Limited Government - A Moral Issue?
by Chet W. Anderson
From Number 57 - August 1992
"The 1980s," according to economist Milton Friedman, witnessed "a
sea change in the direction of public thinking about government's ability to
solve economic and social problems." In fact, the idea of getting government
off our backs became a live issue, worldwide. Although there was little change
in the size or power of government, "(T)he prospect is bright," Friedman
observed, "but only if we continue trying to spread our ideas and persuading
ourselves, more importantly than anyone else, to be consistent with the beliefs
This matter of beliefs and consistency leads us directly to the vital question:
Are we simply uneasy about big government in a general way, or do we see it clearly
as a real threat to individual freedom?
Most freedom devotees share a concern about big government, but there is very
little agreement about the proper role of government in society. Why
is this so? Are there no acceptable criteria for resolving this important issue
of what government should do and should not do? And, without visualizing an ideal
role for government, can we ever hope to approach "limited government"?
Some people seem to want this issue resolved by majority vote. But doesn't this
mean that might makes right - that we should just take a vote to see
which gang is biggest and then let them enforce their ideas on the rest of us?
This surely is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind nor, I am sure, is it
what those who advocate limited government really want.
It may be helpful to rephrase the question by bringing into the center of this
analysis our own personal commitment and integrity. The question then becomes:
Which functions of government are so unquestionably proper that I, personally,
would be willing to support and enforce them? Mind you, not hire and pay someone
to collect tax money, for example, but personally force those who oppose
the law to pay their tax.
Isn't it the delegating of this unpleasant duty that has clouded the issue of
how much government we really believe in? I may be sincere in my belief that
food stamps, for example, are a necessary government "safety net."
But my religious friend who believes that it is God's design that individuals
should be responsible - voluntarily - to help the unfortunate, and whose
experience tells him that those who are thus helped will do more for themselves,
tells me that he will not support involuntary "charity." Now, back
to the question: will I force him to pay this tax? Furthermore, can I escape
this question by closing my mind and letting my delegate perform this ugly task?
This whole matter of enforcement - with all its implications of violence - needs
to be examined for its full meaning. The force that will ultimately be legally
applied to collect the tax is rarely seen. But it is there! It resides
in the government and is potentially brutal. Because if a man of principle absolutely
refuses to pay - and then resists arrest by defending himself and his property
when the agents of government come to take him from his home (which they will)
- he will be dealt with violently, probably shot! His crime will be
recorded as resisting arrest, but he will have actually lost his life because
he stood by his moral principles and refused to compromise.
The violent result of holding fast to principle causes us to understand the true
nature of government and why we should fear it. As George Washington warned,
"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence - it is force. Like fire
it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it
be left to irresponsible action."
Purely and simply then, government is organized force, it has a monopoly
on legal coercion; and it can do more than voluntary groups only because it can
force its will on those who disagree.
Those of us who are serious about sorting out our own ideas about government
- and being consistent in our beliefs - find ourselves facing a chain of personal
Am I concerned about big government and the loss of individual liberty?
Yes? or No?
If "Yes," how do I decide whether or not I approve of specific
governmental functions and actions? Do I judge them by the same criteria for
right and wrong as I do individual actions? Yes? or No?
If "No," I must face that fact that either (1) I have no standard
for judging the proper functions of government, or (2) I have another standard
which I can define. Note that (1) in effect endorses majority rule - that is,
that might makes right!
If, however, my answer to b. is "Yes," and assuming I understand
that government relies on force to function, can I, logically or morally, approve
of governmental functions that I would be unwilling to enforce personally by
using force if necessary? Yes? or No?
This very personal self-assessment may fortify our understanding of the true
nature of government. But equally important, it should also help us to recognize
that governmental acts which we support are really an extension of our own views
Where does all of this bring us in our concerns about government today? What
chance do we have of bringing about an evolution - or revolution - in the way
people think about the proper role of government in society?
Keep in mind that only in the last few years have we even come close to a consensus
that government handles economic and social problems very poorly. And recent
revelations of the pitiful conditions in the over-governed nations of Eastern
Europe confirm the validity of this consensus - the inevitable result of a growing
dependence on government is not only less freedom, but moral and economic deterioration
This awareness, then, is itself a big step forward. But emphasis on efficiency
does not get at the source of the problem - which is individual, moral responsibility
for those actions of government which we support.
As long as politicians can bombard us with their platitudes about "doing
good" - and never be challenged on the immoral means they use -
the size and power of government will never be controlled. For there can be no
decline in the calls upon government to "do something" about such things
as poverty, the homeless, the aged, and the sick until the force and violence
that must support such governmental actions are recognized - and morally condemned.
Editor's Note: This article is of interest to Voluntaryists for several reasons.
Its author, Chet Anderson, was instrumental in assisting Bob LeFevre raise money
in Milwaukee, Wisc. in 1957, to help fund the second year of the original Freedom
School in Colorado (see p. 183 - 184 of my biography, ROBERT LeFEVRE). This article
is excerpted from a longer essay, which first appeared in a shortened version
in the February 1992, FREEDOM DAILY, published by Jacob Hornberger's Future of
Freedom Foundation, Box 9752, Denver, Colo. 80209. Since the original essay had
a somewhat weaker conclusion, I wrote its author, and asked him whether he believed
that coercive government has any proper functions at all (and if so, what were
they, and how did he justify them)? His response was as follows:
"The answer to your question, which may be only implicit in my essay
is, "No." I see no possible function of government that I would support
by killing someone who refused to support it. Your question surprised me, but
as I re-read my piece I believe I see why you ask. Although I did not state flatly
that no government could be morally justified, the series of questions I asked
lead to that answer. Now, let me back up and explain why I did this.
"Ben Rogge once told me that he had never known anyone who approached
Baldy Harper in teaching ideas about liberty with such a lasting impact. While
both were teaching at Wabash College, Ben was amazed at Baldy's effect on students,
- how they continued to seek his counsel. I discovered during the 20+ years I
knew him that his persuasiveness came from his unique ability to ask thoughtful
questions. I was changed from a flaming liberal in the '40's to a sort of philosophical
anarchist by facing up to questions asked by Baldy, Leonard Read and later, Bob
LeFevre. It was Baldy who I first talked to about my series of questions and
he encouraged me to pursue this approach.
"I believe, as he did, that a serious student of liberty must answer
questions like these within himself. It is normally more effective and permanent
learning if he discovers by this process that he can't support morally even a
limited government than if a lecturer tells him all government is immoral. I
think that "discover" is the key here and, as I think back to the times
I have failed to persuade someone to examine the nature of government I find
that I usually did not ask the most thoughtful and timely questions."