Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why Coercion Seems to Work

Tibor R. Machan

Despite the fact that hardly anyone now favors out and out dictatorial or totalitarian government—apart from those thriving from being (or associating with) their rulers—lesser types of coercive governments are widely favored. The welfare state is a good case in point. As demonstrated by books such as Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein’s Second Bill of Rights: FDR'S Unifinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever (Basic Books, 2004), the belief in the efficacy and justice of the welfare state is akin to the blind faith some lovers have in their infidel mates—no evidence will dissuade them.

But I suspect something else is also at work here. It is that in most cases coercive policies do not do great enough damage because their targets are too smart to succumb. They continue to thrive and make society function quite well. Just consider the tax system of the United States of America. Sure it’s robbing people of nearly 50% of their resources, most of us are also pretty apt at dodging taxes and of recovering from the government what it has extorted from us. Furthermore, most of us also believe that our success with recovering our losses is just around the corner—with the next good CPA we plan to hire, with the newest loophole we can find, and with innumerable other schemes.

Since we do not live in a totalitarian regime, the coercive measures of government are not very effective. Regulators often help the regulated, politicians often send money back to those from whom they stole it. The war on drugs is a joke. Public education is failing on every front where it touches our lives—it isn’t even able to indoctrinate students into the virtues of strict obedience to government’s schemes to subdue our resistance to its coercive policies. No sooner is some law passed making it tough to escape government’s coercion, some other law is passed—or some court case helps—to escape the coercive policy.

Indeed, what makes the welfare state appealing is that it is so hopelessly incapable of doing what it promises. “Why fret over it?” many people ask! The welfare state is like the rules at various schools that initially seem to rob everyone of all the fun they might have but then prove to be so unenforceable, so lame that students find them their object of ridicule.

None of this is very surprising, at least to me. Human beings are notoriously ingenious. They do not invent all those games that test their brain-power for nothing—such challenges excite them, entertain them and keep life interesting. The welfare state is a kind of unserious obstacle course for many citizens and mostly only those it is meant to help suffer from its oppressiveness.

True all this is costly and very irritating to those of us who can easily imagine a very much better system, one what would produce far greater benefits than what the welfare state promises, let alone delivers. But not everyone is so imaginative and cares all that much about having things turn out best. Many are pleased enough with the so-so, the mediocre, the passable, especially when you look around the globe and see what horrible messes have been made of most other places where people are trying to scratch out a living.

Now my idea is that the welfare state isn’t good enough, despite the fact that millions of people can run rings around it and manage to live well in its more or less coercive midst. But how could this idea be made to triumph?

The only approach I know is education but there can be others, I am reasonably confident. Improving gradually on some institutions would discourage people from accepting the welfare state as, well, acceptable enough. But the most promising avenue is to keep pressing the point that something much better is possible to us than the half-way house of the welfare state, what the Europeans call “the third way.” Let’s go for the first way, I say, even where this third way is passable to a lot of us.

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