This article was published in the Spring 1994 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
 
Government Grows: True or False?
 
by Richard Hammer

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Outline

A Thesis: Government Grows
Little has Been Written to Help Answer the Question
It Is Hard to Find Evidence
What To Do
 

We in the Free Nation Foundation would like to build toward a free society. To advance this effort, it seems wise for us to study history, to see if history has parallels, something to teach us. I am not a historian. But I will tell some of what I have learned, and speculate about what that means for us. I hope that readers who know more will contribute to our education by writing in their corrections and additions.

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A Thesis: Government Grows

I would like to confirm or refute this thesis:
 

The thesis has a corollary which suggests where we might expect to find liberty:
 

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Little has Been Written to Help Answer the Question

Unfortunately, few historians have studied history as I would like to see it, through a lens which highlights issues of economic liberty and productivity. I will share here the few tidbits I have picked up.

In Our Enemy the State, Albert Jay Nock presents a similar thesis: that governments, once they grow to a certain size, then continue to grow till they collapse. But as I recall, he does not offer much background for this, and does not speculate about the causes.

One book, The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson, does address the theme. She writes, for instance, about the Roman Empire, and correlates, for different periods in its life, the strength of its economy with the freedom of its markets. During the heyday there was great freedom. During the collapse a huge bureaucracy was trying to fix the economy by strengthening its regulation. But I need to read this book again. Paterson makes her points about political economy by writing analogies to machines (dynamos, engines, generators), and unfortunately I did not always get her points.

References in The God of the Machine led me to the work of Lord Acton. This English historian and political thinker (1834-1902) often spoke of his dream to write a book called The History of Liberty. And while Acton never wrote this book, he did leave many lectures and papers. One Liberty Fund volume tantalized me with its title Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Writings of Lord Acton. But unfortunately Acton did not focus on economic liberty, and my exploratory reading leaves me doubting that further reading of his work would answer my present questions.

My thesis that government grows resolutely is supported by the satire of C. Northcote Parkinson. For instance in his book The Law (1980), Parkinson concludes that bureaucratic staffs grow new positions at an annual rate of 5.75%. And this increase continues independent of the amount of work (if any) done by the department in question.

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It Is Hard To Find Evidence

Does the history exist which will prove or disprove my thesis? Such history may be difficult to discover because the records that we have are almost all about acts of governments, and not about acts of private persons or organizations. Bruce Benson, economist at Florida State University, while trying to gather evidence about the nature and maintenance of roads in mediæval England, found virtually no records of the private practices which must have existed early in the period. But the state left records, as gradually over the span of centuries it took over aspects of road maintenance. Governments, Benson notes, are better about leaving records than private interests.

So liberty, the stuff in history which we libertarians would like to document, seems to be unrecorded as such. The times and places in history where liberty existed may be those for which we have the least records.

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What To Do

Suppose this thesis, that government grows, is true. What does that mean for us libertarian activists? Well, for starters, we should keep our heads cool as we perceive the glacier inching toward us; we can know that we are not the first ones to be in this crunch. The thesis suggests that this fight in which we find ourselves embroiled has been going on since the birth of the state.1

And seeing it this way, it may be possible for us to direct our anger more usefully. During the course of my fight against the state, I have been angry with a number of different people and institutions. First I was angry with the agents of the state who carried out the orders of the state. But, thinking about it, I can see these people as relatively innocent, just doing their jobs, and they did not create their jobs. Then for a time I was angry with the politicians. But, thinking about it, politicians did not elect themselves. So in recent years my anger has been directed at the statists all around me who did elect these politicians. But I also need to grow beyond this, because these people also are innocent they are just reflexively using a tool which on the surface appears capable of helping them.

The work plan of the Free Nation Foundation is an attempt to do something rational about the glacier inching toward us. If the corollary to my thesis is correct, then we can be confident that history will continue to produce pockets of liberty. The challenge for us libertarians is this: can we help one of those pockets get created?  Let's try. Join us.  D

 

1 For an eye opening account of the birth of the state, see The State, by Franz Oppenheimer.

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