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The wisdom that never works

Summary:
In a short essay that beautifully encapsulates a few of the most relevant arguments in classical liberalism (Over-Legislation, 1853), Herbert Spencer observed: Did the State fulfill efficiently its unquestionable duties, there would be some excuse for this eagerness to assign it further duties. Were there no complaints of its faulty administration of justice… of its playing the tyrant where it should have been the protector… had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender… there would be some encouragement to hope for other benefits at its hands. It is disconcerting that such words, if pronounced today in any parliamentary assembly (not to mention economics departments), would earn the one who utters them the reputation of an extremist. Isn’t it

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In a short essay that beautifully encapsulates a few of the most relevant arguments in classical liberalism (Over-Legislation, 1853), Herbert Spencer observed:

Did the State fulfill efficiently its unquestionable duties, there would be some excuse for this eagerness to assign it further duties. Were there no complaints of its faulty administration of justice… of its playing the tyrant where it should have been the protector… had we, in short, proved its efficiency as judge and defender… there would be some encouragement to hope for other benefits at its hands.

The wisdom that never works

It is disconcerting that such words, if pronounced today in any parliamentary assembly (not to mention economics departments), would earn the one who utters them the reputation of an extremist. Isn’t it simply prudent to make sure that the government does well what it endeavors to do, before adding on its duties? Isn’t it the sort of wisdom we practice with children, making sure they do their homework and do not fail at school, before allowing them to take on whatever extracurricular activity? Isn’t it perhaps something we should do concerning our own work, checking that we are not taking on too many commitments that eventually we will fail to honor properly?

For the government, this basic wisdom seems not to apply, as it is by definition almighty. In a recent blog post, David Boaz, quoting research by Scott Lincicome, suggests that “Before we create new policies, it would behoove us to eliminate the policies that may have caused the very problem we’re trying to solve”. It is paradoxical that this form of common sense is dismissed as libertarian heterodoxy. In a saner world, it would be advocates of government intervention who would insist upon a proper and regular assessment of its works. You can believe that the government spends and decides better than individual people do, but then you should be the first to test this proposition regularly, if only to maintain public trust in government agencies. Instead people tend to believe that UNCHECKED government spends and decides better than people would. Perhaps the true political divide is not, like some of those who hold the aforementioned view tend to imply, between those who like government and those who hate it. It is between those who would give the government a blank check, and those who wouldn’t.

Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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