Beware big government

AGAINST LEVIATHAN: GOVERNMENT POWER AND A FREE SOCIETY

By Robert Higgs

The Independent Institute, $29.95, 424 pages

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 “Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society,” Robert Higgs collects earlier essays presenting the case against expansive government meddling in a free society.

“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?” Mr. Higgs asks. He, like the famous political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, chooses Leviathan. “Unlike Hobbes, however,” notes Mr. Higgs dryly, “I do not recommend that beast.”

Mr. Higgs boils the case against Leviathan down to fraud: “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.”

Moreover, he challenges the foundation of the welfare state: income redistribution. Arguments over income distribution center around how much wealth the various quintiles of the population possess. But “these figures are virtually worthless,” Mr. Higgs argues.

Indeed, more equality isn’t necessarily better. Politicians usually rely on tax-and-spend politics. Mr. Higgs points to 19 “neglected consequences” of such a strategy. For instance, higher taxes discourage productive activity; transfers encourage beneficiaries to be dependent and discourage them from working. Charitable involvement diminishes. Liberty suffers.

Indeed, Mr. Higgs argues: “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.

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 raising development costs and delaying product approval kill by the thousands, what Mr. Higgs calls “a silent epidemic of unnecessary suffering and avoidable deaths.”

Particularly fine is Mr. Higgs’ 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 monopoly,” 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.”

Alas, the U.S. government has proved to be a poor guardian of its citizens. Asks Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

There’s much more in “Against Leviathan.” After delivering so much bad news about how government really operates, Mr. Higgs offers little positive hope for change. In the aftermath of September 11, “a new surge of government growth has begun in the United States.” Despairs Mr. Higgs: “If the Americans cannot block the march of Leviathan, others are even less likely to do so.”

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