Herbert Spencer on Government

Philosopher Herbert Spencer laid out the appropriate limits on what government does well enough to benefit citizens in “Representative Government—What is it Good For?” It merits close attention.

GOVERNMENT is frequently proposed as a panacea for seemingly every problem. But since government is just people with less relevant information and worse incentives than those acting for themselves, backed with coercive power, it is a false promise whose main result is the evisceration of liberty.

The government can only benefit everyone when tightly constrained to enforcing only equal, “natural” rights for all, reserving other choices to individuals.

Our political machine … Its parts are extremely numerous: multiplied, indeed, beyond all reason. They are not severally chosen as specially qualified for particular functions. No care is taken that they shall fit well together: on the contrary, our arrangements are such that they are certain not to fit … had the problem been to find an appliance for the slow and bungling transaction of business, it could scarcely have been better solved.

Besides devising measures to prevent the aggression of citizens on one another, and to secure each the quiet possession of his own…[governments] unhesitatingly take on themselves to provide for countless wants, to cure countless ills, to oversee countless affairs … confident that they know what knowledge is most required. What must be the knowledge and capacities of those who shall achieve it.

If there be any lack of insight respecting the mutual dependence of the many functions which, taken together, make up the national life, unforeseen disasters will ensue from not perceiving how an interference with one will affect the rest. See, then, the immense incongruity between the end and the means … the countless difficulties of the task; and … the almost total unpreparedness of those who undertake it.

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