October 5, 2012 columns

On Preferring Private to Public

Powell disputes the notion that libertarians always view the government as bad, arguing that it is coercion, no matter the source, that is harmful.

“The government, lest we forget, is the formal, legitimized expression of the sum total of a nation’s will,” writes Stephan Richter over at The Globalist. “Under the concept of representative government, it directly reflects the citizens’ abilities, actions and aspirations.”

Richter makes this remark as part of a larger argument about “one of the biggest competitiveness challenges the United States faces in the global arena,” which is “entirely self-imposed—and easily remediable.” Namely, “the widespread belief that the idea of government itself, as opposed to a free-wheeling and unimpeded private sector, is somehow a very bad idea.”

I have to wonder which government Richter’s talking about when he praises its supposed perfect connection to the general will. Certainly not the one in power in the United States, nor any I’m aware of elsewhere in the world. How many of us really feel like the massive federal government and its bureaucracy, with its handouts to the politically connected, its endless war, and its constant assault on civil liberties, in any meaningful way represents the “legitimized expression of the sum total of [the] nation’s will?” It baffles the mind to think Richter actually believes such platitudes.

But let’s return to this self-imposed and easily remediable challenge Richter claims America faces. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. Some of us, of course, very much want a more robust private sector and a much diminished state. But if there’s one thing I did not take away from the clash of the two parties’ titans Wednesday night, it’s that America teeters on the brink of jettisoning government entirely in a wave of hostility towards the very idea of the state.

This libertarian skepticism about government, Richter writes, rises to the “level of absurdity.” He exposes its incoherence by telling a story about McDonald’s. A reporter, he tells us, went and quizzed patrons about the company’s new policy of posting nutrition information in each store. Most of them thought it great. But one bad apple,

who initially reacted very positively, however, was taken aback when Ms. Kliff informed him that McDonald [sic] was simply getting a head-start on implementing a stipulation in President Obama’s health care reform law, which requires fast-food chains with at least 20 locations to provide that information to their customers.

After applauding the company’s move when he thought it was completely voluntary, the customer’s viewpoint changed quite radically. It now became a foreboding sign of the government restricting individual freedoms and consumer choice.

How downright crazy! “How is it humanly possible to consider a decision as positive if made by the private sector — and as highly negative if made (“imposed”) by the government?” Richter asks.

Let me answer Richter’s question by way of a hypothetical. Richter’s gone out to dinner with a nice couple, recently married. They tell him about the wedding, about how beautiful it was, and he thinks it all sounds positively grand. What’s better than two people falling in love and deciding to spend the rest of their lives together? But then, while the husband’s off taking a phone call, the wife leans over and tells Richter that this marriage was forced upon her by her strict parents and that, while she’s now glad to have her husband, she was threatened with death if she failed to marry him.

Clearly Richter, by his own analysis, ought to feel nothing as she tells him this. For “how is it humanly possible” to consider their decision to marry positively when he believed it voluntary and negatively when he finds it was imposed upon at least one of the two partners? I mean, what could be more absurd?

Because Richter has entirely failed to comprehend the moral case against coercion, he is left seeing the libertarian position as simply, in his words, “companies good, government bad.” But of course companies can be bad, too. And government, when limited to its proper role, can be quite good.

Furthermore, Richter believes that we must maintain belief in the awesome power of the state to effect good. The alternative—widespread skepticism—is too terrible to imagine. He tells us that, “if a critical segment of the population — not just Republicans, but also significant parts of the Independents, now the country’s largest voting bloc — do not believe in the legitimacy or even well-advisedness of the government taking action, then the United States does have a problem.” We have to believe the state is well-functioning, even if it isn’t. “The U.S. government annually spends $3.7 trillion at the federal level alone,” Richter writes. “We are talking about real money here. As long as the effort is maintained to declare much of that expenditure a waste, it is tantamount to claiming national impotence.”

One can easily imagine Richter standing among the crowd at the parade, desperately begging them to see—to oh please, see—the glorious clothes the emperor wears. 

“The real menace that any American interested in resuscitating the nation’s competitiveness today ought to address urgently is the demonization of government,” Richter concludes. But he’s wrong. The real menace is in not recognizing how and where the government has failed us, how and were it doesn’t live up to its role as “the formal, legitimized expression of the sum total of a nation’s will.” The real menace is in seeing the state, as Richter does, as a good in-and-of-itself—instead of as merely a tool to be modified, enervated, or even done away with as needed to encourage and support what really matters: liberty, prosperity, and peace.