By Richard Ebeling
Herbert Spencer on What Government Is and Is Not Good For
Nearly 165 years, the British laissez-faire liberal political philosopher and sociologist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), published an article, wondering, “Representative Government – What is It Good For?” (1857). At a time when the hope and dream in representative democracy was still on the inspiring ascendency, Spencer proceeded to point out its weaknesses and shortcomings. (Herbert Spencer, Man versus the State [Liberty Fund, 1981] pp. 331-382)
Democratic elections are often more about the personalities of those running for political office, he said, and not about their competency and experience with managing the affairs delegated to them in the political system. Once elected, those in political office and others around them often come to have one overriding purpose: reelection and the perks and powers that come with government positions.
Helping those who have placed them in office with bestowed privileges and favors frequently seems to be an overarching goal of those elected on the political scene. Able to spend other people’s money, those in political office give far less thought to waste and fiscal irresponsibility than those managing and investing their own money in a private enterprise and their own private life.
Rarely does it cross the minds of those in government to ask what government should be limited to doing, rather than focusing on proposals for what government will do, given the changing temper of the political winds. Said Spencer:
“The original and essential office of a government is that of protecting its subjects against aggression, external and internal . . . This essential work, discharged with extreme imperfection, is joined with endless other work; the government has a controlling action over all conduct, individual and social – regulates dress, food ablution, prices, trade, religion – and exercises unbounded power . . .
“This comprehends the regulation of nearly all actions going on throughout society . . . [Those in political authority] unhesitatingly take on themselves to provide for countless wants, to cure countless ills and to oversee countless affairs . . .
“The distress resulting from improvidence, they undertake to remove; they settle the minimum which each ratepayer shall give in charity; and how the proceeds should be administered . . . Certain that social necessities will not cause a sufficiently rapid spread of knowledge, and confident that they know what knowledge is most required, they use public money for the building of schools and paying teachers; they print and publish State-school-books, and they employ inspectors to see that their standard of education is conformed to . . .
“They determine how houses will be built, and what is a safe construction for a ship; they take measures for the security of railway-traveling; they fix the hour after which public houses [bars] may not be open; they regulate the prices chargeable by vehicles plying the streets of London; they inspect lodging houses; they arrange for burial-grounds; they fix the hours of factory hands. If some social process does not seem to them to be going on fast enough, they stimulate it; where the growth is not in the direction which they think most desirable, they alter it; and so they seek to realize some undefined ideal community.” (pp. 353-354; 381)
Limiting Government Can Narrow the Divisions and Damage
These interventions were criticized and challenged by Herbert Spencer, by the way, at the very time when a relatively laissez-faire outlook was supposed to be the reigning regime in 19th century Great Britain!
All of these interventions, regulation, controls, restrictions, redistributions and manipulations, Spencer reasoned, cause tension, hostilities, and divisiveness in society. One group of individuals are put upon by government in various and sundry ways for the benefit and purpose of others in society. Those in and around government use their positions and taxed revenues and resources to serve their own purposes and those of the people who have put them and keep them in political office.
Politics becomes a life and death struggle, a fight to the finish, since the winning side with the majority upper hand is able to impose and enforce its views and values on all in society. Only by limiting government to those few though essential functions can these tensions, angers, and divisions be reduced or even removed. Explained Spencer:
“The objections to representative government awhile since urged, scarcely tell against it at all, so long as it does not exceed this comparatively limited function. Though its mediocrity of intellect makes it incompetent to oversee and regulate the countless involved processes which make up the national life; it nevertheless has quite enough intellect to enact and enforce those simple principles of equity which underlie the right conduct of citizens to one another . . .
“Stupid as may be the average elector, he can see the propriety of such regulations as shall prevent men from murdering and robbing; he can understand the fitness of laws which enforce the payment of debts; he can see the need for measures to prevent the strong from tyrannizing over the weak; and he can see the rectitude of a judicial system that is the same for rich and poor . . .
“Again, in respect of this all-essential function of government, there is a much clearer identity of interest between representative and citizen, than in respect of the multitudinous other functions which governments undertake . . . The complexity, incongruity of parts, and general cumbrousness which deprive a representative government of that activity and decision required for paternally-superintending the affairs of thirty millions of citizens; do not deprive it of the ability to establish and maintain the regulations by which these citizens are prevented from trespassing against one another.” (pp. 377-379)
Limiting Government Will Reduce Political Angers and Fears
The only longer-run way to reduce these divisions and fears that people have about each other in the political sphere is by reducing and narrowing what government does and how. Human affairs have to be depoliticized, denationalized, and moved back to the private arena of personal choice and voluntary associations and exchanges both inside and outside of the marketplace.
From this will come real diversity, inclusiveness, and social harmony and justice by ending the imposition of one set of priorities, preferences and policies on all due to a successful coalition of groups that have formed a sufficient majority in an election. Until this happens, future opinion polls will continue to highlight the tense divisions that persist in American life. And each group of voters will go on viewing opposing groups as threats to the very well-being of society.
Originally posted on American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Republished with permission.