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Book Review — Against Leviathan

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Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society
by Robert Higgs (Independent Institute, 2004); 405 pages; $18.95.

The era of big government is over, famously proclaimed President Bill Clinton. Alas, a decade later Leviathan is still with us, an ever-present threat to our liberties. In his new book, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society, Robert Higgs collects earlier essays presenting the case against expansive government meddling in a free society.

Higgs is the author of Crisis and Leviathan, which explored how crises, particularly wars, encouraged the growth of state power. That path-breaking work was primarily descriptive, offering a notable advance in understanding government growth. Against Leviathan is a more polemical work in which Higgs criticizes the outrages and excesses of the same phenomenon.

What should we call the vast hodgepodge of statutes, regulations, court rulings, government bureaus, police departments, law courts, military organizations, and assorted authoritative busybodies under whose weight we Americans are now suffering?

 

Like the famous political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, Higgs chose “Leviathan.” “Unlike Hobbes, however,” notes Higgs dryly, “I do not recommend that beast.”

Higgs boils the case against Leviathan down to fraud. He writes, “Government is not what it claims to be (competent, protective, and just), and it is what it claims not to be (bungling, menacing, and unjust).” This deceit is compounded by the fact that “the one thing it will not do is simply leave us alone.”

Higgs challenges the foundation of the welfare state — income redistribution. He cheerfully uses fact and argument to dissect the conventional wisdom that surrounds politics today.

Arguments over income distribution center around how much wealth the various quintiles of the population possess. But “these figures are virtually worthless,” Higgs argues.

Indeed, more equality isn’t necessarily better. After all, Higgs writes, greater equality would be achieved by raising the death rates of older Americans; lowering fertility rates so there are fewer babies; forcing housewives to work outside the home; moving people into new jobs every year, reducing their productivity; encouraging widespread theft; eliminating education and training; and vastly shortening the work week. The cost of achieving equality in any of these ways would be extraordinarily high.

Of course, politicians usually rely on tax-and-spend politics to make income more equal. However, Higgs points to 19 “neglected consequences” of such a strategy. Higher taxes discourage productive activity and welfare transfers encourage beneficiaries to be dependent and discourage them from working. Political conflict increases, and charitable involvement diminishes. Liberty obviously shrinks.

Indeed, the entire debate over income equality is misguided, he contends. Individual persons, rather than societies, are moral agents, and their behavior is good or bad. Thus,

any changes in the aggregate statistical profile brought about by such complex and variable individual behavior are wholly uninformative for purposes of a moral assessment.

 

It’s a damning indictment. Higgs goes on to argue,

Ironically, in the full-fledged transfer society, where governments busy themselves redistributing income by means of hundreds of distinct programs, hardly anyone is better off as a result.

 

Only those doing the transferring, that is, those in government, tend to be unambiguous beneficiaries.


Leviathan’s perverse consequences

The harm of government activism is evident even when Washington most passionately proclaims its commitment to the public weal. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, is supposed to ensure that medicines and medical devices are safe and effective. But by raising development costs and delaying product approval, the FDA actually kills by the thousands, what Higgs calls “a silent epidemic of unnecessary suffering and avoidable deaths.” In contrast, there are private strategies for maintaining quality assurance without turning fundamental personal decisions over to “those who fancy themselves better equipped than we are to decide how we should manage our own lives.”

Higgs unsurprisingly aims his sharpest arrows at the bureaucrats and politicians determined to use government to control the rest of us. He acknowledges the political skills of Franklin D. Roosevelt but argues persuasively that the latter’s interventionist policies prolonged the Depression. Economic recovery wasn’t really the purpose of Roosevelt’s program, however. Higgs writes, “Notwithstanding its economic illogic and incoherence, the New Deal served as a highly successful vote-buying scheme.”

Particularly fine is Higgs’s demolition of the claim that World War II delivered the economy from the doldrums. Building products and hiring people in order to visit death and destruction on others is no economic stimulant. Although “history texts tell the tale in dreary monotony,” he writes, the claim of war prosperity “rests on evidence that will not bear scrutiny.”

The government doesn’t even fulfill its core missions. He writes,

When I was younger and even more ignorant than I am today, I believed that government … performed an essential function — namely, the protection of individuals from the aggressions of others.

 

Yet governments have killed some 170 million of their own people in the 20th century, according to social scientist R.J. Rummel.

Alas, the U.S. government has proved to be a poor guardian of its citizens against the depredations of others. Asks Higgs,

Why do so many of us continue to fall victim to murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, and other crimes too numerous to catalog? Where’s the vaunted government protection?

 

Moreover, the ever-provocative Higgs writes,

When government agents arrest and prosecute people for actions that those persons have every just right to undertake — from smoking pot to gambling to trafficking in sexual services to selling unlicensed services or ‘unapproved’ medicines — those government functionaries act not as protectors of the public but as agents of naked tyranny.

 

Even those who might feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of allowing people to indulge their immoral preferences should be horrified at the consequences described by Higgs. So many prosecutions, so many people jailed, so much money wasted, so many lives disrupted. At the very least, government should devote its considerable resources to protecting us from crimes committed by others before it tries to stop us from hurting ourselves.

There’s much more in Against Leviathan. Higgs tackles conscription, the often nefarious role of business in promoting regulation, and the inherent bias of the political system towards statism. He’s even willing to take on one of America’s great historical sacred cows, the Civil War.

Higgs looks at the stimulating work of historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. Hummel made the case that while the Civil War was not necessary to end slavery — everywhere else but Haiti the horrid practice was eliminated without bloodshed — it helped spark the steady growth in government that confronts us today.

Unfortunately, after delivering so much bad news about how government operates, Higgs offers little positive hope for change: “Big government remains firmly in place. Indeed, in a variety of dimensions, government continues to grow as fast as or faster than it did previously.” And in the aftermath of September 11, “a new surge of government growth has begun in the United States.”

Much the same lesson can be drawn abroad. The United States at least still retains a formal commitment to individual liberty. Despairs Higgs, “If the Americans cannot block the march of Leviathan, others are even less likely to do so.”

Yet it is important to remember that people and ideas matter. Together they dismantled medieval feudalism, sparked the American Revolution, dismantled slavery, and tore down the Berlin Wall. They also could face down Leviathan.

In this struggle we should be grateful for Robert Higgs’s trenchant analysis and writing. He has shown us what we are losing when Leviathan consumes our liberty. That knowledge is the key to winning back our freedom.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)