The following article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Ideas on Liberty, a monthly journal published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York. Mr. Reed is serves on FEE's board of trustees.
Dear Statist Friends:
I know, I know. You're already objecting to my letter. You don't like the label, "statist." You don't think of yourselves as worshipping government; rather, you think of yourselves as simply wanting to help people, with government being your most-often preferred means to achieve what is usually a very worthy end. "Statist," you say, is a loaded terma pejorative that suggests an overweening, irrational kinship with the state.
Well, let's wait and see how the term stacks up after you've read the entirety of my letter and answered its questions. Meantime, if you have any doubt about whether this missive is directed at you, let me clarify to whom I am writing. If you're among those many people who spend most of their time and energies advocating a litany of proposals for expanded government action, and little or no time recommending offsetting reductions in state power, then this letter has indeed found its mark.
You guys are clever, whether you realize it or not. You're always coming up with new schemes for government to do this or that, to address this issue or solve that problem or fill some need somewhere. You get us limited-government people bogged down in the minutiae of how your proposed programs are likely to work (or not work) and while we're doing the technical homework you seldom do, you demonize us as heartless numbers-crunchers who don't care about people.
Sometimes, we all get so caught up in the particulars that we ignore the larger trends, the longer run, the bigger picture. We get so absorbed in the trees, so to speak, that we lose sight of the forest as a wholehow big it is and where we are in it. I propose that we step back for a moment. Put aside your endless list of things for government to do and focus on the whole package. I need some thoughtful answers to some questions that maybe, just maybe, you've never thought much about because you've been too wrapped up in the program du jour.
At the start of the 1900s, government at all levels in America claimed about five percent of personal income. A hundred years later, it takes more than 40 percentup by a factor of eight. So my first questions to you are these: Why is this not enough? How much do you want? At what point do you expect to have your fill? Fifty percent? Seventy percent? Do you want all of it? To what extent do you believe a person is entitled to what he has earned?
Now don't give me the run-around. I want specifics, not platitudes. Don't change the subject. Like millions of Americans who are planning for their retirement or their children's college education, I need to know. I've already sacrificed a lot of plans to pay your bills, but if you're aiming for more, I'm going to have to significantly curtail my charitable giving, my discretionary spending, my savings for a rainy day, my future vacations, and perhaps some other worthwhile things. And when I do that, I hope you're not dumb enough to blame me for not stimulating the economy.
I know what you're thinking: "There you go again, you selfish character. We're concerned about all the people's needs and you're only interested in your own bank account. People over profits!" But who is really focused on dollars and cents here, you or me? You talk about people's needs but that never shows up on the doorsteps of millions of Americans like me in the form of bouquets of flowers and thank you cards or even a friendly pat on the back. It shows up as rules and regulations backed up by fines and jail terms, bureaucracy that grows like topsy, and a big tax bill. The next time you pass on the tab for your programs to the rest of us, would you mind if we just forget about those nasty dollars and cents and send you love letters instead?
Why is it that if I disagree with your means, you almost always assume I oppose your ends? I want people to eat well, live long and healthy lives, get the prescription drugs and health care they need, etc., etc., just like you. But I happen to think there are more creative and voluntary ways to get the job done than robbing Peter to pay Paul through the force of government. Why don't you show some confidence in your fellow citizens and assume that they can solve problems without you? Are you some kind of control freak or a nanny-type that can't leave other people alone?
We're not ignorant and helpless, in spite of your many poorly performing government schools and having to scrape by with a little more than half of what we earn. In fact, give us credit for managing to do some pretty amazing things even after you take your 40 percent cutthings like feeding and clothing and housing more people at higher levels than any socialized society has ever even dreamed of.
This raises a whole series of related questions about how you see the nature of government and what you've learned, if anything, from our collective experiences with it. I see the ideal government as America's founders didin Washington's words, a "dangerous servant" employing legalized force for the purpose of preserving individual liberties. As such, it is charged with deterring violence and fraud and keeping itself small, limited and efficient. Since 40 percent of our incomes is apparently not yet enough in your view, you must favor legalized force as a prime mover in our lives. How can you profess allegiance to peace and nonviolence and, at the same time, call for so much forcible redistribution?
Don't give me that democracy thing, unless you're prepared to explain why mightin the form of superior numbersmakes right. Of course, I want the governed to have a big say in whatever government we have, but unlike you I have no illusions about any act being a legitimate function of government if it's political supporters are blessed by 50 percent plus one of those who bother to show up at the polls. Give me something deeper than that, or I'll round up a majority posse to come and rightfully claim whatever we want of yours.
Why is it that you statists never seem to learn anything about government? You see almost any shortcoming in the marketplace as a reason for government to get bigger but you rarely see any shortcoming in government as a reason for it to get smaller. In fact, I wonder at times if you are honestly capable of identifying shortcomings of government at all! Do we really have to give you an encyclopedia of broken promises, failed programs, and wasted billions to get your attention? Do we have to recite all the workers' paradises that never materialized, the flashy programs that fizzled, the problems government was supposed to solve but only managed into expensive perpetuity?
Where, by the way, do you think wealth comes from in the first place? I know you're fond of collecting it and laundering it through bureaucracies"feeding the sparrows through the horses" as my grandfather once put itbut tell me honestly how you think it initially comes into being. Come on, now. You can say it. It'll be therapeutic to repeat it a few times: private initiative. That wasn't so hard to say, was it? Now, if you prefer a different answer, let me know right here and now because I need to know if you're fundamentally honest or just a thief with lofty rhetoric.
I've asked a lot of questions here, I know. But you have to understand that you're asking an awful lot more in blood, sweat, tears, and treasure from the rest of us every time you pile on more government without lightening any of the previous load. If anything I've asked prompted you to rethink your premises and place some new restraints on the reach of the state, then maybe the statist label doesn't apply to you. In which case, you can now look forward to devoting more of your energies to actually solving problems instead of just talking about them, and liberating people instead of enslaving them.
Lawrence W. Reed