What Would Happen If Government Didn’t Handle That?

Those who defend liberty are often challenged to supply exhaustive descriptions of what would happen were some aspect of our increasingly government-dictated lives returned to individuals’ voluntary arrangements. What would happen if government didn’t educate our children? If Social Security didn’t provide for retirement? If Medicaid and Medicare didn’t provide health care? If the USDA, FDA, FAA, etc., didn’t ensure our safety? If the EPA didn’t deal with pollution?

Anyone put on the spot with such questions must recognize that they are rhetorical traps. They are used to put an impossible burden of proof on voluntary arrangements, to allow proponents to dodge having to defend against criticisms of coercive policies.

Answers to such questions are beyond our knowledge. But that does not mean government as ubiquitous answer wins by default. It only means that detailed prediction of what would happen if some government-imposed constraints on freedom were eased is beyond anyone’s comprehensive knowledge.

Therefore, the first part of the answer to “What, precisely, would freedom produce?” is “No one knows.” But failing to answer that unanswerable question in no way detracts from the justified confidence that voluntary arrangements will do things better. In fact, why we can’t answer that trick question helps explain why freedom works so well—it allows previously undiscovered beneficial arrangements that serve people more effectively to develop, even though no one may know exactly what will result in advance.

Simply reflect on what freedom has produced in the past. The miracles that freedom has produced, unknown in advance, offer overwhelming testimony for faith in it.

For example, compare the Post Office with any other form of communication. Its snail’s pace changes contrast with advances in digital communication possibilities beyond earlier fantasies. In fact, freedom has produced miracles all around us whose nature we fail to understand, because we forget their genesis and so take them for granted (e.g., few remember the lost “joys” of carbon paper and its purple progeny as a result of digital copying). 

We need only investigate the many such revolutions to recognize that no one ever knew exactly what would happen beforehand. If people had only pursued what could be clearly foreseen, none of those miracles would have happened and we would be immeasurably poorer. 

But how do we know freedom will create improvements, when “anything could happen?” First, self-interest—the desire to improve the circumstances we face—means improvements are sought. Second, when people’s rights are protected, the need to get others’ voluntary agreement means no one can force worse results on others, but it leaves room for results to be not only better, but unimaginably better. And as Leonard Read’s famous “I, Pencil,” illustrated, market miracles are everyday occurrences.

The burden of proof should be placed where it belongs—on government and its coercion-backed programs. No politician or bureaucrat in any of the government enterprises that have grown to surround us has ever adequately described all the consequences of any instance of government overriding voluntary arrangements (particularly the adverse unintended consequences) with their dictates.

Promises made with such conviction for new government “solutions” have turned out to be unrealized pipedreams, at best, and sometimes nightmares. And unlike self-ownership and the jointly beneficial market arrangements it allows—the source of uncountable successes—there are no such “success stories” that demonstrate miraculous improvement from the intrusion of government. In fact, the only real examples of government-produced positive miracles—those produced by stringently restricting its reach, as with the “thou shalt nots” of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights—only reinforce a legitimate belief in freedom and corollary distrust of government.

When predicting the future, “I don’t know” is virtually always an important part of the answer. But when people are free, the results of their voluntary arrangements will be as good as they can discover, even if they are unknown in advance. In contrast, public policies based on what Friedrich Hayek called the “pretense of knowledge,” backed by coercion, are neither demonstrated to, nor likely to, produce improvement in our social coordination, however frequently or adamantly such promises are made. In fact, if the burden of proving its effectiveness was put on government, rather than liberty, vanishingly little of government would survive, but more market miracles would occur.

This article appeared at FEE.org at:  https://fee.org/articles/what-would-happen-if-government-didn-t-handle-that/