Is Government Like Immigrants?

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In his speech last night, President Obama listed a lot of groups of people whom we shouldn’t blame for “all our problems”:

We don’t think the government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that the government is the source of all our problems, any more than are welfare recipients, or corporations, or unions, or immigrants, or gays, or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.

He’s right to discourage scapegoating. But there’s a category error here. Government is not just a group of people distinguished by their place of birth, or sexual orientation, or economic organization. Government is defined by its power to use force to achieve its purposes. Gays and immigrants don’t have such power. Neither do corporations or unions or welfare recipients.

No one blames governments for “all our problems.” Indeed, libertarians should be the first to remember, as Dr. Johnson told us,

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

But the introduction of force into human relationships does cause many problems. Taxes reduce incentives and distort decisions, not to mention limiting our freedom. Government spending likewise distorts economic decisions. Government regulation impels people to expend resources in ways that don’t best serve consumer desires. Central bank manipulation of the money supply introduces massive distortions into economic decisionmaking, often bringing about cycles of boom and bust. Drug prohibition, conscription, tariffs, punitive taxes, the exclusion of people from social and economic life on the basis of their race or gender or religion or sexual orientation—a large part of the activities of modern governments do cause many of our problems.

So President Obama is right to warn us against blaming our problems on “any other group,” just as President Clinton was right to warn us in his own acceptance speech 20 years ago not to blame “them—Them, the minorities. Them, the liberals. Them, the poor. Them, the homeless. Them, the people with disabilities. Them, the gays.” But blaming government is not equivalent to that kind of scapegoating.

When we “blame government,” we’re doing two things:

1. We’re pointing to specific policies that caused problems such as the financial crisis or prohibition-related crime or failing public schools.

2. We’re blaming the process of government, which necessarily involves coercion, predation, politicization, the diversion of resources to less-valued uses, and thus a reduced standard of living.

That’s not scapegoating. It’s analysis. It’s economics, history, political theory, and sociology.

[Editor’s Note: Check out Downsizing Government’s essays on the problems caused by federal programs.]