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Nov. 14, 2011
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Our system of government erases personal responsibility and replaces it with personal irresponsibility. As government reaches its limits, caused by its inefficiencies, unhappiness and misery increase. The pendulum at some point will swing back.
A major shift in the way we do many things awaits us: the return of personal responsibility. This shift will, when it happens, qualify as a new mega-trend. When enough people become dissatisfied with their lives and understand the role of government in causing their dissatisfaction, this shift will gain momentum.
Government in its current form, forced upon us rather than being by subscription or voluntarily chosen, exemplifies where we now stand. Its failures foreshadow the opposite direction in which we will be headed.
Government operates and gains general acceptance under the theory that it is an efficient way to solve the problems of ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a problem they face, like their health care or their education or their defense, over to others in government that they think of as professionals or specialized experts or leaders or politicians. These experts, vested with power, then make the decisions for the ordinary people. Given large powers, the experts dictate large portions of the lives of ordinary people.
Under this theory, people have more time to specialize in their own work and create wealth for themselves and their families. They donít have personally to handle the education of their children or the investment of their money or where a factory is built or the kind of light bulb they buy. They stop making major retirement choices. They give up many medical choices. They go to war when they are told to, or else they pay for it when they are told to. They give up their freedom, and simultaneously they attenuate their personal responsibilities.
The giving up of freedom is done in the name of efficiency. People do not so much trade their freedom for security, as is commonly supposed. They trade it for efficiency. They accept government so that they can live better and more productive lives.
When this exchange works out to their detriment, it shows the fault in the theory. There are good reasons why giving up freedom and the accompanying personal responsibility fail, indeed, always fail and must fail. There are major unresolvable problems in making government by force work for the people.
Of course, there are other theories of government than this one. One of them is that ordinary people are weak, stupid, uneducated, malleable and inferior, and that there are extraordinary people who rise above them into an elite, and these elite people deserve to rule and run the State and bring light into the lives of the inferior people. This theory can be elaborated into the fascist notion that ordinary people are nothing without the State and those who man it. Under this theory, ordinary people are naturally irresponsible, so that there is little or no question of personal responsibility.
In writing of personal responsibility, I therefore deny validity to this fascist theory. My view of the human being is that no matter what faults we have, each and every one of us is in possession of an unique personality that can be made, like a flower, to bloom under proper conditions. A great tragedy of human life is that so many flowers are continually crushed, even by their owners, never to bloom or bloom fully.
In all of the many areas in which government by force operates, private choices become public or collective choices. What government is and does cannot fully be explained or understood as this kind of rational process of substituting public for private choices. We know that the State generally comes into existence violently, subsists violently, and extends its power in many devious ways. Nevertheless, its reach and activities are influenced by the people whom it governs. They abide by it and its Constitution. They concede power to it. They accept it in some measure. Many support it. Many participate in its elections. Very, very few anarchist voices are heard in most lands. To the extent that government finds support and participation of those whom it rules, this way of thinking about government as the agent of ordinary people has some explanatory power, even if it is not what comes out of the process and even if it is not the whole truth about government. It is in the context of this theory that there arises the contrast between personal responsibility and irresponsibility in the presence of government.
In this way of living, in which people turn problems over to government, people do not directly face their problems and responsibilities. They face them indirectly, if at all, by turning them over to others. This is a principal-agent mode of living. People as principals allow agents to carry out many tasks for them, even to detailed control over personal areas of living.
These agents or politicians or leaders or government administrators are what I am calling "experts". It is not that they are actually experts, or that their expertise is real. Their decisions end up being very inexpert. But despite almost continual bad decisions by government, the idea that government knows and does best can still maintain itself as the myth. It can do this without government actually conferring the benefits it is thought to be providing under this myth. That is because there is so little questioning of the system itself. Instead most people think that the system either needs tweaking or new faces to run it better.
Yet when people accept the myth and accept government, there is one sure negative effect: there is a seismic shift in responsibility from the person to the government.
The command and control (governmental) system of life has been championed by its supporters as progressive and modern (and also by those who considered experts as elite and the masses as inferior). This system, however, has deteriorated in actual practice, and it never really worked at any time anyway. It was only mistakenly thought to work when government was relatively small and did not as seriously mess up peopleís lives and when free markets were able to advance the prosperity of ordinary people.
Today, despite the failings of government the principal-agent rationale or myth lives on and on. It lives on in the notion that government is somehow a good thing or can be made to be a good thing. This idea remains entrenched. It is taught to the people. The idea of good government still prevails in most discourse about public matters. The continued presence of government and its large role in our lives is virtually always assumed in countless communications in the media, in conversations, and over the internet. It is assumed that this is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, even as the distance between these assumptions and the reality has immensely widened. Nearly all recommendations take government for granted and argue about marginal changes. Almost none question government itself. Hence, there is almost universal denial of personal responsibility (and the concomitant freedom) and universal acceptance of the personal irresponsibility that comes with government officials making the decisions.
This system of turning decisions over to government only works for the people if people are homogeneous, so that they accept a public decision and let it stand for everyone. It only works if the experts are really experts. It only works if the experts, through incentive systems, are made to work for their principals and not for themselves. The experts and politicians are supposed to be public-spirited, wise, and mature. It only works if the people have the know-how to choose responsible and wise leaders. It only works if the people are able to monitor the behavior of their agents. It only works if they are able to connect bad results to the bad decisions of their experts. It only works if the people can change their experts at will or at low cost. It only works if the areas of government decision-making are strictly limited, delimited and controlled by the ordinary people.
None of these conditions hold true today, and they never ever held true. They were a dream, a theoretical dream. The principal-agent model of government is a fiction in the reality of the matter. The top-down system that has emerged into the light should make this clear. Government power rules the roost. Ordinary people have given up control over major portions of their lives to government officials. They have lost this control or freedom. Beyond their psychological impact, elections make little difference in our lives. The system is largely a system of personal irresponsibility in those areas of life in which the government has taken control.
The system of government working on behalf of the people breaks down or deteriorates when any of these conditions or others that I havenít mentioned fail. It breaks down when the experts canít get the information to make informed decisions. It breaks down when the passions and foibles of the experts or elected leaders rule their choices, rather than the interests of the people who are their principals. It breaks down when the experts withhold information from the people or lie to them. It breaks down when narrow interests among the people get the experts to do their bidding at the expense of the general public. It breaks down when ordinary people stop monitoring the government. It breaks down when the government changes the political rules and ensures the re-election of most officials. This list is not exhaustive. The bottom line is that government by force doesnít work.
Some people think that government protects the innocent weak from the rapacious strong, or that it once did. This is myth too. The government always has been a focal point for the rapacious, whether weak or strong, disorganized or organized. Governmentís existence encourages all people to take advantage of one another.
The immense national debt in the U.S. and many other countries stands as the symbol of how badly the principal-agent model of government by force has worked out in practice. The agents (experts and politicians) supposedly ran up these debts on behalf of their principals (us ordinary people), that is, for wise and publically-beneficial reasons, such as winning a space race and building up a military establishment and making wars and distributing food stamps and so on. But if the spending that is the equivalent of these debts had been productive, these debts would today be payable, not unpayable as they are. They would not loom large compared to our income because our incomes would have risen. Each person would not face a share of the public debt that is some huge number like $100,000 or $200,000 or $300,000. Incomes would not have stagnated for decades. The fact that the public debts are insurmountable here and elsewhere shows that governments are not only financially bankrupt but also bankrupt in concept.
Ordinary people took no personal responsibility for any of this spending and debt. Just the opposite. Once these and other decisions became collectivized and handled by distant experts, each of us paid little or no attention to it. They all became matters of personal irresponsibility. Generally, we paid little attention when the powers that be extracted the fruits of our labors from us in the form of taxes. We even registered few complaints when they drafted us into their military forces. When we were killed and maimed in wars, the public organs of expression treated this as if it were a badge of honor. We waved flags, had parades, celebrated the valor of veterans, and attached little ribbon decals to our automobiles.
Our form of government replaces personal responsibility (and freedom) with personal irresponsibility (and control). The TSA in its ugly, intrusive, and inefficient ways has taken over the responsibility of air travel security against terrorism. The traveler no longer need exercise any judgment in the choice of airlines. The airline company no longer need compete to distinguish itself as a desired safe way to travel, or as one that reduces waiting time. The FDA tells us what drugs may be sold and not sold and what may be used for what purposes and what may not. The government produces dietary guidelines, that is, it even tells us what to eat. The government tells us who is the enemy of the day and whom we must now bomb or kill. Any responsibility or freedom of action we might have in deciding whether or not we wish to contribute to the destruction of others is non-existent. As for helping others, the government tells us whom we must collectively support with money, medical care, emergency aid, and food stamps. This is not our responsibility.
It appears to me that the fact of governmentís financial bankruptcy is surfacing to the public consciousness. The deeper fact of government by force being conceptually bankrupt hasnít yet bubbled to the surface, but its movement has started.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York. He is the author of the free e-book Essays on American Empire: Liberty vs. Domination and the free e-book The U.S. Constitution and Money: Corruption and Decline.
Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com