This talk was delivered at the Mises Circle in Houston, March 4, 2006.
If you say that government is too big and truly overweening, you elicit a surprising degree of agreement among people, even mainstream columnists, economists, and nearly everyone. Even government employees, who famously resent their bosses, might be quick to agree. If you hang outside the offices of the IRS in Washington, D.C., in the park at noontime where its employees take their lunch, you will get an earful of vitriol against the bureaucracy such as you wouldn’t hear outside 1990s militia circles.
Incidentally, the government is having a terrible time recruiting employees. Only 16% of college-educated workers say that they are interested in a government job. Among those without a college degree, there is twice the level of interest. Among people currently employed, those with managerial or professional occupations show a low interest level of 17%.
Among those who want work to be challenging and enjoyable, only 9% thought a government job qualified. And, interestingly, among those who say they want to make a contribution to society, 90% said that non-government work in the private sector, with for profit or non-profit, is the way to go.
Now, what this means is that the smart set avoids government. Government work might still be attractive to people with fewer economic opportunities, but they are entering it for reasons that are not ideological. And for that reason too, they are less loyal to the public sector and glad to bail out if something else comes available.
Most people view this as a very bad trend. I would only say that it is a significant trend, especially considering that in the heyday of government central planning, government sought to attract the best and the brightest. Often it did. Now, one might argue that if government were doing what it should be doing, this would be a good thing. But if government is doing many bad things, it is certainly not a bad trend for it to experience a brain drain.
It is always a tragedy to see smart and entrepreneurial men and women be attracted away from productive employment in the private sector toward a position of power in the public sector. It makes us poorer to have the talents drained away from wealth creation toward wealth destruction. As for the very few good people in politics — Ron Paul is the great exception that proves the rule — they are true public servants only insofar as they work to diminish government power rather than increase it.
So long as government is large and overweening, we are better off with a public sector that cannot attract the best and brightest. They should stay put where they can continue to expand the range of goods and services offered within the market framework. It is the market that provides us the means necessary to improve our standard of living, and the tools we need to maintain some degree of independence from the state.
We often rail against incompetence in government. But before we go too far with this language, we need to consider that competence in government may be a far worse fate. We don’t need genuinely competent antitrust enforcers, drug and food regulators, tax collectors, money manipulators, labor-law interventionists, gun grabbers, and environmental police. As H.L. Mencken said, we should be thankful that we don’t get all the government we pay for.
To be sure, we are paying far more today for government than ever before. Consider the real annual growth rate of total government outlays by presidents. Under Nixon, it was 3%. Under Carter, it was 4.1%. Under Reagan, 2.6%. Under Bush’s dad, 1.9%, a figuring owing to the cuts in military spending. Domestic spending soared. Under Clinton, whom we all denounced as a socialist, it was 1.5%, the lowest rate in the postwar period. And under the present Bush, who promised less government? The real annual growth rate of total government outlays has been 5%, which compares to Johnson-era spending.
The old rationales for government growth may have been discredited in the public mind. But they are alive in Washington, among the special interest groups, and among the media. I would like to identify the main ones.
Rationale Number One: The Good Samaritan State. In this view of government, the state should act like the third person to come upon the poor man who had been beaten and robbed. They imagine a population that is divided among three types of people: victims, victimizers, and those who refuse to help.
The victim classes we know all too well, because the litany is said again and again within the structure of labor law: the elderly, the very young, ethnic and racial minorities, religious minorities, sexual minorities, the physically and mentally disabled, workers, the underpaid, people in rural areas, those who deal with urban overcrowding, people who breathe dirty air or eat chemically produced products, artists, the manufacturing industry, people with peanut allergies, the dyslexic, short people, fat people, the leisure deprived, and I’ve probably left out a hundred or so other groups.
Among the victimizers, we similarly have a list: capitalists, racial and ethnic majorities, sexual majorities, the overpaid, managers and CEOs, people who live in gated communities, the well armed, consumers of cell phones, owners of mines, anyone living off a trust fund, fully abled men, and anyone who resents social managers telling them what to do.
In the view of those who advocate the Samaritan State, these two classes of victims and victimizers are constantly at war. There is nothing but conflict between them. The loss of one is the gain of the other. These categories are fixed and unchanging. The lack of harmony of interests is built into the structure of the social and economic world. The remedy requires an institution that is relentlessly engaged in reweighing the power relationships between the two groups. The conflict cannot be finally ended, but justice requires that the victims are given an unending stream of compensation and that the victimizers are treated with disdain and punished for their very existence. Social justice thus requires that victimizers are reduced, disabled, denounced, and spat upon, while the victims must be exalted, fed, clothed, funded, and made whole.
This is how the left, broadly speaking, thinks the world works, and should work. It doesn’t matter whether one considers oneself a hard Marxist or a soft social democrat, the intellectual tie that binds them together is the view that conflict and not cooperation characterizes the work of society in the absence of an institution dedicated to bringing about social justice.
The institutional answer is, of course, the State. The State is the Samaritan who lifts up and exalts the meek, and smites the proud and powerful who would otherwise walk right past the poor person on the street, who is the very archetype of the victim in the leftist view of how the world works.
But there are many things wrong with this view of society. In the parable, the victim was beaten and robbed. He was exploited only in a very narrow and old-fashioned sense: his person and property were violated. These are crimes against libertarian ethics, a system of thought that mirrors what every religious and ethical system has taught: do not kill and do not steal. In other words, he was not a victim of some hazy notion of Social Injustice.
He was not discriminated against, exploited by an employer, made to work long hours, or denied a comfy living in his old age. There is a huge difference between being beaten and robbed, and having to pay high prices for prescription drugs. The great error of the left is its inability to distinguish the injustice of violence from the supposed injustice of inequality of material condition.
As for the Samaritan, he was not acting as an agent of the regime. He used his own money to help the victim. He got him back on his feet and paid his bills at the private clinic where he was deposited for care. The Samaritan did not rob someone else to give money to the man on the street. He presumably got his money justly by hard work and investment. He had no desire to keep the man dependent, nor to exercise power over him, tax him, regulate him, nor send him to war.
The state is something very different. It has no income but that which it robs from someone else. It seeks its own gain at others’ expense. It protects itself and promotes itself before the interests of everyone else. It is beholden to special interests who create and control its regulatory apparatus. It is not impartial. It sides with its friends over its enemies. Moreover, the state is an exploiter, a murderer, a violator of human rights.
The typical response of the left is to say that they want a state that does only good things such as share and care, and not bad things such as steal and kill. But this cannot be. We might as well wish for a lion that only purrs and cuddles, or a rattlesnake that only provides percussion accompaniment to mariachi music. The very nature of the state is that it exists only through and for compulsion. To imagine otherwise is not to face reality.
Rationale Number Two: The Solomonic State. In the Bible we are told that King Solomon had “understanding exceeding much and largeness of heart, even as the sand that [is] on the sea shore.” And his “wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt.” He was “wiser than all men” and “his fame was in all nations round about. ” He spoke “three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. ” He “spake of trees, from the cedar tree that [is] in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom.”
Now, I’m not here to dispute the Bible’s account of Solomon’s wisdom. But I would suggest that these traits are not generalizable to the population of rulers. In fact, it is very dangerous to hope that they may be. If we set out to find such a person, and have fantastic power available to him when we believe he has arrived, we have set up the framework for tyranny. The founders knew that no man can be trusted with power. They attempted to construct a system that presumed that men were corruptible, and that there would be some means to dislodge them when their corruption showed.
Still, today many people long for the Solomonic State as a means of dispensing justice. Unlike the Samaritan model, the goal here is not charity but the just wielding of the sword on behalf of the right and true. Thus should we seek out righteous men of learning and moral character who know what evil is and have the courage to stand up to it and destroy it. This model is what inspires this mentality.
There are many problems with this model. One man might be very wise, even the wisest of all men. But as F.A. Hayek might remind us, all the accumulated knowledge in the head of one person is still infinitesimal as compared with the wisdom that emerges through social cooperation on the marketplace. We can consider the price of any good on the market as it stands right now, and know that this one price results from the accumulated decisions of millions of people across thousands and thousands of sectors of economic activity spread throughout the world. The knowledge is dispersed in a million directions and results from small decisions and actions by economic actors. But the result is a single indicator that assists in allocating resources better than any single mind could ever do.
The model of the Solomonic State also imagines that somehow the social order we see around us cannot possibly have come about without a single will operating in society, some firm hand that has designed the order and keeps it running smoothly. People who think this way imagine that in the absence of this firm hand, there would be nothing but a Hobbesian state of nature, where society is a war of all against all and life is nasty, brutish, and short.
Our age is notably lacking in the likes of Solomon, and so those who fear the Hobbesian state of nature turn to the managerial state to act wisely in the interest of justice and order, at home and abroad. They might not always like what the rulers do, but they consider the alternative to despotism more fearsome. They warn about the dread results of anarchism and liberty, where people senselessly kill and rob without consequence. They fear this liberty more than they fear the abuses of power.
This, I submit, is the mentality of many conservatives and many on the Right. We see it in the affections they have for Bush, the patriot act, the war on terror, and how quickly people fall for any leader who uses Manichean rhetoric in defense of the latest nationalistic crusade.
What these people need more than anything else is a familiarity with the insights of the old liberal tradition as represented by Jefferson, Bastiat, Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. They need to come to see how order is not the mother of liberty but its daughter. They need to see how society is harmonious not because of the state but because of the prevalence of human cooperation in the marketplace, where people work to trade to their own mutual betterment.
People who fail to understand this become the unwitting servants of tyranny, particularly in the modern age when it is so obviously not wise but stupid and violent and presumptuous. They imagine that the state can possess godlike powers and bring justice and order, but they end up only empowering the worst elements in society, bringing injustice, and chaos.
Now, you might say that the old liberal view of society is naïve. It might be in people’s interest to learn to trade rather than steal but we live in a fallen world. If not for some overarching controlling force, people would loot each other unrelentingly and kill for fun. Now, to this I can say that it is true that some societies have not learned to make trading and peace significantly more prevalent than violence and killing. History is strewn with examples.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether a society that fails to learn the art of civilization will erect and sustain a state that will impose civilization on the people. I submit that history also teaches that when a people are brutal and uncivilized, the state is even more so. The state is rarely and maybe never better than the people it rules; in fact, it is almost always worse.
Rationale Number Three: Log-Rolling. Given these two very different conceptions of the state, one favoring the welfare state and the other favoring a warfare state, why don’t the visions cancel each other out? So intense is the desire of one group to have the state that it wants that it is willing to put up with another group’s desire for its conception of the state. The two conceptions decide to cooperate and erect a state that purports to behave both like Solomon and like the Samaritan. That is the origin of the guns-and-butter state, or the welfare-warfare state, or the modern state as we know it, one that purports to meet every need.
We see how this log-rolling works every day on Capitol Hill. One group wants more money for tanks and weaponry, and the other wants more for Medicaid and education. If both agree that politics is the art of compromise, they will put up with the other group’s priorities in order that their own vision can be fulfilled.
On the Right, we find that the love for the police power is more intense than the hatred of redistribution. On the Left, we find that the love of redistribution is more intense than the hatred of war and leviathan. They therefore work together to erect a massive and ever-growing executive. They are similarly unwilling to oppose the state in total. They fear that in doing so, the state as an institution will be discredited, and their conception of what the state should do along with it. Neither side particularly loves big government but both sides agree that it is better than the alternative of letting people alone. So they log-roll to support the public sector above all else, even when it means that they must sleep with their ostensible political enemies.
Rationale Number Four: The Inflationary State. Now we come to the reason this system is able to perpetuate itself. And there is something of a mystery to explain here. No people anywhere will put up with a leviathan that grows and grows forever. At some point, the problem of funding state expansion will result in too much violence against property, and the people will revolt. Indeed, if the federal government had to collect all its revenue through a tax of any kind, leveled right now against the public, I submit to you that it would spark a tax revolt on a scale never before seen in modern history.
Thus do we have the central bank to create money for the state. Thus do we have paper money that can be created in unlimited quantities. Thus do we have deposit insurance to make banks failure proof, so that the masses will never doubt that the credit pyramid is immortal. Thus do we have the fed’s power to manipulate interest rates and control the flow of credit to the system.
An economist at Lehman Brothers sent us an interesting chart the other day. It compares the level of price increases across many Fed regimes. Under the first Fed governor Charles Hamlin, the dollar declined 8% in value. Under Thomas B. McCabe from the late forties, it declined 7.2%. Under Arthur Burns, wholly owned by Nixon, the dollar declined 42% in value. Under Volcker, Mr. Tight Money, it fell 40%. And under Greenspan, who has a reputation as a great inflation fighter, the value of the dollar in terms of goods and services fell fully 44%!
Inflation serves the cause of the state by giving it room to run up debts without limit and fund its activities without making the people cough up more revenue. Indeed, that is the primary purpose of the inflationary state. People often say to me that a gold standard is impractical. In fact, that is not the case. It is very practical. It is the free-market answer. The state doesn’t need to produce money any more than it needs to produce shoes or shirts or clocks. The problem is that we lack the political will to stop the inflation monster.
Rationale Number Five: The Propaganda State. In every society control of educational institutions increases in tandem with the rise of the state. This is because the state needs these institutions to inculcate the civic religion of loving the public enterprise, and also because the less people know about the idea of liberty the more the state is provided the room to grow.
Consider the Department of Education. Ever since its creation, every Republican administration has come to power with an intention to abolish it. But once they get in power, they find that bureaucracy has its uses. Instead of cutting or abolishing it, they increase the agency and give it more to do. The more the state does, the more the state sees the need to control public opinion by controlling the schools.
Now, there is a point of optimism here. If any state could rule without propaganda, it would surely do so. Why then do states find educational control and the propagation of the civic religion in their interest? Because at some level, every state, in all times and places, is required to seek the tacit consent of those it governs. No state can control a society by use of the sword only and alone. It must also seek some degree of ideological conformity with its own goals. Otherwise its rule becomes threatened and destabilized.
The other side of the coin is that states can indeed be destabilized by the ultimate counterrevolutionary tactic of providing alternative sources of education. As Mises said, all of history is a battle of ideas. Where the ideas of freedom are triumphant, liberty prevails. Where the ideas of freedom are buried and suppressed, despotism prevails.
Our pathway is clear. It is a choice of the Mises Institute not to mix in the mire of a political system that is wholly owned or attempt to seek favor from influential opinion makers. Our path is one of education, pursued with high-minded ideals, advanced using the most modern methods, and animated by the spirit of guerilla warfare. There are Misesians and Rothbardians strewn throughout the academic world, financial and banking houses, law firms, and in every walk of life, not only in this country but all over the world.
We have worked for nearly a quarter of a century on a very radical project of advancing economic science and logic. We have pushed to keep the fire of freedom burning brightly. We have sought to teach anyone and everyone about the workings and benefits of liberty. We have come under pressure from the left, right, and center. Yet the attention given to this body of ideas grows by the day.
We can prevail against the Propaganda State. So long as we are free to do so and have the means available, we will continue to do so. This is our weapon against power. It is the most effective weapon anyone could ever possess. If we win this victory, we win all others.
We thank you for supporting education for liberty, for supporting the Mises Institute financially and morally, and for being part of the revolutionary vanguard that sees through the errors of our day and imagines a brighter future of freedom, private property, and peace.