In his 1651 classic, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes warned: “To obey the King who is God’s lieutenant, is the same as to obey God. We shall have no peace till we have absolute obedience.” Many contemporary statists share Hobbes’s assumption that near-total control is the only way to avoid near-certain destruction — that without a policeman, a bureaucrat, and a politician watching over their every move, citizens would beat their wives, starve their children, poison their customers, and blow up city hall. Supposedly, it is only the restraining hand of government that prevents the total dissolution of civilization, and the more power the restraining hand possesses, the safer civilization becomes.
How much subjugation is necessary to preserve civil peace? At what point do force and threat of force subvert order? French philosopher Pierre Bayle wrote, “It is not tolerance, it is intolerance that causes disorder.” Bayle wrote at a time when many monarchs felt obliged to violently suppress religious nonconformity, a practice that drenched Europe in blood during the 17th century. Bayle’s epigram is as true for social and economic behavior as it is for religious beliefs. Government-imposed social and economic edicts and orthodoxies are, in many cases, as disruptive today as government-imposed religious orthodoxies were several centuries ago. Many laws and government programs stem from politicians’ intolerance of people’s living as they choose.
Most government interventions are not a question of achieving or safeguarding order, but of forcibly changing people’s behavior for political profit. Before assessing government’s role in preserving order, we must first recognize the extent of government-caused chaos.
Rent control, which currently exists in New York City and more than a hundred other American cities, epitomizes how political solutions incite private conflicts. The rental market in New York City is marked by much lower vacancy rates, far more animosity and legal battles, and far more fraud (both by tenants and landlords) than exist in most other American cities.
A 1997 study by a pro-subsidy group, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, claimed that more people in New York were unable to afford their apartments than in any other state in the country. Because politicians forcibly imposed a system designed to sacrifice owners to renters, the entire housing market has gone into a tailspin, with the lowest rate of construction of new apartment housing of any American city. As professor and Manhattan Institute fellow Peter Salins observed, “The city has strangled its housing market in a web of regulation unmatched in any other large municipality.”
New York currently has a two-tier market: a favored minority with rents below the market price and a majority with rents significantly higher than they otherwise would have been, thanks to the politically created shortage. Rent control provides the largest benefits to those who need aid least: middle-class and upper-class long-term renters.
When it comes to economic policy, the phrase “mindless intervention” is often redundant. “Political order” sows chaos in American agriculture. G. Edward Schuh, the chairman of the agricultural economics department at the University of Minnesota, observed, “Ultimately it is the instability of government policy and government intervention that cause the instability in commodity markets.” Private citizens, dealing with each other, reach agreements that balance crop supply and demand at market-clearing prices. Politicians, on the other hand, perennially disrupt the markets of a handful of subsidized products to give windfalls to their favorites.
Federal dairy policy was notorious for decades for producing inflated prices and mountains of rotting surpluses. In 1997, secret tapes were made public in which President Nixon explained in 1971 how his administration made policy:
“We’ve given them [the dairy industry] the 85 percent of parity thing. We’re going all out, all out. [Treasury Secretary John Connally] knows them well, and he’s used to shaking them down, and maybe he can shake them for a little more.”
Federal controls are profoundly disruptive for crops like peanuts. Every few years, a drought hits the peanut-growing areas, and the supply restrictions, combined with draconian import quotas, guarantee that domestic peanut prices skyrocket far higher than they otherwise would.
Government power does not guarantee order, because political pressure often subverts efforts to protect the rights of innocent citizens. Public school systems are notorious for refusing to expel violent students, regardless of how many other students they injure. All 23 high-school principals in Montgomery County, Maryland, signed a petition complaining that the school system refused to eject violent students who had assaulted teachers, committed arson, or thrown other students through plate glass windows. The Washington Post reported that the system even refused to eject a group of students who assaulted one passive victim so badly that he suffered permanent brain damage. Principals recommended more than a thousand students for expulsion in 1996, but the school system authorized expelling only three students.
Private schools are almost universally recognized for providing far better order, as well as safety, for both students and teachers than do public schools. Students who severely or perennially misbehave in private schools are expelled even though most private schools depend heavily on tuition payments from students and parents and thus lack an incentive to be overpunitive. That illustrates how voluntary association can produce order more reliably than the police power of the state.
The more laws, the more uncertainty that permeates private lives, and the more difficult it becomes for citizens to order their own affairs. Between 1981 and 1993, more than 9,000 subsections of the federal tax code were amended. In June 1997, the congressionally appointed National Commission on Reform of the IRS reported that the tax code’s complexity placed a severe burden on citizens who sought to honestly fulfill their legal obligations. Congress responded a few weeks later with the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, which contained 36 retroactive changes; 114 changes effective August 5, 1997; 69 changes effective January 1, 1998; 5 changes effective thereafter; and 285 new sections and 824 Internal Revenue Code amendments.
IRS officials can take five, seven, or more years to write the regulations to implement a new tax law, and Congress routinely changes the law before new regulations are promulgated. Much of current tax law is provisional, either waiting to be revised according to the last tax bill passed or already targeted for change in the next tax bill. The changes to the tax code illustrate politicians’ tendency to manipulate private lives for their own political advantage, that is, to secure the latest campaign contributions.
By continually yanking back and forth the demarcation between legal and illegal behavior, Congress ensures that many citizens will be left in tax purgatory. (Humorist Dave Barry wrote that tax laws “are constantly changing as our elected representatives seek new ways to ensure that whatever tax advice we receive is incorrect.”)
Governments can safeguard order by maintaining a legal system that allows citizens a forum to peacefully resolve the inevitable disputes that arise in any society. But the more criminal penalties politicians create, the more government neglects its traditional role as umpire and referee for private disputes. Thanks to the explosion in drug prosecutions, it is far more difficult and expensive for average citizens or businessmen to get their civil cases heard in courts. As Yale professor Steven Duke and Albert Gross noted in America’s Longest War, “In many court systems, the right to trial by jury has all but disappeared, especially in civil cases. Indeed, since criminal cases have priority, many courts are unable to reach their civil dockets at all.”
For politicians, a “good order” maximizes government’s opportunities to penalize and mulct the citizenry. For citizens, a “good order” minimizes conflict between citizens and coercion by government. A good order is any system of sustaining human interaction that satisfies participants without violating other people’s rights. The danger of disorder lies in the violation of rights of citizens, not in the diminishing of the prestige of government officials.
“Government order” is sometimes little more than politicians rampaging through other people’s lives and searching for photo opportunities and votes. It is a choice between an order that allows each person, as far as possible, to go his own way and make his own decisions and contracts, and an order designed to keep people in their place — to hold some people down for other people’s benefit.
The greater the unnecessary submission, the greater the deadweight loss of any system of order and the loss of new discoveries, personal satisfaction, and other benefits. The more a system of order is based on political commands, the more people’s lives are forcibly limited by the wisdom or judgment of the people at the top. History is replete with civilizations that sank into the mire because of excessive obedience.
The further politicians extend their attempts to control personal behavior, the more likely that government will subvert true order; the proliferation of penalties creates its own chaos. People have been schooled to vastly exaggerate government’s role in generating order. Bertrand de Jouvenel observed:
“Men have found it hard to believe that the immense benefits conferred by the exercise of authority derived from small modifications introduced under its aegis into their own behaviors; they have not viewed the social benefits conferred as the fruit of their own adjustments, but supposed that these benefits rained down from on high thanks to the mediation of the rulers.”
Most of the ordering that occurs in everyday life is not the result of political edicts; instead, it is the result of traditional, evolved compromises between people. The vast majority of benefits of contemporary economic and social order are the result of the habits, consideration, courtesy, and responsibility of individuals treating each other with respect and fair play. Left to their own devices, most people will usually find ways to reach mutually beneficial agreements or accommodations with others. It is not a question of natural harmony but rather of people recognizing their own self-interest in following general rules of conduct and respecting other people’s rights.
There is no known social or political system in which conflict disappears. In a good system, people will be aware of the general rules that will decide any conflict, thereby minimizing the number of conflicts. The more an “order” is the result of voluntary agreements among citizens, the stronger the self-interest of all parties involved to perpetuate that order. And the fact that the order results from voluntary agreements gives it a stamp of legitimacy that no number of official edicts can provide. If the rules from which order derives are considered fair and are generally accepted, the government will need minimal power to help enforce them, since there will be few violators. It is only when government seeks to enforce rules that are not generally accepted by the populace that it will need vast powers to impose its dictates.