The Governmentalization of Social Affairs

Walter E. Williams titled one of his books, More Liberty Means Less Government. Less government means less government intervention, less government extraction, less government spending, and less government employment. More liberty means less government.

I know that you hate neologisms, yet I nonetheless propose the governmentalization of social affairs. Albert J. Nock titled a book, Our Enemy, The State. That title is catchier than Our Enemy, The Governmentalization of Social Affairs. But Nock’s title is less sound, I believe.

“Governmentalization” is ugly. But so is the thing that it signifies, so the ugliness is fitting.

By “governmentalization,” I mean government restrictions on individual liberty, but also (and what might be more important) government-sector institutions as big players, living on taxation and privileged positions. Thus, the term governmentalization captures not only government as liberty-violator but also as benefactor, permission-granter, employer, landlord, customer, creditor, educator, transporter, access-granter, grant-maker, prestige conferrer, agenda-setter, organizer, law-enforcer, prison-keeper, recordkeeper, librarian, museum curator, park ranger, and owner of myriad massive properties and resources within the polity. Every one of these activities has a public relations arm, and sway with the systems of schools and culture. Governmentalization spells governmental influence over the culture at large.

Liberty and governmentalization are opposed, by and large, the way that freedom and slavery are opposed. To support liberty is to oppose governmentalization. To favor governmentalization is to oppose liberty.

Volunordination

Yikes! Another neologism! Can you forgive me? I promise it will be the last one.

In arguing for liberty over governmentalization, classical liberals often approach the matter by explaining that liberty gives rise to volunordination, that is, concatenations or orderings of objects, affairs, activities by voluntary processes. The approach asserts that volunordination brings benefits: material, moral, cultural, and spiritual. By and large, the more that social affairs proceed by volunordination, the more beneficial they are.

Two Ways of Being Classical Liberal

Governmentalization crimps, limits, and obstructs volunordination. Improvement is dampened. Government has gotten in the way. There is a deadweight loss. We could climb higher, but governmentalization holds us back. Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden express the approach in their book title, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World. We’d all be richer if the government would leave people alone.

That approach is sound, but there is another.

Rather than framing the matter as blessings hamstrung by governmentalization, one can frame it as the evil of governmentalization being reined in by liberal principles. It’s not that volunordination is wonderful, but rather that governmentalization is evil. It’s not that we want less governmentalization because that means more liberty. Rather, we want more liberty because that means less governmentalization. Governmentalization is odious and disgusting. It is hateworthy.

We limit governmentalization by upholding liberal principles. Governmentalization is a cancer, and liberal principles shrink it. The medicine does not bring on euphoric sensations, it simply reduces the evil. In other metaphors, governmentalization is pollution, poison, a plague of locusts. Liberal principles are the abatement, the antidote, the pesticide.

We don’t expect pesticides to make us virtuous or happy. We expect them to keep locusts away.

Thus, one approach is about a blessing, volunordination, and an undesirable check on it, while the other approach is about a bane, governmentalization, and a desirable check on it. Both approaches are valid, and they complement one another. One highlights the blessings of volunordination, the other the evils of governmentalization.

Do the Thought Experiment

Ponder a world in which Americans were restricted in their liberty as much as they are now. They faced the same restrictions and taxation, all of which initiate coercion against them (including the threat of coercion). But further imagine that, of the resources extracted from the private sector, the government could only actually keep and use 25 percent, while the remaining 75 percent of the money would have to be destroyed, perhaps in a bonfire of $1000 bills.

That would be a world with fewer government players in society. The cancer would be very much reduced. But notice that in this thought experiment, liberty would not be augmented, because the initiation of coercion by government is not actually reduced.

So is liberty really at the heart of classical liberalism? I would say no. The wellbeing of humankind, the good of the whole, is. Classical liberalism sees governmentalization as a bane. (Let me note that I presuppose a reasonably stable polity throughout; absent that presupposition, the matter is murkier.)

Classical liberalism, as a distinctive outlook on human wellbeing, has a spine of liberty. Liberty checks governmentalization. In order for all those $1000 bills to be garnered by the government, and in order to protect the government from competition (thus empowering the Fed to forge $1000 bills out of thin air), the government must violate liberty. Behind the big-player status of government is Big Coercion.

Classical Liberal Obeisance

Classical liberals tend to soft-pedal the second approach. They will say, as Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell say in their book title, Socialism Sucks. But the focus is on socialism in other countries, such as Venezuela, North Korea, and China, not the evils of governmentalization at home.

Leftists use the expression “systemic racism” to crush dissent and advance governmentalization. They ignore how governmentalization in schooling, for example, destroys Black potential. Systemic leftism is what drives disparate impacts.

There are a number of reasons why classical liberals underplay the governmentalization-sucks approach. Liberal principles can rein in governmentalization, but mind who holds the reins. Classical-liberal discourse involves an aspiration of persuading policymakers, and policymakers operate in and around government. Telling government that governmentalization sucks is not necessarily the path to persuasion. He who holds the reins also holds the lash.

There is virtue in endeavoring to persuade toward liberalization. Mixed with that virtue, however, is careerism. In most of government, its apparatus, and its satellites, leftists rule the roost. If you argue that governmentalization is hateworthy, you are hated by governmentalists. 

If you wish to get on in government, in academia, in the media, in the policy community, in many other areas, you ought not make yourself obnoxious to those who dominate there. Hate tends to be mutual, so when you explain that governmentalization is hateworthy, the governmentalists hate you for doing so.

The more prosperous course is to be agreeable, by playing up the blessings of volunordination: “C’mon dears, we will all be better off if we let volunordination enrich us. Let’s not obstruct what is good for all of us.”

The governmentalists won’t be so offended. They nod a bit about days gone by, when freeing up markets was the order of the day. But they then neglect the lesson and, hey, that was then and this is now. They proceed with governmentalization. By stomaching a few ‘nice’ non-leftists they fancy themselves reasonable and open-minded. Market-friendly, even.

Meanwhile, too often, the ‘nice’ non-leftists lose touch with spirited offensives against governmentalization, assume the posture of their discourse, see to their good standing, and give up the ghost.

What Is Your Dataset on Suckiness?

There is another reason that classical liberals stick primarily to the “C’mon dears” approach.

One can use statistics to argue that obstructions dampen the blessings of volunordination. One can quantify wealth, productivity, health, longevity, and one can quantify governmentalization. One then investigates correlation. Those goods, wealth, productivity, health, longevity, are uncontroversial. Also, in particular markets, such as housing, another uncontroversial good, economists can estimate the deadweight loss that results from government obstructions.

The governmentalization-sucks approach, however, is more aesthetic and cultural. Governmentalization sucks principally because of its moral, cultural, and spiritual consequences. Those consequences are difficult to make precise and accurate, either conceptually or empirically. When it comes to consensus, the governmentalists have filled the gallery with their people, at taxpayer expense or otherwise by coercive privilege, and driven out the dissenters.

Also, governments lie about the ill consequences of governmentalization. They falsify and bury evidence, as in Venezuela, North Korea, and China.

A governmentalization-sucks argument for liberal principles is more easily dismissed as non-scientific, as subjective, normative, and mere opinion. Indeed, leftists increasing favor canceling and criminalizing exposure of the lies and the evils of governmentalization.

A Change of Approach

In the 17th and 18th, and much of the 19th centuries, liberalism enjoyed a sort of ascendancy. From about 1885, however, liberalism in the Anglosphere began to falter severely. One reason was that people around 1885 felt disappointed. Liberalism seemed to promise happiness. Britain and the United States enjoyed liberalism to a good extent.

So, people woke up one morning in 1890, and what did they tell themselves? “Hey, I’m still not happy!”

Whad’ya know, (relative) liberalism was not a paradise. It did not eliminate the fundamental problems of man’s existence. It did not relieve man of the fundamental challenge of upward vitality, and thereby, true happiness. 

It seemed that liberalism had failed. Its opponents lied about what liberals had promised. Does Adam Smith ever come across as promising a panacea? The last sentence of The Wealth of Nations tells Britain in 1776, “to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.”

Still, if liberals had given more emphasis to the evils of governmentalization, as opposed to the promise of volunordination, then disappointment would have been less, gratefulness and equanimity greater, and aversion to governmentalization stronger.

Albert Venn Dicey wrote in his 1905 book, Lectures on the Relation Between Law & Public Opinion in England During the Nineteenth Century:

The augmentation…of the public revenue by means of taxation is not only a diminution of each taxpayer’s private income and of his power within a certain sphere to do as he likes, but also an increase in the resources and the power of the state.

More liberty means less government, and less government means less miserableness, servility, fickleness, hypocrisy, denial, mendacity, baseness, and degeneracy. Liberal backbone checks the evil that is the governmentalization of social affairs.

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