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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More Liberty Means Less Government? Hasty Generalization

I dabble less and less in political philosophy. Thank goodness! cry Sibby and others who find my philosophy wanting.

But permit me this digression:

I notice on Mr. Woodring's site an ad for a book: More Liberty Means Less Government by Walter E. Williams. The title is exactly the sort of easy platitude I liked to substitute for pragmatic politics that addressed real problems in my younger Rush Limbaugh days. The title is also at best a hasty generalization, if not an outright contradiction.
  1. Liberty is the freedom we enjoy within the context of law and civil society. Liberty would not exist without government. There can certainly be too much government, but there can also be too little.
  2. "More liberty means less government" seems to assume the only players in the social contract are citizens yearning for liberty and government scheming to seize it from us (as if citizens and government were two separate entities). However, government is the agency that we create to protect and expand liberty. Take labor laws. The factory owners of the 19th century sought to take away their workers' liberty. Government (a.k.a. we the people) imposed rules to check the power of big businesses and ensure greater liberty for workers.
  3. Today's corporations have much more power (lawyers, non-compete clauses, billions of dollars, tricky sub-prime lending schemes) to take away our liberty than did the businesses of our Founding Fathers' time. Government has an even more important role now to protect our liberty by checking corporate power.
  4. Government also protects our liberty from simple misfortune. A friend of mine has had a single incident of MS. To fight a recurrence of the disease, this friend now relies on steroid shots that cost $2000 a month. To afford those shots, this friend has to stick with a less-than-satisfying job, largely because this friend would find it impossible to replace the job's health coverage with non-group coverage. More government in the form of universal health coverage would increase this friend's liberty to seek better employment and move to different cities.
"More liberty means less government" makes a nice soundbite for politicians who like to parrot Ronald Reagan for the inattentive voters. But philosophically and practically, it misses the point of why we create government in the first place.


  1. Perfection. Now just remind the right-wing that using consumer spending as the sole economic driver will lead to a sine wave style boom and bust economy.

  2. An excellent post! I think that we Americans harbor an innate distrust of government dating back to our break with England more than two centuries ago. Maybe we have gone too far with that.

  3. Thanks, guys! Cory, you're right on -- too much dependence on increasing consumer spending got us exactly this bust. Let's build some roads (and power lines, and wireless networks, and schools)!

    Stan, it is interesting that even right after our break with England, our Founding Fathers were able to recognize that the original plan, the Articles of Confederation, wasn't working, and found the political will to come together in Philadelphia and create a stronger central government. And it worked!


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