Harry Browne’s passing earlier this year was a sad day for many. He was a smart and engaging person who really understood how government works, or rather doesn’t work, and why. Before his passing he left on a list of the Seven Principles of Government that I feel should be required reading in our Civics classes. Of course, our education being controlled by Government helps those in power stay in power so I fear it will never happen. However, I wanted to go over those principles and examine them in the context of what we see happening around us now.
Before I start though I want to make something very very clear. No one, not even Harry Browne, ever suggested that we have ‘no government’. I hear this accusation all the time and it is borne from ignorance of what most libertarians believe. I also hear that libertarians are ‘selfish’. While there are undoubtedly some who call themselves libertarians for this reason, it is much like saying all democrats are ‘communists’ or all republicans are ‘fascists’. There are several communist groups aligned with the democratic party and groups like the KKK and Nazi Party will often vote republican. These fringe elements should not be taken as the example of the people who are members of that party any more than the ‘selfish bastard’ should be associated with the libertarians.
And a little history lesson as well. Most of our founding fathers were libertarians, it is obvious from the works at the time and the writings of those that helped shape the nation that this is the case. At the time this thought was called ‘Liberalism’ but over the last hundred years with the rise of the Progressive Liberal movement the two thoughts have diverged from each other.
A quick example of the difference is that a Classic Liberal (libertarian) believes that we all have basic rights that, while not spelled out in the constitution, are still applicable to all. This was the reason for the 9th amendment to the Constitution. These rights are rights that do not interfere with anyone else’s rights. Right to free speech, right to privacy, right to dance naked in your living room, etc. The government’s job is to ensure that those rights are protected equally to its citizens.
A Progressive Liberal believes that along with these basic rights we also have expanded rights that are just as enforceable under the 9th amendment. These rights are rights that must interfere with other’s rights. Right to an education, right to health care and right to a living wage are some examples. Each of these rights require that someone else be forced to do something in order to make this happen. For an education, someone must become a teacher and others must have their property taken to pay for it. For health care, someone must become a doctor and then treat those people and again, others must have their property taken to pay for it. In effect, the enforcing of these rights require that the government must violate some of the very rights that they are entrusted with protecting. But, as the Progressive believes, it’s all for the ‘common good’ and its ok as long as all agree.
In addition to this the Progressive also believes that it is possible for the government to provide these things as well as or better than we could acquire them from the private sector. And it must done in a way that no one could abuse the system or the people in the system. This is is where the Principles come into play.
The original text can be found at http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/PrinciplesOfGovernment.htm
1. Government is force. Every government program, law, or regulation is a demand that someone do what he doesn’t want to do, refrain from doing what he does want to do, or pay for something he doesn’t want to pay for. And those demands are backed up by police with guns.
This is I think something we can all agree upon. If a law were not there to be enforced it would be a guideline. The laws are not in place to get people who want to follow that law to follow it, rather it is place in order to force those that do not want to follow that law to do so forcibly. Government is the only group or organization that can legally use force to make someone do something against their will. Other groups may also use force, such as gangs and mobs, but they are not doing so legally and are themselves subject to being forced to stop by the government.
Now, many laws are necessary. For example, a law against murder I think we can agree makes good sense. I forces people to not violate the basic rights that we all share, in this case the right to live. There are other laws against theft, violence, etc that we all can agree should be in place to protect our basic rights.
However, when we have laws in place that are there for the sole purpose of making someone do what ‘we’ want them to do, even though it is not to protect anyone else’s basic rights, I wonder about the good sense that makes. I also wonder when we start drifting into a tyrannical use of the force we have given the government. Let’s use some real life examples of laws that fit this mold.
The Patriot Act, The RICO Statutes, The Drug War, Seat-Belt Laws, Helmet Laws, Prohibition, etc.
And as Harry pointed out in his article, the ones who usually run afoul of these laws are those who don’t understand them and are thinking that they aren’t breaking a law at all or innocent people who are having the laws used against them by a political government who may have alternate motives than just enforcement.
2. Government is politics. Whenever you turn over to the government a financial, social, medical, military, or commercial matter, it’s automatically transformed into a political issue — to be decided by those with the most political influence. And that will never be you or I.
Again, this is IMO without question. We see it so much, especially those of us who are involved in politics on a daily basis. Whether it is using political power to try to prevent those who don’t agree with those in power from voting or if it is just using programs designed to help people as a means of actually keeping them in need of those programs, it is easy to see how anything that requires government regulation can ultimately be used politically by those who are in control.
3. You don’t control government. It’s easy to think of the perfect law that will stop the bad guys while leaving the good guys unhindered. But no law will be written the way you have in mind, it won’t be administered the way you have in mind, and it won’t be adjudicated the way you have in mind.
Your ideal law will be written by politicians for political purposes, administered by bureaucrats for political purposes, and adjudicated by judges appointed for political purposes. So don’t be surprised if the new law turns out to do exactly the opposite of what you thought you were supporting.
I was going to rewrite this part of the article in my own words but I don’t see how I can explain it much better than Harry has done here. As we can see from all of the ‘anti-incumbent’ movements and how most everyone complains about how the government is doing their job, it’s obvious that we really don’t control the government, we just try to send people who think somewhat like we do to represent us but once there they are interlocked into a mass bureaucracy that swallows most good intentions whole. And as with most bureaucracies, it turns out that it’s the people behind the scenes, the career government officials, who really run the show. We do our best to manage it so it doesn’t get too unwieldy or out of control, but I think most of us can say that it’s far beyond that at the present time.
4. Every government program will be more expensive and more expansive than anything you had in mind when you proposed it. It will be applied in all sorts of ways you never dreamed of.
When Medicare was initially passed in 1965, the politicians projected its cost in 1992 to be $3 billion — which is equivalent to $12 billion when adjusted for inflation to 1992 dollars. The actual cost in 1992 was $110 billion — nine times as much. And when Medicare was enacted, Section 1801 of the original law specifically prohibited any bureaucratic interference with the practice of medicine. Today not one word of that protection still applies. The federal government owns the health-care industry lock, stock, and barrel.
This is just one example. When Social Security was started it was meant to be a way to ensure that people had something to help them along when they were too old to work anymore. It was never meant to sustain anyone completely, merely be a way to assist those who could no longer work or who became physically unable to work. Today, it is to many the only way to exist once they retire. And it has become a mess, unable to match an ROI that anyone could get with simple CDs at the local bank.
It no longer resembles what it was meant to accomplish and has become a huge headache for those who want to keep it around to find a way to continue paying for it while still increasing the benefits that it provides.
5. Power will always be misused. Give good people the power to do good and that power eventually will be in the hands of bad people to do bad.
This is evident today I think we can all see. For decades we have wanted to centralize power to the federal government so that local governments wouldn’t be able to abuse that power over the citizens of the states and counties of the country. However, the people are just now abusing it at the federal level, for sometimes noble and in their minds proper motivations, and it is applied to all of us together. Do I really need to list out the myriad of ways that our government abuses the power we have entrusted to them on a daily basis…?
6. Government doesn’t work. Because government is force, because government programs are designed to enrich the politically powerful, because you can’t control government and make it do what’s right, because every new government program soon wanders from its original purpose, and because politicians eventually misuse the power you give them, it is inevitable that no government program will deliver on the promises the politicians make for it.
If you take the previous five principles listed above you see that the end result is that government just cannot do what we want it to do when we use it to usurp our basic rights. Once you start down that path anyone can come along and give a well intentioned reason to do so and another governmental boondoggle is created. We end up with Bridges to Nowhere, Tunnels to Nowhere, pork barrell spending the likes that would make our founding fathers roll over in their graves to witness. Waste, corruption and abuses of power all being directed at the citizens of the country that they are suppose to be representing.
7. Government must be subject to absolute limits. Because politicians have every incentive to expand government, and with it their power, there must be absolute limits on government.
Because government doesn’t work, because it can and will be abused, because it can never do what we want it to do exactly, we must limit the ways that the government uses their power of force against the citizenry as much as possible while still allowing it to perform it’s necessary and proper functions of protecting our basic rights.
The US constitution was written in such a way to really limit what the government can do. Specifically the 9th and 10th amendments were written pretty clearly to state that 1) just because a right is not listed in the Bill of Rights does not mean that that right does not exist and 2) if the federal government is not given direct and specific ability to do something then it does NOT have the power to do it.
Unfortunately, over the past 100 years, specifically after the US Supreme Court buckled under the pressure of FDR when he threatened to pack the court when he was not getting the programs he wanted to pass Constitutional muster, we have seen these two amendments being eroded away to a point where they are almost listed in our Constitution as footnotes to what we once were. And it is because we are unwilling anymore to expect that things are taken care of without force. That we can’t convince and use our own humanity to make sure that the things that need done get done. We sublet our responsibility to our government so that we can feel better at night that we don’t want to do those things. We don’t help our neighbors as much as we used to, we don’t even know our neighbors much. We have increasingly isolated ourselves in our tract homes knowing that a percentage of what we make is going to helping those that need it so we don’t have to do the hard work anymore.
Because of this, at a time when we should be becoming more enlightened, more charitable, more understanding and compassionate, we are becoming more divisive, more prone to hatred of our neighbors, more resentful of those that might have more than we, less compassionate of those that have less.
We need to take our lives back from our government. Stop letting it tell us what to do, how to live, what decisions we should be making on our own.
The present system of unlimited power is like giving a drunken stranger a set of signed, blank checks on your bank account. You are reduced to relying on the honesty and integrity of people you don’t even know — and they abuse that trust again and again.
If you believe that the government should be more expansive that the US Constitution allows, there is a way to alter the constitution to allow it. But in doing so you must go through a long and arduous process that is not a ‘simple majority’ control of a congressional body. And it was SUPPOSE to be that way, to ensure that things that were not needed for the government to do would be left to us to do for ourselves. Unfortunately we have bypassed this check and balance in favor of expediency of our own agendas and we curse and bluster when our political foes are able to put their agendas in place the same way. The fault is our own, it is one we are responsible for and it is only WE who have any chance to reign in the government and then start using the proper methods of altering the Constitution in order to allow the government to do the things we feel it should be doing.
Harry finishes his article with a few questions that you should ask yourselves the next time you want a law in place to solve a particular issue or you want a new governmental program created to take care of something you are unwilling or unable to do yourself. I suggest you do so as well, even if you decide that it should still be done at least you have given yourself a chance to question that law or policy first.
Do I really want to use force to make this happen? Do I have any idea how many families may be destroyed by giving the government another tool to be enforced with fines and prison terms?
Do I really believe that George Bush, Teddy Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Trent Lott will have my best interests at heart when they fashion this new program or law?
Why should I believe supporting this program will lead to exactly the solution I believe is right — when I have no way to control the outcome?
Do I really think the politicians won’t expand the scope and cost of this program far beyond what they’re talking about today?
Do I really want to give politicians this kind of power — knowing that some day the politicians and party I don’t like will have it at their disposal?
Why in the world should I think this government program will work any better than any government program of the past?
How can I hope to bring about small, limited government when I’m suggesting a new government program that will take us further away from the Constitution?
One thing I want to say before I end this article. I don’t know how many issues we were suppose to solve with a governmental program or law that is still with us. Homelessness, poverty, racism, all things we wanted to solve but end up exacerbating with governmental involvement. If you really want to solve these issues you have to not rely upon the government to do them but on yourselves. Join neighborhood communities, run charities, find a way to solve that cause and go out and do it. Convince others, become active in your communities and at least work on that little bit surrounding you that you actually have some control over. If everyone were to work hard on their own communities this way we might find that we can solve these issues ourselves without the need for government to get involved and just screw it all up the way only the government can.