The Morality of People vs. the Government

Libertarians accurately point out the problems caused by government with great frequency.  It isn’t to say that we would live in a perfect world without the state, but things would be a whole lot better and more peaceful if state power were drastically reduced.  Our living standards would also be far higher, perhaps beyond our imagination.

While the government should be blamed for a lot of the ills in our society, we also shouldn’t forget that the government is often a reflection of the people.

Frederick Douglas said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”

It was Etienne de la Boetie, over 4 centuries ago, who said that state power relies on the consent of the governed.  It was Murray Rothbard who later emphasized this point.  The government ultimately relies on the consent of the governed, even if that consent is not explicit.

Even with a dictatorship, there has to be a certain degree of consent, even if the population is scared to speak out.  If you have a country of a million people, it is impossible for one person to dominate all of the others without at least some tacit consent from the general population.  Even if the dictator has a group of loyal people around him, they still rely on a certain degree of consent.  A group of a thousand people ruling a country cannot last long if there are a million people who are angry and ready to overthrow them.

In the United States, the federal government is very much a reflection of the people.  This can be seen from both sides of the spectrum.  Politicians would love to raise taxes, but the people will only tolerate so much.  But we also don’t see government drastically reduced because most people aren’t clamoring for it.

The American people, to a large degree, continually contradict themselves in opinion polls.  They will say they don’t want deficits and a growing national debt, but then when it comes to specific spending cuts, there is little the majority favors.  Most say they would cut foreign aid, but this is a drop in the bucket.  Conservatives will say they favor cutting things like Planned Parenthood, but this is a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall budget.  The left might criticize some programs initiated by conservatives, but they are mostly complaining about control of the programs.

There are many other issues where these contradictions exist.

The only way to have a significant reduction in the size and scope of government that is a sustainable is to change public opinion.  We need for more people to understand the benefits of liberty.

We must also not overlook the issue of morality.  Most hardcore libertarians understand that morality plays an issue.  It is why they oppose the initiation of force for political or social means.  From an economics standpoint, nearly everyone would be better off if they applied this principle.  But for most libertarians, it really comes down to a moral issue that you should not force your views on others.  This includes not forcing others to pay for things they don’t want to pay for.

The recent events in Zimbabwe serve as a good reminder that the rulers depend on the consent of the people.  Robert Mugabe has been thrown out of power after decades of running (or ruining) the country.  But it wasn’t so much his brutal totalitarianism that did him in.  That had been going on for a while.  The people did not revolt when Mugabe was killing people and getting rid of the white farmers, thus causing a shortage of food.  The people weren’t protesting for violations of property rights, or interference of trade, or central bank hyperinflation.

The event that caused the downfall was when video appeared of one of Mugabe’s sons washing his expensive watch with expensive champaign.  It was a display of ridiculous wealth.  And most people who work hard to earn their money don’t treat their wealth with such disrespect.

It was easy to see that Mugabe’s son was wealthy because of funding from daddy.  But his antics did his daddy in.  He didn’t understand the danger in flaunting his undeserved wealth.  The poor people of Zimbabwe did not seem to be amused.  They knew this guy was living it up at the expense of them.  That was enough to upend the regime.

Unfortunately, probably not much will change there.  They will get another tyrant in power.  The reason it won’t change is because the mentality of the people there hasn’t changed.  They do not respect property rights to a high degree.  They generally do not have a high regard for liberty.

Most Americans certainly don’t adhere to the non-aggression principle or anything close.  They will adhere to it in their daily lives in dealing with others, but they don’t apply the same principle to the government.  Still, at least most Americans have some respect for the idea of property rights and liberty.  This is why the United States has more liberty than Zimbabwe.

In conclusion, this is why elections don’t matter that much.  They can serve as a measure of public opinion in some cases.  But the key to gaining liberty is to change public opinion in a more libertarian direction.  A libertarian president might do some good in the short run, but there would only be lasting change if the public endorsed the libertarian agenda.

If you want to help move the world in a more libertarian direction, then the focus should be on changing hearts and minds.  The best reason to elect libertarians to office is so that they can use the platform for education purposes.  Otherwise, it will mostly be a waste.  It is far better to help others see the benefits of liberty, as well as the morality of liberty.

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