All government meddling beyond its proper sphere is injustice

When the government subsidizes the steel industry, the wool industry and the arts, or builds space telescopes or particle accelerators, or pays for food critics to fly in from overseas and puts them up at public expense so they can sample the local restaurants, taxes must increase. These activities may seem noble and laudable, but the fact is that property is sacred, and whether taken by a mugger at gunpoint or a government through excessive taxes, the expropriation is wicked and unjust.

A wise and frugal government

A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

—Thomas Jefferson. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801.

Jefferson no doubt assumed ‘wise’ and ‘frugal’ would be considered self-evidently desirable. These days, however, thanks to John Maynard Keynes, frugality is no longer universally considered a virtue; rather, it is considered wise to be profligate. Gaggles of solemn fools pronounce to the cameras the dire necessity of ‘stimulation’ and therefore the wisdom of living beyond your means. Yet Jefferson’s principles are not old-fashioned, they are laws of nature. Sums must add up, and that inescapable fact will always make Keynes’ philosophy absurd. Government finances are no different from personal finances; when individuals are finding it difficult to make ends meet, they would be ill-advised to start borrowing money and spending it wildly. It may well ‘stimulate’ them for a time, but in the long run they will inevitably be ruined.

Banishing arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action

A sound spirit of legislation, which banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another.

—Thomas Jefferson. Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, August 4, 1818.

The need to banish arbitrary restraint has been dealt with in Chapter 2 of this book, entitled ‘‘The Rule of Law’.’ Unnecessary restraint is the prohibitions of behavior that does not violate the rights of others. The European Union directive that prescribes the color of dye to be used in peas is an example; a pea vendor is prevented from choosing from a myriad of different shades of green, or leaving the dye out altogether. The bureaucrat may protest that in order to delude the public into believing peas are green, all vendors must not only use dye but use the same hue of green—otherwise people may stop eating peas. This is an invalid argument. The test is not whether the law is beneficial or counterproductive; the test is whether the person being prevented from acting would, by continuing to act, have violated the rights of another. If the answer is negative, then the law should not be passed. By definition this principle precludes all economic planning and the manipulation of markets.

Instead of arbitrary and unnecessary restraint, legislatures should erect legal frameworks to protect individual rights. These rights should be clearly delineated so people will not unintentionally infringe each other’s rights.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove