Is limited government possible?

De Jasay

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. How did this change take place? I do not know.

The famous opening passage in Rousseau’s Social Contract is implicitly asking both why man is governed, and whether his subjection to government is legitimate.

Social contract theory has since developed a fairly coherent answer. Its premise is that there are benefits—of which civil order is the arch-example—which men can enjoy without making a contribution to their production.

Since under these circumstances no one has an incentive to contribute, no benefit could be produced unless the necessary contributions were extracted by the threat of superior force. However, if all would rather contribute and benefit—for example, maintain order by obeying the rules and pay to help make everybody else obey them —than not contribute and have disorder, then submission by all to the threat of force is morally equivalent to unforced, free choice. No matter how and why it took place in actual fact, submission is legitimate because it would have been rational to arrange it by voluntary contract.

The binary alternative—government or no government—raises neat questions and allows simple answers. It presents the normative and the descriptive aspect in apparent harmony: government ought to exist, and it does. The continuous alternative—not whether government, but how much?—defies that simple logic of unanimous preference. It involves at least three difficulties:

I. Some members of society may prefer more government than others.

Hence it is impossible to state the “collectively” preferred alternative without weighing various persons contradictory preferences against one another. If this is deemed an inadmissible manner of making a descriptive statement of fact, one cannot even say how much government society wants.

II. Arguments, validly derived from various commonly agreed values, can be found in favor of both more and less government.

It is impossible to settle the normative issue—how much government ought society to have?—without ruling out conflicting values or, at least, without trading off pro and con arguments against each other in some way that must depend on somebody’s judgment. Thus, no answer to the question of how much government can be free of charges of arbitrariness.

III. Worst of all, there may simply be no practical means by which society can adjust the actual size of government to what it “really” prefers or what it “ought” to have (assuming that one or both of these stipulations can be given an acceptable meaning).

In the light of secular experience, it is very much an open question whether the size of government is really the product of an ascertainable “social preference,” existing independently of the government whose size it ought to determine. For all we know government may be cause rather than effect.

It may indeed be the case that, to paraphrase Rousseau, man is born with a desire for minimal government and everywhere he keeps creating maxi- mal ones.

Is limited government possible? by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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