How Did We Get in This Mess
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Harry Browne / Why Government Doesn't Work

Chapter 6

How Did We Get in This Mess?

We've seen that all government activities require coercion - violence or the threat of it.

You can always locate the coercion if you look for it.

First, the activity probably costs money - which was taken by force from people, whether or not they wanted the program. Almost no one volunteers to pay taxes.

Second, people are coerced to participate in the program. Business people are forced to fill out piles of forms to show they have complied with the law. Companies must submit to endless inspections of their products and procedures. Home owners may have their property taken away - or rendered useless - by provisions of the law.

One way or another, many people will be forced to do what they don't want to do - or will be forbidden to do what they do want to do.

If you fail to comply, you may be forced to pay a fine or may even be sent to prison. This can happen even if you are a peaceful, productive citizen - someone who has committed no violence against anyone, has stolen from no one, and hasn't defrauded anyone.

After all the lesser penalties have been exhausted - the demands, the fines, the seizure of your house, the jail sentence - if you continue to resist, the government will use a gun. The gun is always there.

The gun is the essence of a law.

When someone asks for a government program, he is saying in effect, "Tell the police to use their guns to get me what I want."

See No Evil

The beneficiaries of a program (the people receiving subsidies, companies protected from competition, or people whose values are imposed upon the community) usually don't notice the coercion that's applied for their benefit. So it's easy for them to believe the government's efforts are wholly benevolent.

If the beneficiaries had to do the dirty work themselves - use a gun to steal the money or force people out of their homes or their jobs - they might have mixed emotions about the benefits they're receiving.

If they even just had to stand and watch as companies are shut down, businessmen lose their life savings, employees lose their jobs, homeowners are evicted, and other people are hurt by the government's coercion, the beneficiaries might not be so eager to claim a "right" to their subsidies.

But they aren't required to see the dark side of the program at all. That is what has made government such a success in the coercion business:

Through government, people can take from others without having to face the people being hurt.

And this assures that government will grow and grow and grow:

  • Because the beneficiaries are never told who has been hurt and how, there is no limit to how much they'll ask from the government.
  • Because so many of those not yet benefiting from a government program are oblivious to the damage government does, there is no limit to the number of people who will clamor to join those getting the benefits.
  • Because the politicians aren't legally liable for the human lives they wreck, there is no limit to the coercion they will vote for.
  • And because the people hurt by government aren't masochists, they will try to avoid the coercion - assuring that the government will have to keep strengthening the program to make it work.

This means government programs inevitably grow - no matter what their initial "limits." It means that those being coerced will participate grudgingly - producing much less revenue, information, and cooperation than was assumed when the program was enacted. It means the programs won't work as promised.

Programs based on coercion don't work.

This is why government programs don't work.

And this is why "fixing them" doesn't work.

The program will work only if you take the coercion out of it:

  • So that the beneficiaries must pay full value for what they receive;
  • So that everyone involved has an incentive to produce what's wanted;
  • So that no one can distribute money that doesn't belong to him.

But if you take the coercion out of a program, you no longer need the government to run it.

And that's the point: government programs don't work. There has to be a better way.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

As we can see, there is no such thing as a little coercion - any more than a woman can be a little bit pregnant.

Coercive programs almost always fail - and on the way to failure they get bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive.

So maybe now we can see why and when the government became the unworkable monster it is today.

The seeds of today's runaway government were planted when it was decided that government should help those who can't help themselves.

From that modest, compassionate beginning to today's out-of-control mega-state, there's a straight, unbroken line.

Once the door was open, once it was settled that the government should help some people at the expense of others, there was no stopping it. If the coercion of government can endow one person with property he hasn't earned, then everyone will want to use government to get something he wants. So it's not surprising that, over the past two centuries, more and more people have concluded that they deserve government's help.

"Helping those who can't help themselves" is a paraphrase of Karl Marx's famous dictum: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

And once that principle is adopted, more and more people will want to be part of the needy, rather than part of the able - because nearly everyone prefers to be on the "to" side of transfers, rather than the "from" side.

You can't help a few people without everyone else wanting to be helped as well.

You can't limit government's coercion to just those transfers you believe are fair, because you can't give government the power to force good on the country without also giving it the power to force enormous evil on the country - in fact, to do anything it wants. It becomes a tool for obtaining whatever anyone can't get on his own - an instrument for every frustrated ambition.

So it was inevitable not only that the government would grow and become more powerful, but that the growth would accelerate - perhaps imperceptibly at first, but then faster and faster. The potential beneficiaries (as well as Congress, the executive, and the bureaucrats) have an interest in pushing government to get bigger.

And since politicians aren't legally liable for the harm they do, there's no point at which they have a reason to stop expanding their own power and wealth by expanding the government. Thus it's no surprise that after stripping us bare, they continue on and mortgage our children's future to pay for further expansion.

Nor is it a surprise that people elected to change the system usually join it instead. After all, once elected, these people have the power of big government at their disposal - and power is a heady commodity. Few can resist the temptation to use it to "do good" - to receive the applause of reformers and the gratitude of those on the receiving end of government favors.

And it should be no surprise that every attempt to reform government simply makes it worse. "Reform" won't transform a gorilla into a lamb, and politicians and administrators who have spent their lives seeking power aren't suddenly going to decide not to use it.

It Was Inevitable

It's understandable that people believe government can protect us and educate our children, but that something has gone wrong and needs fixing.

But the system must go wrong eventually. A government that can tax us - confiscate our wealth - to feed the poor and punish foreign villains will soon tax us to feed political cronies and punish political enemies.

If government has the power to keep criminals off the streets, it has the power to keep you off them, too.

And it has the power to subsidize companies that put campaign contributions in the right pockets. It has the power to breed a mass of welfare clients who will be completely dependent on government, and who will vote to make it grow.

Any system that lets one person force his will on another - by confiscating resources or by compelling obedience - will inevitably break down, because everyone will want to use the coercion for his own ends. And so, sooner or later, government becomes a free-for-all to be won by those best able to deceive and manipulate.

To maintain their tenure and power, politicians have to make deals with more and more interest groups until, eventually, most of the government's resources are consumed just buying votes and satisfying political backers. This leaves almost nothing for true crime control, education, or other functions you may think are government's proper business.

So it's perfectly natural to reach the point we have now, where government fails utterly in its traditional functions while meddling in things once considered no business of government - taking over the health care system, trying to police the planet, laying down millions of rules for companies to follow, subsidizing everything from art to zoology.

  • A government that tries to help those who can't help themselves will turn into a government that helps those with the most political power.
  • A government we try to use as our servant inevitably will become our master.
  • And a government formed to do for the people what they can't do so well for themselves will instead do to the people what they don't want done.

Fortunately, all is not lost. There is reason to hope, because we have a much stronger message than the politicians do - as we'll see further on in this book.

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"Everything Browne writes merits the closest attention, and in this, his self-proclaimed last book on investing, he here presents a sort of summa of the common-sense wisdom he has garnered from thirty years of watching the rise and fall of markets - and he does so with his customary directness, clarity, and humility. He remains in a class by himself, and many of us will always be in his debt for the uncommon ideas he has expressed so ably. And above all for his own example - for the standard he has set."

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