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Book Review: Why Government Doesn’t Work

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Why Government Doesn’t Work
by Harry Browne (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995) 245 pages; $19.95.

Government is big, intrusive, and out of control. It is hard to find practically anyone who disagrees with this general perception of the political situation in America today. A Democratic president even says the era of big government is over, and leading Republicans insist that it’s time for a new American revolution to put government back on a shorter leash. Yet, nothing changes. Government keeps growing, regulations continue to expand, and individual liberties continue to be destroyed.

Why? There are several reasons for this. First, many people, while disliking some things that the government does, still desire the state to interfere in private and market affairs in other situations in which they do not like the choices their fellow Americans make or the outcomes that result from those choices. Second, there are many people who do not like the tax burdens they must bear for programs that others lobby government to establish, but they want the state to subsidize various activities of their own for which that they would prefer not to have to pay the full cost.

Third, some people do not like it when the government prohibits or restricts various market opportunities they would like to take advantage of, but they have no objection to using the state to protect their own producer corner of the market from competitors who might otherwise capture a portion of their own market share and profits. And still others, while they might not like various interventions in the marketplace and in social life, just cannot imagine how certain desired outcomes and situations could be assured if not for the government’s provision of the desired result.

Americans, therefore, seem to suffer from a split personality: hating and mistrusting government, yet also wanting government to guarantee personal, social, and market outcomes that they are fearful a free society might not or would not provide them with. It is an ideological and psychological split personality that, in fact, dominates the people of the entire Western world.

This ideological and psychological dichotomy is reflected in the vast majority of writings on social and economic policy issues. While the number of books advocating “market solutions” to “social problems” have increased dramatically in the last several years, there are still few works that present to the general public fairly consistent, uncompromising cases for a strictly limited government, with all matters other than basic protection of life, liberty, and property left to the voluntary choices and interactions of free men in a free society.

This is exactly what Harry Browne does in his new book, Why Government Doesn’t Work. Mr. Browne is well known as a successful investment analyst who uses the sound principles of free-market economics to explain the consequences of government interventions and to recommend strategies for personal financial security and improvement. He is also well known for his 1973 book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, in which he demonstrated ways to live freely as best one can in a world of statism and busybody do-gooders.

Mr. Browne, in the last few years, has concluded that statism and collectivism have become sufficiently bankrupt that it’s worth a try to make an unfree world freer. He has decided to run for the presidency of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. And one of the last chapters in the book explains why he thinks the two main American political parties cannot be counted upon to win freedom for an unfree America. But separate from the fact that the book is clearly meant to serve as his personal manifesto as a presidential candidate, the volume is a clear, persuasive, and wide-ranging exposition of why government is a threat to human liberty and has failed in all of the various programs it has imposed on American society in the name of the social good.

The first half of the book is a lucid overview of how and why government has grown so much in the United States during the last six decades since the New Deal. In essence, he argues that people have suffered from a growing tendency to fall victim to the fallacy that government has the knowledge and ability to solve their problems for them; this has been reinforced by the “dictator syndrome” in which too many people want government to remake the world in their own desired image, even when this involves others in the society being forced to conform to those preferred patterns. At the same time, politicians and those who control the levers of state power have seduced several generations of Americans into accepting greater government control by enticing them with promises of “entitlements” and illusionary securities from the inevitable uncertainties of ordinary life.

The second half of Mr. Browne’s work details why government has failed in the areas of health care, education, welfare, crime, national defense, and Social Security. Reasonably priced health care has been threatened, he argues, precisely because the state has already pervaded so much of the medical profession with licensing requirements, regulations, subsidized care, and research restrictions on both treatments and pharmaceuticals. The answer, Mr. Browne argues, is to reverse this trend and to free the medical profession from these controls and interferences.

The same applies in the areas of education and welfare. The federal government’s growing funding and controlling of education and welfare have undermined people’s abilities to control their own family’s needs and material chances for improvement. The solution, he explains with amazing clarity, is returning both education and charity to the private sector, free from the manipulating and stifling hand of the state. Social Security, Mr. Browne argues, is a Ponzi game in which the government has created a “pay-as-you-go” system in which an intergenerational war has been created between those who have been promised financial security from the state and a younger, working segment of the population who, with an aging population, will face an increasing tax burden to meet the benefits the government has promised. He proposes that the vast holdings of government land and property be sold off over a six-year period and the proceeds be used to finance private annuities for those in or near retirement age under Social Security and to retire the accumulated federal debt.

Mr. Browne argues that America should not search around the world for enemies to fight at the expense of taxpayers’ wealth and young Americans’ lives. We are protected by two large oceans from practically any threat of invasion. And a Strategic Defense Initiative-type system could provide us with security from nuclear attack. America should follow the advice of the Founding Fathers and have economic intercourse with all, but political and military alliances with none.

On these and several other important topics of current political interest, Harry Browne eloquently demonstrates that a system of individual freedom not only guards us from governmental tyranny, but also supplies us with the best chances for the good, happy, and prosperous lives that each of us fundamentally wants for ourselves and our families. This makes Why Government Doesn’t Work an excellent book to hand to those who need some help in sorting out the important political issues of the days.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).