Issues & Insights

When Government Gets Too Large, Property Rights Get Too Small

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Teachers often ask students questions to help them discover questionable presuppositions, clarify ideas and hone critical thinking. Now, with a political administration whose promises are reminiscent of Will Rogers’ quip that “If we got one-10th of what was promised to us … there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven,” my favorite such question seems more important than ever.

“How is a government that is too large too small?” It appears self-contradictory, but can lead to important insight.

Students must first recognize the need to ask “What is the role of government?”

That takes us to Frederic Bastiat’s essay, “Government,” where he states that “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” Then, by providing students information on the cornucopia of government policies and proposals, I can summarize the major thread of thought as “government should give me whatever I want on someone else’s dime.”

If that is government’s role, it could never be too large. However, if we add almost everyone’s favorite caveat – “but do not make me pay for anyone else’s wish list” – then it is possible. That is because government has no resources it does not extract from citizens. Students quickly see government as too large in a multitude of areas that pick their pockets for others.  

This connects us to those whose ideas most influenced America’s founders.

In his 1690 “Second Treatise of Government,” John Locke asserted that an individual “seeks out and is willing to join in society with others … for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”

In the 1720s, “Cato’s Letters” argued that “The first care which wise governors will always take is … to secure to [people] the possession of their property, upon which everything else depends … whoever violates property, or lessens or endangers it … is an enemy.”

In his 1740 “Treatise of Human Nature,” David Hume wrote, “the convention of the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done toward settling a perfect harmony and concord.”

To paraphrase, the role of government is to protect everyone’s property rights, giving each of us the ability to determine what to do with what we own, provided we don’t violate others equal property rights. America’s founders echoed that.

John Adams said that “Property is surely a right of mankind as real as liberty … the moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Thomas Jefferson said that “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”

James Madison said “The diversity of the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate … protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

George Washington said “Liberty is, indeed, little else than a name where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction … and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.”

Defending our property rights is the primary function of every government, from national defense to police, courts and jails, as banding together to jointly defend everyone’s property can defend it more effectively.

Reliable performance of that function enables more voluntary, mutually beneficial arrangements by preventing others, including government, from imposing involuntary arrangements, allowing us to peacefully advance our joint interests without sacrificing any liberty.

This, then, answers my question. Government is too large when it exceeds its core function, because for it to acquire the additional resources necessary requires that it violates citizens’ property rights. That means it is too small when it comes to defending its citizens and their property. As Ayn Rand once expressed it, “the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual).”

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. 

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