There are three phrases, each of which is three words long, that govern the thinking of economists.
Supply and demand
High bid wins
At some price
I will focus on the final three words: “At some price.” I want to raise its corollary: “At what price?”
THE COST OF REVOKING OUR RIGHTS
Everyone in this country says he has a right to this or that. Rarely is the word “right” rightly defined. The confusion has always been there. It is the difference between the right to something and the right to be immune from something.
If I have a right that makes me immune, nobody else has a right to interfere with my liberty in this particular area. On the other hand, if the civil government says that somebody else has a right to my income, then I don’t have a right of immunity.
These two concepts of rights are in conflict most of the time. Most voters do not understand the extent to which they are in conflict.
To understand a civil right, which is a guarantee of immunity from interference, we have to understand that civil governments are systematically taking away our rights. Employees of civil governments want to be able to interfere with our actions at any time. Civil governments want to lay down the rules of the game. They want to be able to change the rules of procedure on a regular basis to favor the expansion of the state’s power into our lives. This is basic to all civil governments. Anybody who doesn’t understand this does not understand civil government.
What we have to look at is this: the cost to the government of enforcing its rules. In other words, we must ask: “At what price?” The more expensive it is for the central government to enforce its rules, the greater the degree of civil rights the population can maintain. If we look at civil rights as unconnected with the price of enforcement, we will then have to trust the civil government to be self-restrained. If the civil government can enforce the terms of obedience to its commands at zero price, there will be a great extension of commands. (“As the price falls, more is demanded.”) The cheaper it is for the government to enforce its will, the fewer the civil liberties — legal immunities — we will retain as individuals.
It is a mistake to look at the government as a source of protection of civil rights in the long term. There may be protection by one bureaucracy of its jurisdiction, which means that there may be barriers institutionally that are available to slow down the extension of some other government bureaucracy into our lives. In other words, we pit one bureaucrat against another bureaucrat. We get a turf war going inside the bureaucracy that may conceivably enforce some zone of our liberties. This is what the Soviet Union did almost from the beginning. The only way to get any kind of liberty in the Soviet Union was either to pay a bribe or to get one bureaucratic agency to declare that another bureaucratic agency was intruding into the first bureaucratic agency’s zone of authority.
Anybody who expects the government of the United States to preserve liberty over the long run is suffering from terminal naïveté. He is going to be disappointed.
TECHNOLOGY AND DECENTRALIZATION
The main thing that is going to protect us from an extension of federal authority in our lives is the decentralization that is provided by the development of digital technologies. If we look to anything else, we’re going to be disappointed.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)