eastern Europe confirm the validity of this consensus – the inevitable result of a growing dependence on government is not only less freedom, but moral and economic deterioration as well.

This awareness, then, is itself a big step forward. But emphasis on efficiency does not get at the source of the problem – which is individual, moral responsibility for those actions of government which we support.

As long as politicians can bombard us with their platitudes about “doing good” – and never be challenged on the immoral means they use – the size and power of government will never be controlled. For there can be no decline in the calls upon government to “do something” about such things as poverty, the homeless, the aged, and the sick until the force and violence that must support such governmental actions are recognized – and morally condemned.

Editor’s Note: This article is of interest to Voluntaryists for several reasons. Its author, Chet Anderson, was instrumental in assisting Bob LeFevre raise money in Milwaukee, Wisc. in 1957, to help fund the second year of the original Freedom School in Colorado (see p. 183 – 184 of my biography, ROBERT LeFEVRE). This article is excerpted from a longer essay, which first appeared in a shortened version in the February 1992, FREEDOM DAILY, published by Jacob Hornberger’s Future of Freedom Foundation, Box 9752, Denver, Colo. 80209. Since the original essay had a somewhat weaker conclusion, I wrote its author, and asked him whether he believed that coercive government has any proper functions at all (and if so, what were they, and how did he justify them)? His response was as follows:

“The answer to your question, which may be only implicit in my essay is, “No.” I see no possible function of government that I would support by killing someone who refused to support it. Your question surprised me, but as I re-read my piece I believe I see why you ask. Although I did not state flatly that no government could be morally justified, the series of questions I asked lead to that answer. Now, let me back up and explain why I did this.

“Ben Rogge once told me that he had never known anyone who approached Baldy Harper in teaching ideas about liberty with such a lasting impact. While both were teaching at Wabash College, Ben was amazed at Baldy’s effect on students, – how they continued to seek his counsel. I discovered during the 20+ years I knew him that his persuasiveness came from his unique ability to ask thoughtful questions. I was changed from a flaming liberal in the ’40’s to a sort of philosophical anarchist by facing up to questions asked by Baldy, Leonard Read and later, Bob LeFevre. It was Baldy who I first talked to about my series of questions and he encouraged me to pursue this approach.

“I believe, as he did, that a serious student of liberty must answer questions like these within himself. It is normally more effective and permanent learning if he discovers by this process that he can’t support morally even a limited government than if a lecturer tells him all government is immoral. I think that “discover” is the key here and, as I think back to the times I have failed to persuade someone to examine the nature of government I find that I usually did not ask the most thoughtful and timely questions.”

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