More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom

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No Necessary Trade-off Between Government and Freedom

Let’s start by seeing what is wrong with the assumption that there is an inevitable trade-off between government and our individual rights and liberties.  Former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey put this assumption succinctly: “The sheer mass of our federal government is simply inconsistent with a free society.”5  But it is a mistake to believe that the size or extent of government has anything to do with how oppressive it is. For example, you could have a country with a minimal public sector that was very repressive to its citizens. It would have low taxes, few social service programs, and hardly any regulations on business. But it could also be incredibly oppressive – allowing only one-party elections, banning free speech, muzzling the press, preventing freedom of assembly, jailing people arbitrarily, etc. On the other hand, we could have a society with a public sector much larger than we have now that has all the freedoms of a modern democracy. Belgium, for example, has a public sector almost twice the size of the United States as a proportion of GDP, and has much more extensive health care, unemployment, and pension programs. Yet Belgian citizens enjoy essentially the same rights and liberties as Americans. We see very few Belgian political refugees applying for asylum in the U.S. because they are oppressed in their homeland.

So the size and extent of government activity, by itself, tells us nothing about how free or oppressive a society is. The necessary trade-off between government size and citizen’s freedom simply does not exist. And the reason it does not exist is because many of the most common activities of the modern state – building roads and highways, putting out fires, fighting disease, treating our sewage, providing college loans, funding basic scientific research, providing medical care for the elderly, supplying clean water, feeding the poor, providing parks and recreational facilities, subsidizing farmers, educating our children, forecasting the weather, sending out Social Security checks, and so on – are not inherently coercive or oppressive at all. So it is simply mistaken to automatically equate more government with less freedom.

The minimal-government crowd uses this “more government = less freedom” formula to make all sorts of alarmist claims. For example, some suggest that every increase in government power is a step down the road to totalitarianism and repression. This is a favorite argument of many conservatives and they use it to oppose even small and seemingly reasonable increases in government programs or regulations. For example, they argue that if we allow the government to insist on background checks to buy guns, this will lead to mandatory gun registration, which will eventually lead to confiscation of guns, and this will put the government in a position to repress a disarmed and helpless citizenry. Or they suggest that legalizing assisted-suicide for terminally ill patients will only set the stage for government euthanasia programs aimed at the handicapped and others. Or they fear that mandating non-smoking areas is merely a step toward outlawing cigarettes altogether. Or they contend that if we allow environmental regulations to restrict how an owner deals with wetlands on their property, we are going down a road in which property rights will eventually be meaningless because the state will control all property. This seems to be the view of the conservative judge Janice Rogers – one of George W. Bush’s appointees to the federal judiciary. In one of her opinions, she railed against local restrictions on the rights of real estate developers in California and concluded that “Private property, already an endangered species in California, is now entirely extinct in San Francisco."6

In his book, Defending Government, Max Nieman has labeled this argument the “Big Brother Road to Dictatorship.” It suggests that the expansion of government powers in the U.S. during the last 75 years has been inevitably leading us down the path toward totalitarianism. But as he has noted, there is really no valid evidence for this theory. If we look at how modern dictatorships have come about, they have not been the product of gradually increasing social programs and regulations over property and business. As Neiman explains:

It is common among conservative critics of public sector activism to characterize government growth in the arena of social welfare, environment, consumer and worker protection, and income security as steps toward the loss of liberty and even totalitarianism. Many critics of the emergence of the modern social welfare state … have tried to convey the sense that the road to totalitarian hell is paved with the good intentions of the social democratic program. …There is no record, however, of any oppressive regime having taken power by advancing on the social welfare front. Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, and Chile’s Pinochet did not consolidate power by gradually increasing social welfare programs, taxes, and regulation of the environment or workplace. Rather, these assaults on personal freedom and democratic governance involved limitation on civil rights and political rights, the legitimization of oppression and discrimination against disfavored or unpopular groups, and the centralization and expansion of military and policy forces. Hitler did not become the supreme ruler of the Nazi state by first taking over the health department.7


 Government Coercion Can Be Good

So there is not an inherent trade-off between government and freedom. Much of what government does is not coercive at all, and expansion of government programs is not going to lead us down a slippery slope to totalitarian rule. But all of this is not to deny that some government activities do curtail our freedom. Conservatives are correct to say that many laws and regulations are inherently coercive – they prevent people and organizations from doing what they want to do. But anti-government conservatives seem to think this coercion is a bad thing. It is not.

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