The Hidden Premise of Big, Intrusive Government

In his commencement address to the University of Michigan in 2010, President Obama said, “We, the people, hold in our hands the power to choose our leaders and change our laws, and shape our own destiny.” The phrases were chosen to resonate with Americans across the political spectrum, but their precise meaning and implications are the subjects of controversy. Which activities may the state legitimately undertake in the name of “the people”? Is it morally acceptable, for example, for the state to require the people to purchase health insurance?

These questions, economist Daniel B. Klein suggests, boil down to whether or not the claims of the state take precedence over an individual’s right to justly acquired property—an issue that separates progressives and social democrats, one the one hand, and conservatives and libertarians, on the other.

“For social democrats, the state is the overlord and the polity is its dominion,” Klein writes in “Against Overlordship,” the lead article in the fall 2011 issue of The Independent Review. In other words, many progressives and left-liberals view the relationship between the citizenry and the state the same way many people view the relationship between the tenant and the landlord, or between the hotel guest and the hotel owner: one is consenting to the rules simply by staying within the boundaries.

Today’s social democrats and progressives seldom discuss that core belief—the hidden premise of their political agenda—but their intellectual forerunners did, in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Writers such as L. T. Hobhouse and Frank Sargent Hoffman clearly stated their case for the democratic state’s presumptive authority because they were in open rebellion against the prevailing view about the individual and private property, a view articulated by classical liberals such as Adam Smith and David Hume. The challenge to classical liberalism was not adequately met, and the result was an intellectual sea change that cleared the way for the expansion of intrusive government.

“The words liberal, liberty, freedom, justice, contract, property, rights, equality, and equity were defiled and hijacked,” Klein continues. “All the changes in meanings come down to one linchpin: the shift from the individualist to the collectivist conception of ownership.”

Against Overlordship, by Daniel B. Klein (The Independent Review, Fall 2011)

More by Daniel B. Klein

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[This post first appeared in the October 4, 2011, issue of The Lighthouse. To receive this weekly email newsletter of publication summaries and event announcements from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow and former Executive Editor for Acquisitions and Content at the Independent Institute and former Assistant Editor of The Independent Review.
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