Thursday, April 22, 2010

Skepticism about Government Regulation

Tibor R. Machan

In most eras of human history around the globe people worried about the power of governments, although for a long time little could be done since power was deemed the source of authority. You had power, you got the authority, never mind if you were right, just, fair, or even sensible. Even when finally it dawned on quite a few people that there's no justification for regarding some of us as inherently superior to others, there was still confidence in the idea that some kind of powerful ruler is needed to keep the peace and promote justice. The main figure who tried to come to terms with this is Thomas Hobbes the 17th century English political philosopher and author the famous treatise Leviathan.

Hobbes believed, as most of us do today, that no one is born superior to another, no one has some kind of innate authority to rule other people. However, once we figure out what laws should govern us so we behave peacefully toward our fellows--something we aren't naturally inclined to do but we figure would be a good idea in any case--Hobbes believed a society requires a powerful ruler. In principle this ruler would be selected by the citizenry but once that happened, he or she would have near absolute power. The only warrant for opposing him would be if he became a threat to the lives of the citizenry. (This idea is there in the Declaration of Independence, modified a bit by another English political philosopher, John Locke.) So even though Hobbes believed us all to be equal as far as our virtues and our skills are concerned, he did think that the laws need a very powerful government so as to be enforced. Without it, there would be too many who would try to dodge it and start lording it over the rest.

It needed the input another famous philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, to come to the realization that Hobbes' "solution" to the threat of lawlessness had a major flaw. He didn't think it much of a problem that the absolute ruler might abuse his or her powers. Spinoza figured so much and began to argue for greater and greater dispersion of power among the citizenry and oppose extensive centralization. Spinoza's worries were beginning to be shared by many others and the classical liberal movement was born, with such figures as John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and, more recently, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and Robert Nozick all putting their heads to work on the problem. What they concluded, after their study of human nature and human history, is that the problem of the threat of lawlessness cannot be dealt with by making government all powerful since government poses the greatest such threat.

This lesson is one that seems to need relearning over and over again. In our time, too, there is ample evidence that people share Hobbes' misjudgment when they believe that problems in our society require, first and foremost, extensive and powerful interference by governments. That is just what those who advocate more and more government regulation of business--including of the professionals in the financial community or "Wall Street"--seem to believe. They are followers of Hobbes who think that the government can be trusted to use its immense powers for good, hardly ever for evil.

The American Founders disagreed and their followers still do. I don't know too many Tea Party members personally but it is clear to me that they are far more loyal to the political thought of the American Founders than to that of Thomas Hobbes and, therefore, to President Obama and his team. And while they may not all be on the same exact page about what is or is not the proper role of government, they tend to want to minimize its power, just the way Spinoza, Smith, Locke, Mill and the other classical liberals wanted to.

Indeed, it seems to be common sense to worry about investing government with all the power being advocate for it now by Mr. Obama and Co., since, to put the matter simply, there is no reason to think that those who are the government possess any superior virtue and wisdom compared to the rest of us. And once invested with power, the temptation of governments to misuse it becomes difficult to resist.

As the question goes, "Who is going to regulate the regulators when they engage in truly dangerous misconduct?"

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