Good government? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Many today believe so. Who can blame them? Our political system has increasingly become a chaotic jungle driven by competing pressure groups (“special interests”) seeking special “favours” and handouts from government. Politicians are generally distrusted and despised for their broken promises, flip-flops on issues, empty rhetoric and pork-barreling.

Bad government undermines prosperity and peaceful coexistence, which undermines personal development, achievement and enjoyment of life.

But bad government is not an inevitable condition of social existence — it’s root cause is the failure to uphold and protect individual rights.

Individual rights are rarely discussed by mainstream intellectuals, who are busy promoting some version of so-called collective rights — all of which involve sacrificing the individual to some group, be it the “needy,” the majority, one’s tribe, the “public,” or whatever. Consequently, most people do not understand what individual rights mean, what they rest on, or what they lead to.

What they lead to is good government, prosperity and peaceful coexistence. To best understand why and how, consider a hypothetical situation involving the person you know best — yourself.

Individual rights are rarely discussed by mainstream intellectuals, who are busy promoting some version of so-called collective rights — all of which involve sacrificing the individual to some group, be it the “needy,” the majority, one’s tribe, the “public,” or whatever. Consequently, most people do not understand what individual rights mean, what they rest on, or what they lead to.

Imagine escaping alone from a tyrannical country and becoming shipwrecked on a desert island. All you have are some fruit and vegetable seeds in your pocket. You are young and intelligent, but without special skills.

To stay alive, you must obtain food and fresh water, and maintain a fire for warmth and cooking, which initially consumes all your time. You soon figure out how to produce your basic survival needs more efficiently — by constructing fish traps, farming tools, an irrigation system — thus allowing you to accumulate “savings,” which buys you time and affords you insurance against unforseen setbacks, such as storms, injuries, illness.

With the time saved, you discover how to produce other goods, such as clothes, tools, a shelter, furniture, etc., for enhancing your life. You enjoy inventing new technology to increase your production, but find yourself quite limited, not to mention lonely, on your own.

Hurray! Others become shipwrecked. Each person, rather than produce all his own needs himself, focuses on producing one item efficiently, then trades his surplus production at the market for the produced goods of others.

You marvel at the production efficiency of the “division of labour,” and the corresponding enhancement of everyone’s life, especially when you now have tools, engines, machines, electricity, etc., to enhance production. Consequently, life is more safe, secure, comfortable and enjoyable.

Prosperity keeps rising. When someone makes a breakthrough discovery boosting his productivity, he benefits significantly — and so do the rest of you because he has more goods to trade for yours.

You recall being told that “one man’s gain is another man’s loss,” and that “peaceful coexistence is impossible in our dog-eat-dog world.” That seemed true in your “old country,” but here people respect each other’s freedom and property, and are generally cheerful and benevolent. You conclude that living in the right kind of society can enhance your life tremendously.

You had specialized in petroleum production but some clever upstart competes with you and produces oil much more efficiently; so you switch to farming. You tell yourself that your desire to produce oil isn’t a rational reason to despise or block someone’s superior ability. Such reactions would not be in your rational self-interest, let alone anyone else’s.

Many more become shipwrecked and specialize in various productive endeavors, thus yielding a greater quantity, variety and quality of goods and services on the market. “Immigration is good,” you conclude.

Some have specialized in music, theater, painting, sculpture, etc., for people’s pure enjoyment or “spiritual” sustenance; some have specialized in services such as health care, education, engineering design and scientific research.

The more wealth you create, the more future-oriented you become. When petroleum reserves start to decline you decide — after careful planning — to use your savings, plus a loan from a banker/investor, to hire the brightest people by offering top salaries to conduct scientific research to discover a cheaper energy alternative.

After several arduous yet exhilarating years, the researchers succeed, thus making you (and the shareholders) extremely wealthy, which allows you to purchase the best products and services available. You feel “on top of the world.” You recall being told that wealth is a sign of selfishness and that selfishness is evil, but you now realize that true selfishness means using your mind to create and achieve values, thereby enhancing your life and happiness. How could that be evil?

While most understand that one must earn what one gets, some unfortunately do not. Some observe the “surplus” wealth and, evading its cause, choose to seize it by force.

Besides, everyone’s life is enhanced by your success because cheaper energy improves everyone’s production efficiency. In your old country you would have been condemned as a “robber baron” on the absurd premise that all wealth is stolen from somebody, somehow. But here you are praised for your success by those who know first-hand that wealth must be created, and therefore rightfully belongs to the creator.

Other long-range entrepreneurs make similar breakthroughs in areas such as medicine, transportation, communications, etc. At this point you induce an enlightening principle regarding human nature and human survival. Whether alone or in society, the root of man’s survivability is his reasoning mind — and the sky is the limit. If man acquires knowledge of the world by focused observation, careful experimentation and rigorous logic, he can guide his actions efficaciously to secure and enhance his life. The emotional reward is happiness.

While most understand that one must earn what one gets, some unfortunately do not. Some observe the “surplus” wealth and, evading its cause, choose to seize it by force.

The appearance of criminals necessitated “common sense” laws prohibiting murder, assault, theft, fraud, etc., police to enforce these laws, and courts of justice to prosecute criminals objectively. Letting individuals retaliate against criminals on their own proved destructive because it fostered lynch mobs and mafia-style policing, all leading to anarchy.

The appearance of criminals necessitated “common sense” laws prohibiting murder, assault, theft, fraud, etc., police to enforce these laws, and courts of justice to prosecute criminals objectively. Letting individuals retaliate against criminals on their own proved destructive because it fostered lynch mobs and mafia-style policing, all leading to anarchy.

Also, you discovered that law courts are valuable for settling contractual disputes objectively, in case the parties involved have different interpretations (innocently enough) of their contract.

Furthermore, it was learned from new immigrants that your old country plans to conquer your new country because their social system has left them poor and miserable, although heavily armed. So you established a voluntary army for “self-defence.”

In your old country people feared and hated their government, but you have come to realize the crucial value of government in preserving creativity, prosperity and peaceful coexistence.

Unfortunately, some businessmen saw government power as a means of gaining economic power, and lobbied politicians for special handouts and legislation that — in the name of “fair competition” — effectively cripple successful competitors. Labour leaders followed suit by securing special laws that — in the name of “workers rights” — effectively force employers to heed to the dictates of union bosses, who prefer that workers be rewarded for their “loyalty” to unions, not for performance.

Overall, the incentive to think and produce has been replaced by the incentive to lie, lobby, rule and loot.

In the name of “economic stability” the government took control of the monetary system from private banks, which had used gold as the standard of money. The government abandoned the gold standard in order to freely print paper money to cover its expenses and “stimulate economic growth.” But the net effect was to dilute the purchasing power of everyone’s savings because more money chasing the same goods raises prices.

The rapid expansion of money and credit in the economy did stimulate economic activity, as would any counterfeit operation, but was quickly followed by rising prices. When “hyperinflation” ensued, the government jacked up interest rates, thus plunging the economy into a depression.

The depression got blamed on “greed” and the “unplanned,” “unbridled” nature of a “free economy.” This led to a major expansion of government power and spending in the name of “economic planning,” “social justice” and the “public welfare.” Things improved somewhat and the government took full credit for the improvement. Now taxes keep rising to cover growing government expenses.

With expanded government power came the formation of more and more pressure groups or “special interests” which lobbied government for handouts, special “favours” and more laws — all in the name of “public interest.”

And whenever somebody advocates slowing down the growth of government, the “humanitarians” scream that such actions attack the “needy.” Sacrificing the “haves” to the “have nots” has become a moral absolute few dare challenge.

You used to enjoy thinking about your next move to boost productivity and market share, but now your mind keeps banging into roadblocks called “red tape” and disincentives called “taxes.” “What’s the use?” — you now repeatedly tell yourself.

Unemployment has risen dramatically. Punitive labour and tax laws have eroded the incentive to hire people while generous government welfare and unemployment insurance schemes have eroded the incentive to work. The high unemployment rate is blamed on private corporations for not sacrificing themselves to the “public good.”

Overall, the incentive to think and produce has been replaced by the incentive to lie, lobby, rule and loot.

Productivity keeps declining as government keeps expanding. More and more people become dependent on government assistance. In the past there were people who needed help due to some handicap or unforseen mishap, but their numbers were small; and voluntary charity took good care of them. Now, “the needy” are numerous, loud and mostly irresponsible.

Nobody can plan for the future because nobody can predict what government will do next. Besides, “savings” — the key to future planning — have been sacrificed by governments to “consumption” in the name of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Private scientific research has dwindled while government “science” keeps “proving” that bigger government is needed to secure our future.

And whenever somebody advocates slowing down the growth of government, the “humanitarians” scream that such actions attack the “needy.” Sacrificing the “haves” to the “have nots” has become a moral absolute few dare challenge.

People who were once responsible, cheerful, honest, and benevolent have become irresponsible, cynical, untrustworthy and even malevolent. Respect for individual liberty and admiration for success have been replaced by power lust, envy and hatred of the successful.

Finally, you realize that the government has become a massive agent of destruction. …Instead of protecting individuals from criminals, it has become the leading agent of criminal action.

Finally, you realize that the government has become a massive agent of destruction. Instead of protecting one’s freedom to think, create values and enjoy one’s creations — freedom from the coercion of others — the government has become a massive agent of coercion, sacrificing the individual to the desires and demands of others. Instead of protecting individuals from criminals, it has become the leading agent of criminal action.

You realize that the only way to make government contribute positively to human life — to actually do good and be good — is to severely restrict its power to that of protecting each individual’s right to his “life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.”

You have thus discovered the life and death importance of protecting individual rights. What’s needed now is a constitution that bars the government from criminal behaviour, but hands government a monopoly to retaliate, according to clearly defined rules, against those who violate legitimate individual rights.

You realize that the only way to make government contribute positively to human life — to actually do good and be good — is to severely restrict its power to that of protecting each individual’s right to his “life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.”

The name of this social system is capitalism — laissez-faire capitalism.

Individual rights protect man’s freedom — freedom from the coercion of others — to pursue his life and happiness in the only way he can, by following reason. Initiating force against another, by its vary nature, is anti-reason and therefore anti-life. This is what our mainstream intellectuals and politicians obscure, evade and oppose when they advocate the violation of individual rights.

When a collectivist claims that individual rights must be subordinated to the “public good,” his concept of “public” is divorced from individuals, and his concept of “good” is divorced from reason, freedom and justice. His claim amounts to: The needs or desires of some necessitate the enslavement and destruction of others.

When a collectivist (qua altruist) claims that “the needy” will perish without sacrificing the “haves” to the “have nots,” he obliterates the distinction between the truly needy and those generated by collectivist policies. The truly needy are far better off on private charity under laissez-faire capitalism. What the collectivist is actually advocating in practice is destruction of the able for the sake of destruction.

When a collectivist claims that individual rights must be subordinated to the “public good,” his concept of “public” is divorced from individuals, and his concept of “good” is divorced from reason, freedom and justice. His claim amounts to: The needs or desires of some necessitate the enslavement and destruction of others.

When a professor teaches unwary students that individual rights breed poverty and social strife, whereas “collective rights” breed prosperity and social harmony, he does not know that he is talking about.

Prior to the 19th Century, when individuals were at the mercy of tribal chiefs, roaming Attilas, religious dictators, feudal lords and the Divine Right of Kings, economic progress was slow — with several severe setbacks, such as the Dark Ages — and human life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”

Thanks to the growing respect for individual freedom during the late Renaissance (rebirth of reason) and Enlightenment, culminating in the birth of the United States and its Bill of Rights, the 19th century (1815-1914) was unprecedented in rising prosperity and peace. (Note that the U.S. Civil War resulted from the Founding Fathers’ single failure, in the “spirit of compromise” to Southerners, to abolish slavery — a collectivist doctrine that blatantly violates individual rights.)

Although there recently has been some movement away from statism and towards capitalism or “globalization,” many intellectuals and politicians are desperately trying to stop and reverse this trend by obscuring the meaning of individual rights and its foundation in reason and rational self-interest.

People fled from their suffocating and tyrannical homelands to enter the “land of the free, and home of the brave” in order to breath, think, produce and prosper.

Statism — the politics of concentrating power in the state at the expense of individual liberty — returned with a vengeance in Europe during the 20th century (via Communism in Russia, Fascism in Italy, and Nazism in Germany), making it the bloodiest century in history.

Freedom did not disappear in Canada or the U.S., but freedom has been significantly eroded as our governments expanded their powers at the expense of individual rights. The result has predictably been pressure-group warfare, economic decline, political chaos and widespread national disunity.

Although there recently has been some movement away from statism and towards capitalism or “globalization,” many intellectuals and politicians are desperately trying to stop and reverse this trend by obscuring the meaning of individual rights and its foundation in reason and rational self-interest.

Understanding what individual rights mean, what they lead to, and what they are based on is the first crucial step towards getting us back on the road to rising prosperity, national unity and good government.

First published in Capitalism Magazine on April 5, 1998.