Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why we need a government

Every now and then, it's important to go back and focus on the little nuances in my views that critics exploit and twist beyond recognition.

In this case, it's the important need for a government to protect and manage society.

We've all witnessed the condescending snickering from lefties who present Somalia as a model for what libertarian and the Tea Party politcies would bring. They are blurring the line between classic liberalism and anarachy, which is no different from labeling someone a Stalinist because they support food stamps.

But critics do have a point that we spend all of our time talking about the problems with government, but are often silent on the good it can do. It's the same way flood victims speak little of drought and dehydration. We're fighting an uphill battle and we don't think we can budge the pendulum, let alone cause a backswing.

There are important roles for government, such as thwarting violent savages and thieves, and our society would crumble without a legal and judicial system. We also need to fund basic education and infrastructure like roads to keep the country operating.

I did a story a few years ago about a private road with a dozen houses. The homeowners wanted it to become a public road so it would be plowed by the public works department in the winter. The town required it to be leveled and graded just to apply for consideration. This would cost about $30,000 and there was no guarantee the town would accept it.

The residents could not get everyone to pay. Some people wanted to be free riders, and the road was never fixed. They would all have been better off if the government could step in and force everyone to pay.

Economist Robert Frank spoke about the economics of hockey helmets. Players can see more without helmets, and if given the choice, will not wear one. However, that only gives them an advantage if the other players wear helmets. Without rules, no one will wear helmets and the chances of injuries increase, yet no one will get an advantage. Rules are needed to enforce hockey helmets.

The same is true for the business world. If you can save money by dumping unwanted toxins in the river, the companies that do will gain an advantage. That's why we need a government to restrict pollution and other negative externalities.

Even Ludwig von Mises had good things to say about governments:

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved. It is a means to cope with an inherent imperfection of many, perhaps of the majority of all people. If all men were able to realize that the alternative to peaceful social cooperation is the renunciation of all that distinguishes Homo sapiens from the beasts of prey, and if all had the moral strength always to act accordingly, there would not be any need for the establishment of a social apparatus of coercion and oppression.
Just because I don't want the government telling people what increments of soda they are allowed to purchase doesn't mean I don't want the government to stop people from selling turpentine labeled as soda. The government can, and often does, screw things up, but I would never seek to abolish it.


  1. Just want to make a semantic point here. Somalia would be an example of a failed state, not an anarchy. Political anarchism advocates the abolishment of all hierarchies, including capitalism and the state in favor of an extremely decentralized, voluntary self-government formed under free association. 'Government' is used interchangeably with 'statism', but the two are not the same. Statism implies a monopoly on the usage of force, which libertarian socialists (including anarchists) reject.

  2. Just to be sure, are you arguing against private roads at all?

  3. No, I think private highways are a great idea, for example. I was just saying the purpose of the state is to force people to do things, and there are times when that is needed.