Protection, Oppression, and Liberty:
How Much Government?

Right and Left, Protection, Oppression, and Liberty are all directly interrelated, and are in turn a function of what can be termed Government Intervention, or more simply, “How Much Government”.

Throughout most of our political history government has pursued a policy of laisser-faire or minimal intervention in the affairs of society, thus permitting those with superior forces of personality, intelligence and wealth to increase their well-being by diminishing that of others.

Insufficient government intervention permits citizens to harm and exploit one another. That is the essence of Right Wing Conservatism. Under this regime freedom is increased for the stronger elements of society but decreased for the weaker members; hence the overall liberty is not maximized.

The Socialist reaction gave government, or the State, considerably greater powers of intervention designed to help the poor by preventing exploitation and readjusting the balance of wealth.

But excessive government initiates exploitation and oppression by the State. That is the essence of Left Wing Socialism. Under this regime liberty is increased by government protection, but it is then decreased as government goes beyond the point of protection and creates interference, leading to oppression. Again, liberty is not maximized.

Liberty is maximized when government offers full protection, but without moving into oppression.

Thus the significant factor in government policy, and the liberty it produces, is the Degree of Government Intervention.

The “Government Intervention” Scale

The Degree of Government Intervention can be shown as a simple straight-line scale, calibrated from Zero to One Hundred Percent.

At one end of the Scale, at Zero Percent Government Intervention, government quite simply does nothing at all. Government is to all intents and purposes non-existent. The result is anarchy in its pure sense of being without leader, (an arkhos in Greek). In this condition everyone is free to do whatever they like; but this also includes the freedom to limit or eliminate the freedom of others. Liberty, in the sense of a disciplined freedom resulting in a safe and ordered society, does not exist under this regime.

At the other end of the Scale, One Hundred Percent Government Intervention represents total government control over every aspect of life. This is the kind of environment visualized by authors such as Huxley and Orwell, who attempted to highlight the dangers of allowing government to become oppressive. This is the sinister world of Total Control, of citizens directed in their every move and every thought by an ever-watchful Big Brother. Clearly, liberty does not thrive here either.

While there is little current example of zero government, one can still find many examples of a low degree of effective government control resulting in black markets, widespread corruption, and the control of production and commerce in the cities moving from the State into the hands of Mafia-style gangs.

More familiar to Western countries is the Low Degree of, say, a nominal 25% Government Intervention. This is represented by the term Laisser-faire, meaning literally “let people get on with it”.

Low Intervention, or Laisser-faire

An early exponent of Laisser-faire was Adam Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, whose work The Wealth of Nations (1776) became the gospel of the “system of national liberty” for the next century in western political and economic thought.

Smith held that the source of a nation's wealth is labour. The increase in a nation's wealth therefore depends on making labour more efficient, which in turn is achieved by enhancing the investment of capital, developing specialization and mass production, and promoting the free flow of goods and materials in international trade, the whole process remaining free from artificial restrictions of government.

Though Adam Smith saw benefit for all, in practice it would be the owners of capital, production equipment and factory premises who would benefit, to the detriment and impoverishment of those in the weaker position: their employees, the ex-hand-weavers now displaced by machines and clamoring for work at any price to ward off starvation. Women and children were paid a meager wage for long hours of concentrated work tending the machines which were dangerous, unguarded, and caused frequent accidents for which there was neither care nor compensation.

And the law was predictably slow to act in their defense. The bankers, investors and industrialists, being either in power or influential in the formulation of government policy, naturally supported a system which gave them a free rein to take advantage of their superior position. Laisser-faire for them was every bit as rewarding as Adam Smith had promised.

But at the same time it was becoming clear to reformers both in and out of government that while accepting the basic doctrine of liberty, an increase in government intervention was necessary to protect workers and improve their lot.

The movement for reform by legislation in England began with the Factory Acts which between 1833 and 1845 succeeded in limiting the work of children under eleven years of age to nine hours a day and of women to twelve hours. These Acts prohibited the employment of children in mines, and for the first time provided general rules for the health and safety of all workers.

So it was that Government Intervention began steadily to increase, with the justifiable aim of eliminating some of the more blatant opportunities for citizen to infringe the liberties of fellow citizen.

But the pace of reform was too slow for the newly awakening, increasingly organized and motivated working classes. And the pendulum of Government Intervention was to swing over to the other extreme: to socialism and communism, which represented a much higher degree of Intervention than most reformers would ever have visualized.

High Intervention, or Socialism/Communism

Under Socialism and Communism we enter the higher realms of Government Intervention, say a nominal 75%, where an increase in the power of government and the State is actively pursued.

“Place everything in the hands of the State”, the Socialists urged, “and the State will take good care of us all”.

Set against the Victorian backdrop of widespread poverty, ignorance, ill-health and malnutrition, coupled with a concurrently growing sense of conscience and the need for reform, socialism appeared to offer the answer. Only a few there were who could foresee the implications of high and ever-increasing State control.

One such visionary was British author Herbert Spencer, who wrote, back in 1884:

“There is an increasing tendency for administrative compulsion and restraints. The increasing power of the State is accompanied by a decreasing power of the rest of society to resist its further growth and control. The multiplication of careers opened by a developing bureaucracy tempts members of the classes who regulate it to favor its extension, as adding to the chances of safe and respectable employment for their relatives. The people at large, led to look on benefits received through public agencies as gratis benefits, have their hopes continually excited by the prospects of more.”

Spencer's words have proved prophetically correct even in the so-called Free West, as governments take an increasing proportion of the people's earnings yet deliver less and less in return, while The People demand more and more with not a care as to where the money may come from.

Nations and their governments have thus far succeeded in creating and experiencing two kinds of political environment: enslavement of man by man, and government oppression.

Enslavement, exploitation and imposition exercised by citizens over fellow citizens result from a Low Degree of Government Intervention, or Laisser-faire, which permits Imposition by citizens upon one another.

Oppression, government intrusion, State takeover of business, or Socialism-Communism, result from a High Degree of Government Intervention, which creates Imposition by Government.

Where do we find Maximum Liberty?

Liberty is certainly not maximized at Zero Percent Government Intervention. At Zero Percent Intervention there is no government or legal protection of liberty whatsoever. This is anarchy.

As we move away from this condition of lawlessness, proceeding up the Intervention Scale, a gradual increase in Government Intervention provides basic law, order and personal safety, followed as we progress farther up the scale by more sophisticated forms of protection such as consumer, employee and environmental protection.

How far should we continue to increase Government Intervention, or in other words, limit individual freedom?

A very old-established precept of English Common Law provides an answer: it is entirely reasonable for the law to limit or to forbid an action if that action is harmful to others.

Bearing this principle in mind, we continue to increase Government Intervention gradually until we reach the point at which there is sufficient Government Intervention to ensure full protection of each and every individual's liberty from infringement by others in any way, represented by 50% Government Intervention.

Under a regime of 50% Government Intervention there would be no opportunity whatsoever for one individual or class or group to harm or enslave or to infringe the liberty of any others.

At this point we have achieved one “side” of liberty, we have succeeded in eliminating all infringement of the citizen’s liberty by other citizens.

But now we must guard against going any farther, which would lead us into oppression.

As Government Intervention increases beyond 50% a progressive reduction of Liberty immediately begins. Governments are frequently tempted,for example, to make laws regulating personal private conduct “for our own good”. And when government takes upon itself all commerce and industry it is denying individuals the exercise of their natural enterprise and initiative. Apart from the reduction of commercial liberty, this also has disastrous effects on national prosperity, a fact which became the major cause of the collapse of Soviet socialism in 1990.

The Degree of Government Intervention necessary to maximize liberty can thus be identified with a precision which any citizen can readily comprehend, and when necessary, defend.

A government basing its day-to-day legislation on such a clearly definable policy would lose the ability, presently enjoyed by governments of any shade of opinion, to act arbitrarily. Government would be operating under such a precisely defined policy that it would become an interpreter of policy, rather than an originator of arbitrary law.

This would radically alter the legislative process and the relationship between government and citizen. Government functionaries and departments become answerable to a Principle, their actions easily verifiable by any alert citizen.

Citizens would be governed, neither by dictator nor majority, but by a Principle which guarantees maximum protection, minimal or zero oppression, and maximum overall liberty.

There is no power more dangerous, more likely to lead to oppression and war, than arbitrary power unregulated by a built-in discipline ensuring it fulfills, never exceeds, its obligations.

If any man, any woman, acquires or is granted arbitrary power over any other or others, this will – not may, but most surely and certainly will – lead to abuse, misuse and corruption.

The only Power that is competent and can be trusted to regulate the affairs of community and society is the Power of Principle, the Principle that in the pursuit of self-improvement and the exercise of liberty, no-one should injure or exploit others.

This Principle of Liberty is neutral and impersonal. It is a shield, protecting from injury, preventing injury.

Legislators hold no arbitrary or discretionary power. They are simply Interpreters, applying the Principle in terms of everyday events and actions. The process of Interpretation is clearly delineated and circumscribed:

If there is Injury, there must be Protection. If there is no Injury, then there is neither cause nor justification for the interference of law.


Government by Principle

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