Guest Post: Galling Government
by Gary Galles
Americans live with paternalist government that nudges (and shoves) them to do what it deems best and “help” everyone with everything. But government is just flawed people with worse information and worse incentives than the individuals directly involved, putting reason and evidence on liberty’s side.
One of liberty’s most insightful defenders against the ever-encroaching state was Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay. Statesman, historian and writer, “the most influential of the British classical liberals” advocated freedom, contrasted with the failings and abuses of government control.
Macaulay defended what he opened his History of England with: “the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known…from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity from which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example.” In particular, he devastated statism in “Southey’s Colloquies on Society,” still relevant today.
Washington today lectures Americans on what is true, fair, ethical, and moral. But Macaulay asked “is there any reason for believing that a government is more likely to lead the people in the right way than the people…themselves?” The answer: “[W]e see no reason for thinking that the opinions of the magistrate on speculative questions are more likely to be right than those of any other man.” Where individuals really agree on such issues, government is unnecessary; where we don’t, government simply imposes one group’s will on others.
Washington also intrudes into virtually every decision, “not merely to see that the persons and property of the people are secure from attack, but… spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us…that no man can do anything so well for himself as his rulers.” The problem is that government “may be quite competent to protect the persons and property of the rest, yet quite unfit to direct our opinions, or to superintend our private habits.”
Government is handicapped in directing our opinions because “Government…carries on controversy, not with reasons, but with threats and bribes…instead of a contest between argument and argument, we have a contest between argument and force…in which truth can be victorious only by accident.”
Government is hamstrung in its efforts “for our own good” because “The duties of government would be…paternal, if a government were necessarily… superior in wisdom…and …loved a people as fathers generally love their children. But there is no reason to believe that a government will have either the paternal warmth of affection or the paternal superiority of intellect…any man in the streets may know as much and think as justly.”
Behind government’s efforts to bend its citizens into better ones lies a confusion between the voluntary arrangements of society and the involuntary ones imposed by the state. Civilization “is not [created] by…the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people…rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.”
Unfortunately, government as undertaker of everything cannot perform its essential job. That is defending liberty and property. But dictating to the unwilling violates liberty and giving to some beyond what is voluntary violates property. That is why, despite do-gooders’ self-congratulations, “Nothing is so galling to a people…as a paternal, or in other words, a meddling government.”
The statist presumptions Thomas Babington Macaulay exposed dominate public policy today without convincing logic or demonstrated success. Yet unlike those who now find any reason sufficient to force their will on others, her recognized government coercion as the problem, not the universal solution.