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Is “Governing” Good for the Governed?

Summary:
It is a tired cliché to say that the government should govern. But is it true? What does “governing” mean? Consider the following illustration: on Tuesday, when announcing his resignation, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo repeated the cliché. He said: The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing. We are again dumbstruck by Cuomo’s selfless devotion to the public good, which is, as we know, characteristic of all politicians’ altruism. But my question here is different: Is “governing” so obviously good? The first chapter of Anthony de Jasay’s seminal book The State is titled “The Capitalist State” and presents a minimal state whose role is precisely not to govern, that is not to favor some individuals at the cost of harming

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It is a tired cliché to say that the government should govern. But is it true? What does “governing” mean? Consider the following illustration: on Tuesday, when announcing his resignation, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo repeated the cliché. He said:

The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing.

We are again dumbstruck by Cuomo’s selfless devotion to the public good, which is, as we know, characteristic of all politicians’ altruism. But my question here is different: Is “governing” so obviously good?

The first chapter of Anthony de Jasay’s seminal book The State is titled “The Capitalist State” and presents a minimal state whose role is precisely not to govern, that is not to favor some individuals at the cost of harming others (which is, let us note in passing, exactly what cost-benefit analysis is meant to justify). Once we realize that the essence of most government activities consists in harming some individuals in order to favor others, the problem of political power becomes much clearer. The function of the Jaseyian minimal state is to protect liberty and property and to preempt any other state, foreign or domestic, intent on governing. In other words, the function of the minimal state is to preserve minimum anarchy against governing. De Jasay wrote:

If there is a state (which is not the same as claiming that there could be one) which is prepared to agree to these basic conditions [protect property and freedom of contract], it must be one which finds its satisfactions elsewhere than in governing. … The very rational of being a minimal state is to leave few levers for the zealots to get hold of and upset things with if, by the perversity of state or of the electorate, they manage to become the state.

There are objections to the liberal or perhaps conservative anarchism defended by de Jasay. A serious objection, exemplified by primitive stateless society, is that the conventional rules necessary to coordinate behavior in the absence of state laws may be much more oppressive and stifling than those laws and certainly those based on the rule of law. (This argument is invoked by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their recent book The Narrow Corridor.)

Most objections, however, are less persuasive. One of them is that there exist “public goods” that all individuals want (public protection, military defense, etc.) but which private enterprise will not produce, at least in “optimal” quantities. In that area, government serves everybody. Perhaps. The counter-objection is that public goods are not very numerous (the “etc.” in the preceding parenthesis is not easy to document) and that many of them can conceivably be produced privately. Moreover, look at what governments do in practice.

Another objection is that it is as much a value judgment to prefer the moving status quo under the spontaneous order of individual liberty to government meddling in it. This is true, but the objection seems to grant the same moral status to non-liberty as to liberty.

It is also objected that the net effect of governing is not that bad because if it often turns against any given individual, it also often turns in his favor; this “churning” compensates. Every individual is alternatively on one side and the other of the favor-harm divide. James Buchanan tried to explain how a classical-liberal constitution can achieve this feat of preventing some individuals from being stuck in an exploited minority. Perhaps this ideal is worth pursuing, but this is not the way the world is generally going. Leviathan usually wins.

Moreover, except in the special case of public goods, the dream of a governing authority that does not, in a net sense, harm any individual is suspect: if each individual is equally favored and harmed by government interventions, the net effect is zero, not counting the waste and deadweight losses incurred in the process. Then, what is this egalitarian governing useful for? It is true that the qualification of public goods has its importance, but a look at the world shows that their production only represents a small fraction of government activities.

Can governing be anything else than exploitative? Is governing a benediction or a curse for the governed?

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