Government: Great Servant, Horrible Master

The murder, suffering, and destruction wrought by government through the ages—governments like those of Caligula, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, 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—bad enough to make us ashamed of our very species itself. 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 master, instead of our servant.

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

To put it bluntly, if you or I kill someone, that is murder, which is illegal, but if government kills someone, that 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 it, that’s taxation. If I break into your house, I do not pass “Go,” and I do not collect $200. I go straight to jail. If government breaks into my house, they get the police to do it.

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

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.

Therefore, 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 in favor of ever bigger government.

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 go about our daily business of getting food, clothing, shelter, safety, and—if we play our cards right—happiness.

If you take a look at what’s around you, virtually nothing was made by you. Others have made it for you, just as you make things for them, in a system of cooperation involving money, banks, sales, purchases, property, etc. This system gives us virtually everything we have.

History and observation teach that democratic government linked to economic freedom has excelled in aiding us to produce the material abundance we now enjoy. Our form of 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 that people outside the developed democracies do not enjoy the health, wealth, and happiness we have is that their governments suffer from the universally endemic disease of government: serving itself to achieve its own goals.

It is no accident that the atrocities perpetuated by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pott, and many others were inflicted on their own citizens. These leftist governments gained and sustained power by pretending the vice of envy is really a virtue, thereby instigating 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 foreign wars, both hot and cold, and bizarre economic experiments.

By yet another cruel irony of fate, the poor have been the main victims. Stalin, for instance, reorganized millions of previously successful farmers in communes and then starved them to death when they were bold enough to protest that farming itself was going to hell in a breadbasket. Those of his 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 and grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

Let there be no doubt: History teaches that there are two keys to the levels of health, wealth, and happiness that we human beings 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. Over the course of American history, there has been a relentless, creeping, and sneaky growth of centralized power. Government’s share of U.S. economic output has steadily increased from about 3 percent in 1790 to more than 40 percent today. Who can doubt that government had less power in 1790 than it does now?

Those who lean left preach that this is a good reason for us to envy and revile the rich—indeed, anyone in the arbitrarily designated 1 percent 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.

If you are tempted by a politician’s promise to play Robin Hood for you, then you are being fooled, my friend. Politicians may pretend to be Robin Hood, but under their disguise of forest green, you will always find the evil sheriff of Nottingham and his taxmen. 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 such as Warren Buffet and Stewart Butterfield (my former student and midwife of Flickr and Slack), for they are beacons of hope.

Those decent people among us who legally acquire a few million or billions of dollars to pose against the many trillions of dollars taken from us by government are like Spartacus, the Roman slave who outsmarted the Roman government’s many machines of taxation and suppression: They show us that we, too, can get ahead and be free.

PHOTO: Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. Photo by Larry Koester. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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.