Something that often strikes me about libertarians is that they seem to see the government as a single, homogeneous mass that must be combated in its entirety. The percentage of GDP spent by the government is often cited as an indicator of how ‘big’ government has gotten, and it is thought that combating this will help reduce the evils of government in general.
However, ‘the government’ is not a unified entity; it’s a web of different and sometimes conflicting interests that are fragmented across space and time. There is no reason to think that stymieing some of its activities will have an impact on the others – for example, most libertarians object to the military industrial complex and the war on drugs, but then view social security or public healthcare as part of the same beast, and think that it is contradictory for leftists to object to the former and want to expand the latter. Quite clearly, however, the latter has very little impact on the former – you are dealing with completely different sets of interests, departments, locations and laws.
This can also be seen in the libertarian view of government as something that comes along and ‘corrupts‘ capitalism; the expansion of welfare and education is seen as part of this. But this makes no sense – the corrupt forces that give us patent law, bailouts and other corporate welfare are completely different to the democratic forces that give us health and education. In neither case does an entity called ‘the government’ come along and act in its own interests; in both cases groups of people utilise the tool of legislation for their own gain. The difference is that in one case this gain goes to a significant number of people whereas in the other it goes to a few. But it is fallacious to equate both just because of the presence of the state.
I have said before that class is a far superior tool for analysis than the somewhat incoherent ‘government’ and ‘market’ that debate has been boxed into. Seeing ‘governments’ as the same across space and time and as homogeneous entities – ones that can be combated by a single metric like the percentage of the economy for which they are responsible – allows very little room for meaningful analysis. This is because the activities of governments are a reflection of the societies they represent, rather than an outside interference dictated by a uniform entity. To paraphrase Scott Sumner, ‘never reason from an action of the state’ – that law or program has been demanded by a group of interests, or the need for it has been brought to light by certain events. In order to understand the activities of government, you have to place them in political context.
Ultimately, the ‘state’ doesn’t actually exist – it’s a web of different classes and individuals using the tool of legislation to advance their own interests, either through representatives or more directly through lobbying and political movements. Libertarians appear to think that cutting back any of this spending has an impact on all of it, but what we actually need to do is ensure that the interests of relatively few people do not have a disproportionate impact on the state’s activities – unfortunately, this is not currently the case.