I have argued before* that liberalism, in fact all schools of interventionist government, is based upon three assumptions. First, that there is a “right answer” to any given political question; that is, whether that answer is a singular solution or set of answers, there are solutions which are right and solutions which are wrong. Second, that people are incapable of finding this answer on their own, whether because of their own shortcomings or the intervention of malign outside forces. Third, that the government is not just capable of discovering these correct answers, but is the only way to do so.
For the moment, let us ignore the first and last proposition. I disagree with both of them as well, but we will not discuss them today. Instead we will focus on the central premise, the idea that average citizens are incapable of finding the correct answer, of doing the right thing. While it is rarely stated explicitly (for obvious reasons), many times the reason given is that most people are simply too unintelligent or uninformed to do so. For example, this is why Social Security exists to force individuals to save for retirement. The other explanation is more often stated openly, as it is more politically palatable to say that people cannot reach the proper results because of the machinations of (rarely well defined) evil forces. A good example of this would be minimum wage laws, which assume, left to their own devices, employers would never pay employees what they are worth**.
Whether or not we agree with these claims, it does seem they present a problem. Based upon these assumptions of incompetence and/or oppression, the answers offered are, inevitably, to expand the power of government to remedy such shortcomings. But, who makes up this government? Those very same people. In other words, the premise of liberalism is that people are stupid, so let’s give a select subset of those foolish people extraordinary power over the others.
How could this possibly work? If a person is too incompetent to manage his own affairs, how could he possibly do better managing the affairs of millions? Does it not seem he would not only do just as poorly, or even make things worse? Similarly, if people are suffering only because of overly clever evil individuals, does it not seem likely those same individuals would be the ones most likely to seize power, and thus granting them additional power would make things worse, not better? There simply is no way to look at this fundamental principle of big government and not wonder how it can make any sense.
Even admitting, for the sake of argument, that most people are incompetent, it still makes sense to grant them the greatest degree of freedom. Managing the affairs of a single person is easier than managing the affairs of an entire country, and so it makes little sense to give wide governmental power to elected incompetents. And there is also a simple argument to be made for justice as well. After all, if they are going to make mistakes, better they alone suffer the results, rather than huge numbers of their compatriots.
* If you care to read in greater details my discussion of the ideas behind liberalism, and all forms of intervention, it can be found in the (currently unfinished) series of essays “Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences” (which links to the subsequent installments).
** In some ways minimum wage laws fall under both headings, as there is the assumption wages are kept low by the malice or greed of employers, but also the unspoken assumption most employees are too foolish to recognize this and will accept substandard wages.