A progressive might say that society is like a flower garden, you need a strong central government to organize and plan its growth, much like a garden requires a competent gardener. A conservative would say that a lighter touch is preferable, a garden will prosper on its own but it needs to be trimmed and watered which is why there still needs to be considerable room for the government to run society. Someone who believes in liberty would say that society is made of people, not flowers and it isn’t right nor productive to impose a collective vision on free individuals.
They believe that governments are instituted among men to protect life, liberty, and property, not fulfill the desires and egos of the elite or the mob. A system that protects freedom not only constitutes the most moral system upheld by individual integrity and determination, it also establishes an optimal framework for maximizing collective wellbeing. That is because the most competent policy framework is one that recognizes the limits of government action and understands that decisions are best made by free individuals.
Public choice theory
James Buchanan is widely considered the architect of an incredibly influential school of thought known as public choice theory which forms one of the most compelling reasons for limiting the power of government.
Public choice theory is the simple realization that the emperor wears no clothes, the government is not a magical force that can fulfill our best wishes, and more. This is because the state does not act in any way different than those in the private sector. Government officials are human, they have incentives, biases, prejudices, and physical limitations.
Therefore, the government is and always has been capable of tremendous acts of violence and incompetence. Just because someone has been democratically elected or holds an official title does not preclude them from basic human nature and limitations.
To this effect, Milton Friedman once remarked that:
“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.”
Just because a policy carries an official mandate does not mean that it will be successful. If left unchecked, governments are capable of extreme acts of incompetence or worse, just like the rest of us. Because the government has no competition to keep it in check and wields coercive power, it must be restrained as much as possible. At best, it is a necessary evil that should be employed sparingly.
The knowledge problem
If you accept the wisdom of public choice theory and recognize that government agents are simply human beings with human abilities, then you must also accept the Knowledge Problem. The great economist Friedrich Hayek once wrote that:
“The “data” from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society “given” to a single mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given.”
That is to say that all the knowledge necessary to run society cannot be concentrated in one single entity. How would the government know what every single person needs every moment of the day? What types of products, at what price, in what quantities, need to be shipped to every grocery store, in every community? What substances should people be allowed to put in their bodies while considering their need to balance recreation with productivity?
The question is rhetorical because no single entity is capable of being all-knowing. These knowledge problems are resolved to the greatest extent in a free society, where people decide for themselves how they wish to run their lives. A productive emergent order arises out of countless individual actions taken in self-interest. This spontaneous order is one that can maximize collective wellbeing far better than the plan of any central planner.
When claiming that a political system “works,” it is important to be precise about what that entails. A system that maximizes liberty works because it is able to provide the most prosperity and individual satisfaction to the greatest number of people. It is able to execute policy goals with the most realistic expectations and not provide a basket of broken promises.
Finally, it is the most moral system because it allows for the coexistence of the most diverse amount of individuals and interests. In a system that prioritizes liberty, individuals are able to determine for themselves how they wish to live, provided they don’t harm others, rather than kneeling to the will of the despot or the mob. Decisions must stand the test of individual preference and competition with alternatives rather than simply being ordained by the state.
Advocating for liberty is both idealistic and realistic. It is idealistic in its belief in the power of free individuals and what they are capable of. It is realistic because it understands the limitations of a government run by humans and the policies they create. What makes a system of freedom better than any other is because it is the only one that recognizes that those it governs are humans.
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This article was originally published on the Students For Liberty website.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.