Government Doesn't Work

Reason Magazine, March 1998

Letter to the editor

In "The Croly Ghost," Virginia Postrel says the popular libertarian slogan "government doesn't work" is "not so good. . . .It thereby jettisons the entire classical liberal tradition which is very much supportive of 'government' properly constrained in favor of a vague anarchism." This is surprising, coming from someone who has written so many eloquent articles showing that voluntary exchange is far superior to government programs.

One need not be an anarchist (vague or otherwise) to recognize the obvious that government doesn't work. It doesn't deliver the mail on time, keep the cities safe, or educate our children properly. Its War on Poverty and its War on Drugs are massive failures. Millions of Americans have lost faith in government precisely because governments everywhere have reached the inevitable stage where nothing about them works as promised.

When I appeared on hundreds of talk shows as the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1996, often someone would say, "You exaggerate; many government programs work well." But when I asked for a single example, the answer almost always was a deafening silence.

Only two programs were ever offered as evidence of government efficiency. One was the interstate highway system, but no one could explain why a program to build highways inevitably wound up spending billions of our tax dollars on such things as a new Denver airport that no one in Denver wanted and an L.A. subway system that Californians consider a joke. Another person suggested the Weather Bureau but he couldn't explain why TV and newspaper weathermen, relying on government forecasts, are the butt of so many jokes.

Why don't these and other programs work correctly? The answer is simple. Anytime you turn anything over to the government, you transform what was a commercial, medical, social, safety, financial, or military matter into a political issue to be decided by politicians like Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Teddy Kennedy, and Jesse Helms. And guess how they make their decisions?

Conservatives recognize that government is incapable of eliminating poverty, discrimination, smoking, drinking, and many other supposed ills. But when the target is crime, foreign dictators, pornography, drugs, abortion, cloning, or any other item on their menu, government is suddenly transformed into Superman. Just allocate enough money, and the problem will be solved. And if the problem isn't solved, that's proof that not enough money was spent. Transpose the menus and you get the definition of a liberal.

Libertarians, however, know that government doesn't work even when it tries to do something we want. Government is coercion pure and simple. Every government program involves forced activity, forcible prohibition, and/or forced financing or else it wouldn't be a government program. And there's no way to make force efficient or benevolent; it's just force. Thus libertarians are continually looking for ways to take functions any functions away from government, because they want to reduce government force to the absolute minimum possible.

What is the absolute minimum possible? We might argue endlessly about that, but the question is really irrelevant. What's important today is that most people reading this magazine and, in fact, most Americans want much less government than they have now. Once we've harnessed that antigovernment sentiment and reduced government to a fraction of its present size, we can argue over how much further we should go.

But realize that, when that happens, the free market will give the best minds in the world an incentive to devise profitable methods (that we can't even imagine today) by which the free market can perform functions we might think now can be performed only by government. That isn't a "vague anarchism"; it's a reasonable belief that free human beings are much more creative, productive, and efficient than government.

In the meantime, we move in the wrong direction if we attribute to government an efficiency or benevolence it can't possibly possess. That's turning government into a Santa Claus someone who will grant us our wishes if we're good little children and ask for the proper things. In short, it's a fantasy. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Government doesn't work.


Harry Browne was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, and is now the Director of Public Policy for the American Liberty Foundation. You can read more of his articles at