The COVID circus now in its second year has demonstrated a yawning chasm between government claiming to serve its citizens and actually serving them. But the existence of such a gap can hardly be surprising. Since government has no resources that it does not extract from its citizenry, it can only benefit all citizens (rather than some at others’ expense) when it can make more efficient use of resources than they can for themselves. Consequently, we must ask where government has a comparative advantage over voluntary organizations.
Years ago, Leonard Read came up with an insightful answer to that question. Coercion. In mutually agreed arrangements, one cannot coerce others. But government can. That, however, leads to a further question: “When does government’s coercive power advance the well-being of its citizens?”
One way is government using its powers to ensure that people’s property is protected and that they live up to their voluntary contracts, which Friedrich Hayek once termed “planning for competition,” in contrast to the “planning against competition” known as central planning.
However, beyond ensuring that competition advances consumers’ interests (and it is as consumers we all have the most in common) by defending what underpins voluntary market systems, government’s coercive power seldom expands our ability to generate mutual gains. For example, few of us would feel better off if we had someone else dictate to you how to dress, what to eat, where to live, what employment to choose, how long to work at that employment, and nearly uncountable other choices.
Read asked us to picture government’s coercive power as a clenched fist: “Symbolize this physical force by the clenched fist. Find out what the fist can and cannot do and you will know what government should and should not do.”
What can you do more effectively by making your hands into fists? Not much. You mainly lose the ability to do productive things. With your hands balled into fists, you cannot use your computer or smartphone effectively, type your magnum opus, perform your music, paint your Mona Lisa, manufacture something (maybe even something considered essential), safely drive a vehicle, play most sports (although boxing and soccer get exemptions), shake hands, offer a blessing, give a present, sign a contract, and a host of other desirable things. But making hands into fists can allow you to enforce your decisions on those who wish to choose differently.
So Read’s answer to “What should the government fist restrain and penalize?” was “fraud, violence, misrepresentations, stealing, predations, killing – that is, all destructive activities.” But we must remember that “the fist, this physical force … cannot create.”
We all gain from the government’s fist restraining destructive acts. But that fist does not create the ideas and innovations that improve people’s lives. So as government expands beyond restraining destructive acts, it increasingly contracts its citizens’ sphere of creative action. Fewer useful new ideas, products, approaches, technologies, etc., will be imagined and implemented. And in the process, liberty – both a means to incredibly valuable ends and itself an extremely valuable end, as Lord Acton noted – is contracted, as well.
The application of the fist analogy to the COVID crisis has been instructive. Did governments use their coercive power solely to restrain destructive acts? No. They used their fists to shut down whole areas of the economy that they decided, often with little credible reason, were nonessential. They closed entire coastlines, jailed people who didn’t follow orders from their “public servants,” and imposed virtual house arrest on millions. It frequently seemed that brandishing fists was the only thing politicians could think of, despite its ineffectiveness in improving citizens’ circumstances.
Now, with pressure to relax governments’ clenched fists rising, how eager have those in control been to comply? Eagerness is frequently an antonym, rather than a descriptor, for what we have seen displayed. And what evidence is there that the foot-dragging, snail’s-pace unclenching plans that have commonly been advanced are the most effective way of parceling back freedoms that have been taken away? But they arise because to those in charge of government, clenching fists to force compliance is often their easiest “solution,” even when it dramatically worsens citizens’ worlds. In contrast, they are notably lacking in understanding of how to best undo those coercive “solutions,” because a comparative advantage in coercion does not imply a comparative advantage in knowing how best to reduce coercion.
However, we should remember that restoring freedom does not require fistfuls of dollars extracted from others, particularly those in future generations, but for government to open its clenched COVID fists to stop denying it to those whom they supposedly serve.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.