Force? Or Freedom?

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, August 30, 2004

Amid all the complaints that the initiative and referendum process is turning Nevada into “East California,” the real root of the problem—in both states—remains remarkably absent from discussion.

A single chronic error in governance is at the heart of every controversial measure contending for a place on Nevada’s November ballot. In some cases—the questions to repeal last year’s tax hikes and exclude state government employees from the Legislature, for example—the ballot measures are only reactive responses to this particular syndrome.

In other cases—the AFL-CIO’s scheme to make Nevada’s minimum wage permanently higher than the nation’s, the teacher union’s plot to significantly increase the burden on Silver State taxpayers, and the trial lawyers’ two Trojan-Horse questions attempting to trick voters into unknowingly killing tort reform—the ballot measures actually seek to extend this particular pathology and exploit it for monetary gain.

This same duality has long characterized California’s ballot questions: Measures that require higher taxes alternating with measures that attempt to protect taxpayers.

It is often said that California voters, by approving both kinds of measures over the years, have been a big source of the Golden State’s chronic fiscal problems.

Yet the desire to spend little and yet receive much is actually entirely sensible. And a little reflection shows that it’s not the real problem. After all, any seller of any good or service would always prefer to be paid more. Similarly, any buyer of any good or service would always prefer to pay less.

Yet this normally produces no crisis, and massive bankruptcies do not follow. Instead, the different desires of buyers and sellers are harmonized by the market process. Out of the bidding back and forth, a natural price emerges that satisfies most buyers and sellers.

The reason this happens is simple: the transactions are taking place in a free market, where neither buyers nor sellers can compel the other.

At root, the runaway fiscal problems of California’s state government—like those emerging in Nevada’s state and local governments—stem from the fact that special interests have moved many important services into the realm of politics and government. In other words, into the realm of coercion.

The result is a kind of political cancer.

In medical cancer, cells become diseased and begin attacking their neighboring, healthy cells, turning them, too, cancerous, and damaging the body’s ability to continue its life-sustaining processes.

In political cancer, some groups use the political system as a means through which to attack and parasitically feed on the life-sustaining activities of other groups. The success of the predators, if unchecked, soon leads other individuals and groups to adopt the same stratagems. Eventually, the entire productive community begins stumbling beneath the increasing financial burden of the multiple predations. Even more destructive, however, is the moral corruption that also increasingly penetrates the entire community. Predation cannot be sustained without lying; the more systemic the predation, the more systemic must the lying also become.

Like America itself, both Nevada and California were founded on principles of strictly limited constitutional government. Yet our political systems have been deeply corrupted by successful efforts to breach those very same safeguards. The result, everywhere, has been an increasingly cynical “looter” mindset and a resulting growth of political hostility and polarization.

Yet none of this is necessary. It all grows out of the illegitimate extension of governmental coercion. When men exchange goods and services freely and are not able to use government to force each other to act against their personal judgments of what is in their own self-interest, exploitation disappears. They soon discover that their interests are complementary.

In a free marketplace, it soon occurs to every individual that the way to serve his own interests is to “interest” himself in, and find some means of satisfying, the desires of other men and women. Thus, in serving others’ interests, each also serves his own, and everybody wins.

The political sphere, however, is always, ultimately, the effort to impose unilateral “solutions” on other citizens through governmental force: “Your desire is irrelevant, because I’ve been able to get the government’s gunmen on my side. Resist and they’ll put you in jail. Resist that, and you’ll die.”

It’s because the essential nature of government is to coerce people—i.e., to deal with them through barely disguised hostility and polarization—that America’s increasing turn toward “government solutions” is only producing ever more … hostility and polarization.

And, of course, more ballot efforts to either prey upon—or defend—taxpayers.

Steven Miller is policy director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute

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