Does Government Reduce Freedom?


A criticism that I received more than once on my last article was the assertion that government reduces freedom by definition. I can demonstrate that this is the case. Many Americans would not deny that despite any good they may have done, most governments throughout history have indeed reduced freedom. The exception would be our own country and other western democracies. This is not logically consistent. The Declaration of Independence says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This is the most well known and coherent statement of the idea that government is or should be in the business of securing our rights. Many people assume that this means that government enhances freedom. The problem is that assumption does not follow from what Jefferson actually said. All he said is that God gave man his rights and men form governments in order to secure those rights. Besides the fact that this is an assertion used to justify a bloody revolution, it simply doesn’t speak to freedom. A guy living alone in the remote regions of the Amazon rain forest is free to do as he pleases. He’s more free than someone living in Chicago for the simple fact that he’s beyond the reach or control of any other person or group. Freedom is self-determination. That’s it and that’s all.

The mistake that gets made here is that people confuse security with freedom because it sounds good. The guy in the rain forest won’t be free if he’s dead, right? Sure, but no one is arguing about how free dead people are. The most that can be said is that it’s worth it to trade your absolute freedom for more security so you can live a longer, happier life. In fact, that actually is what Jefferson said. He also said that when the scale tips and it’s no longer worth it, the people have the right to overthrow the government. It’s kind of funny how people talk about the first part of this statement and not the second, but I digress.

Before continuing, another common assertion is that government creates freedom because it builds infrastructure. Man is physically incapable of flight, but now we’re “free to fly,” because the government created infrastructure. Assuming this is a valid argument (it’s not), it’s a logical fallacy to assume the infrastructure exists because of the government; or that it wouldn’t exist without government. Men are capable of building infrastructure for profit sans government. In fact, it happens every day. Man can fly because we’re a unique species with a pretty amazing intellect. Moreover, government obtains its resources through taxation, creating winners and losers. Some people in the US pay taxes, yet they can’t afford to fly because they lack the means. Is the government enhancing their freedom? This infrastructure creates freedom thing is clearly not a general principle.

The real meat of this is to understand the nature of the state. All it can do is create and enforce laws, and the part that matters is “enforce.” I can write my will on a piece of paper, but without the power to enforce it, it’s meaningless. That means the nature of the state is a monopoly on the use of force. In other words, the state can make impositions on people. How can that possibly enhance freedom? Allowing an organization to contravene your will does not make you free. You could argue that it makes you safe, but importing freedom into that is a bit of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Finally, government actually can enhance freedom…for some people. Hitler had a twisted will that he was capable of actualizing because he had access to a monopoly on the use of force. He wrote his will on a piece of paper and it actually got carried out because he was the leader of a government. When it comes to government throughout history, this is the rule, not the exception. This brings to mind a couple of other quotes.

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. – George Washington

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. – Thomas Paine


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