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Government is a great servant but horrid master

By Jeffrey Foss
web posted July 22, 2019

Through the ages, the suffering, destruction and murder perpetrated by governments like those of Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro and their ilk reduces the evil of common criminals like Al Capone, Daniel Ortega, Bernie Madoff and El Chapo to the scale of breaking wind at Sunday dinner.

There is a historical lesson here for any of us who would entrust our sustenance, security and happiness to government. History teaches us that when governments go bad, they can really stink – enough to make us ashamed of our very species. But the more we entrust to government, the bigger it gets; and the bigger it gets, the more likely it is to become our ill-odored, malignant master, instead of our servant or helper.  

Governing is all about power, of course. Otherwise the governed would not obey, and anarchy would ensue, assuming it wasn’t there already. Thus the first power of government must be the appropriation of violence (such as imprisonment, torture and execution) unto itself for its sole use. All other forms of violence are outlawed.

If you or I kill someone, that is murder, which is illegal. But when government kills someone, it is execution or warfare, which is perfectly – and ever so conveniently – legal. If we take money from someone by force or stealth, that’s theft, But when government does likewise, it’s taxation, fees or fines. If I break into your house, I do not pass Go, I do not collect $200, I go straight to jail. If government breaks into my house, they get the police (or even a SWAT team) to do it.

All governments are born in sin: the appropriation of overwhelming power. Power doesn’t immediately or necessarily entail evil, of course. Power can be used for good. But misuse of power is as seductive as Delilah sitting at the side of the bed. 

So government must be controlled, like the powerful beast it is, by putting a ring though its nose. The genius of democracy is that it ties that ring by millions of strings to the hands of ordinary people like you and me, by our votes. By pulling together we can control the beast – unless we let it get too dang big, or we get divided into one faction that wants small, controllable government and another that wants free stuff and payment for not working, courtesy of legalized government theft and violence against others.

So our first rule must be to vote for less government, not more. Note well that, by a cruel irony of fate, the so-called Democratic Party, which advertises itself as the champion of the powerless, is for ever-bigger government. Note also that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln that freed the slaves, is for less.    

To be clear as blue skies, I am not arguing against government. Far from it. Government is necessary. Good government is a wonderful servant: it lubricates our cooperation while putting a lid on our violence as we procure food, clothing, shelter, safety and (if we engage in the proper pursuits) happiness.

If you take a look at what’s around you, you made or created little or nothing. Others made it for you, just as you make things for them, in a system of cooperation involving money, banks, sales, purchases, property, mutual benefit and so on. This system gives us virtually everything we have.

History and observation teach that democratic governments linked to economic freedom have excelled in helping us produce the plenty we now enjoy. Our form of democratic, republican government, relative to every other form that has ever existed, is best at serving the people.

But government can also be a horrible master. The reason people outside the developed democracies do not enjoy the health, wealth and happiness we have is that their governments suffer from the disease universally endemic to government: serving itself to achieve its own goals.

It is no accident that the government atrocities of Stalin, Mao and their ilk were inflicted on their own citizens. These leftist governments gained and sustained power by claiming they cared deeply about the people and pretending the vice of envy is really a virtue. They thereby instigated hatred of the rich by the poor, hatred of the successful by the unsuccessful, hatred of the happy by the discontented. Weakened by internal conflict, the people were readily conned into domestic and foreign wars both hot and cold, and into bizarre economic experiments. Over 100,000,000 were starved, murdered or worked to death.

By yet another cruel irony of fate, the poor were the main victims. Stalin, for instance, reorganized millions of previously successful farmers into communes, and then starved them to death when they were bold enough to protest that farming itself was being destroyed. Those citizens he permitted to live did so in despicable poverty and fear, while Stalin himself spent his days in the palaces of the Czars, the very people he reviled, strutting about like a toy soldier, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

Today we are told even vastly bigger government is needed – at a global level – to protect planet and civilization from the ravages of fossil fuels, runaway climate change and big evil corporations.

We already see this eco-imperialism imposed on billions of people, who are told they develop as they wish, use fossil fuels or improve their health and living standards more than a trifling bit. As the globalist ruling elites gain ever more power, they are demanding that citizens of already developed countries reduce their living standards, stop driving cars and flying airplanes, and eat insects and organic vegetables instead of meat or conventional foods. Of course, like Stalin, the ruling classes would exempt themselves from the diktats and penalties they impose on the masses.

Let there be no doubt: history teaches there are two keys to the levels of health, wealth and happiness that we humans have so far achieved. The first is democracy: putting government under our control. The second is freedom to make our own economic choices, to work for whom we choose, to own property, and to start businesses if we like, without being smothered by endless regulations, paperwork and taxes.

But keeping government under control isn’t easy. Government power stealthily increases, even in democracies. As Figure 1 shows, the growth of US government has been relentless, creeping and sneaky since the halcyon days when the Original Colonies first cut off the chains of monarchy. 

Growth of U.S. government, 1790 to 2016.
Growth of U.S. government, 1790 to 2016.

The graph shows that government’s share of all the money made in the country has steadily increased from about 3% in 1790 to over 40% today. Who can doubt that government had less power in 1790 than it does now? Or that the people rebelled over far less odious usurpations than they face today?

Those who lean left preach that there are good reasons for us to envy and revile the rich – indeed, anyone in the arbitrarily designated 1% of top earners. But by a stroke of unparalleled self-deception they refuse to see that this same logic applies with its ultimate force to big-spending, big-taxing, big-borrowing, big-leftist government itself.

So if you are tempted by some politician’s promise to play Robin Hood for you, you are being fooled. Politicians may pretend to be Robin, but under their disguise of forest green you will always find the evil Sherriff of Nottingham and his taxman. And what honor is there in getting someone to steal for you?

It is wrong for any of us to envy, revile or hate the rich simply because they are rich. We should instead rejoice in the success of law-abiding people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Stewart Butterfield (my former student, Canadian entrepreneur and midwife of Flickr and Slack). They are beacons of hope. 

Those decent people among us who legally acquire a few millions or billions of dollars to pose against the many trillions of dollars taken from us by government are like those 1776 colonists, who rose up against King George III, wrote a Declaration of Independence and Constitution that set down their inspirations, aspirations, and belief in God, unalienable natural rights, and small government with limited powers, intentions and instruments of taxation and suppression.

They show us that we too can get ahead, be free and prosper with limited government that understands its proper role. ESR

Dr. Jeffrey Foss is a philosopher of science, Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria, Canada, and author of Beyond Environmentalism: A Philosophy of Nature.




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