We must reduce government power to a bare minimum, or the next threat to our security will lead to an even greater loss of individual freedoms.
In life, we are constantly making trade-offs between life, liberty, and property. When we take our car out for a ride, we trade life for liberty: walking is safer than driving. When we take our car to work, we trade life for liberty and property. The minute we get out of bed, we make these trade-offs, and we do it so often that most times we don’t even realize we are making them: Indeed, our entire lives are a series of continuous trade-offs. However, for this pandemic, politicians decided they knew the best trade-off for everyone, and like sheep we should blindly accept these government edicts. They even tried to “infantilize” their populations (e.g. most COVID propaganda used child-like cartoons) to quash any dissent.
The general rationale for such government dictates is that individual decisions on life, liberty, and property do not consider the externalities on the life, liberty, and property of others. Not wearing a mask may spread the disease, affecting the lives and liberties of others. Individuals are said to be flawed and selfish.
Yet, the government is an association of individuals, so doesn’t that also make the government flawed and selfish? Or do we have leaders who are flawless and altruistic individuals? How do we ensure these individuals are in power at the right moment? Also, is a unique strategy optimal for everybody and how do we determine this optimality with no comparison strategies? (See here and here.)
John Stuart Mill’s arguments in On Liberty (1859, Chapter III), said:
The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people… but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centers of improvement as there are individuals.
Mill argues individuals make different trade-offs and pursue different paths to individual strategies. This tatonnement process of trial and error based on imperfect information will ultimately lead to an overall strategy or strategies adopted voluntarily by others. This is a market-like process (mutually beneficial voluntary actions) and will be more popular and accepted than the one-size-fits-all strategy currently being enforced by virtually all governments.
France closed all its ski resorts during the winter of 2020-21, violating owners’ property rights. Switzerland was open for skiing, but with added restrictions on liberty and property. Which strategy was better? Before responding, why are we forced to choose between two strategies instead of many? Individual resort owners could have made those decisions and others about the use of their property. Where is the outrage over these restrictions on fundamental liberties? Do you own property if you cannot dispose of it as you wish? Of course, letting everyone find a strategy is judged as chaotic, and our benevolent government leaders cannot conceivably allow such a solution. Yet, just like a competitive market process is Pareto efficiency, this semblance of chaos would have led to a more accepted social outcome.
This pandemic has taught us a multitude of lessons about liberty and government.
First, democracy is no guarantee of freedom nor of protection from despotism. The advantage of democracy is that it is more likely to ensure peace since we have a peaceful transfer of power from one majority to another. However, democracy can be as despotic as any other form of government. People forget Hitler was elected democratically, and many Germans knew of the holocaustduring the war.1 Democracy must have a rulebook to protect minorities from the majority. For the USA, that is supposedly the Constitution. But those rules need to be explicit and binding. Today, no one is batting an eye about taxing billionaires to pay for social programs. These billionaires are a minute minority (700 in this case), but nonetheless with fundamental freedoms of life, liberty, and property. Voting to limit the freedoms of others or minorities is a risky business, since tables can turn as many Jews discovered even before WW II.
Second, the police can rapidly be turned into an instrument of despotism. Today in France, the police will stop you if you cross a street in an open market because you are not wearing a mask. To enter many businesses, you must be vaccinated. Yet, one of the fundamental pillars of liberty, developed by John Locke and others, is a natural immutable right over one’s own body.
Third, we can identify which politicians, from governor to dog catcher, respected and valued individual liberties, and those who saw individual liberties as an obstacle to their vision of right and wrong.
Many individuals, even those who do not classify themselves as libertarians, understand that fundamental freedoms were lost over these last two years. A way to turn the pendulum back is to have a serious debate and draft legislation to limit the scope of government actions. As Bastiat made clear (here) in his seminal work, the only or exclusive role of government is the defense of an individual’s life, liberty, and property, and nothing else.
We must stop idolizing plunderers, and demand that the power of government be used to protect, and not plunder life, liberty, and property.
Author: Frank Hollenbeck
Reprinted with permission of Mises Institute.