Why Government Doesn’t Work

Harry Browne

This book, written by Harry Browne for his 1996 presidential campaign, is a gem.  Below are some quotes I enjoyed.


Finding the Guns of Government Government Defined Government: Hard to Control Trashing Medical Care Government Blames Us Equal Benefits Why Government Grows The Dictator Syndrome What Happens to Law Coercion Never Produces Harmony Your Pet Regulation Will Be Perverted You’re Not a Dictator Government Bringing Peace? For You or Against You? See No Evil How It All Began Perversion of Good Intentions Unleashing What Works George Washington Quote Frog in the Frying Pan Government Growth During the Civil War Income Tax Rises Dramatically The Regressive Era


1  The Breakdown of Government

Part One:  Why Government Doesn’t Work

2  What is Government?

Finding the Guns of Government (pp. 11–12)

In some government agencies, such as the police and prisons, the role of coercion is obvious.  But it is at work in every government program—although the program’s supporters rarely acknowledge it.

If this seems like too sweeping a statement, it may be that you’ve never tried to resist a government program.  If you did, you’d have learned very quickly that the program is enforced by a gun.  The easiest way to spot the gun is to imagine what would happen if you decided to ignore the government’s “request.”

Suppose, for example, that you’re a barber.  One day the state Board of Tonsorial Cutters of Hair (BOTCH) issues a regulation to stop “cut-throat competition”—decreeing that no barber can charge less than $8 for a haircut.  (Many states do have laws prohibiting barbers from charging less than a stated minimum price.)

So long as you charge at least $8, you won’t even notice the regulation.  But suppose your price is only $6.  Perhaps you’re in a low-income neighbourhood where people can’t afford $8 haircuts, or maybe your shop is new and you want to attract customers, or perhaps business is slow and you need to stimulate sales.  For whatever reason suppose you offer haircuts for $6.

You may be able to get away with this for a month or two.  But eventually folks at BOTCH will send you a letter, ordering you to desist.

If you comply by boosting your price to $8, you’ll hear nothing more.  But if you keep cutting hair for $6, eventually some men in suits will come to your shop and warn you to stop undercharging.

If you continue to ignore the law, you’ll receive a subpoena—telling you to appear in court.  If you don’t show up, or if you ignore the court’s order to raise your price, your barber’s license will be revoked.

If you defy the court by continuing to cut hair, another group of men will come to your shop.  These fellows may not be in suits, and they will probably have guns.  They will be there to close your business.

If you resist, their job will be to “take you into custody”—which is a euphemism for seizing you, handcuffing you, and taking you to jail.

At this point, it will be obvious that the regulation’s purpose is to force barbers to charge at least $8—not by persuasion, but with a gun.

Every government program, no matter how benign it may appear, is the same.  Coercion is the reason—and the only reason—it is a government program.

Government Defined (p. 12)

So what is government?  Very simply, it is an agency of coercion.

Of course, there are other agencies of coercion—such as the Mafia.  So to be more precise, government is the agency of coercion that has flags in front of its offices.

Or to put it another way, government is society’s dominant producer of coercion.  The Mafia and independent bandits are merely fringe competitors—seeking to take advantage of the niches and nooks neglected by the government.

3  Oops!  Why Government Programs Always Go Astray

Government: Hard to Control (p. 14)

Government is a powerful tool.  But it’s far easier to put it in motion than to control it.  When government is involved, nothing ever seems to work out as intended.

Trashing Medical Care (p. 15)

Medicare provides a good example.  It was created in 1965 to make it easier for the elderly to get health care.  But by reducing the patient’s out-of-pocket costs, it increased the demand for doctors and hospitals.  And it reduced the supply of those services by requiring doctors and other medical personnel to use their time and attention handling paperwork and complying with regulations—and looking for ways to circumvent these things.  So the price of medical care rose sharply as the demand soured and the supply diminished.

As a result, the elderly now pay from their own pockets over twice as much for health care (after adjusting for inflation) than they did before Medicare began.  And most older people now find it harder to get adequate medical service.  Naturally, the government points to the higher costs and shortages as proof that the elderly would be lost without Medicare—and that government should be even more deeply involved.

When Medicare was set up in 1965, the politicians projected its cost in 1990 to be $3 billion—which is equivalent to $12 billion when adjusted for inflation to 1990 dollars.  The actual cost in 1990 was $98 billion—eight times as much.

4  Why Government Grows & Grows & Grows

Government Blames Us (p. 17)

The bad consequences of a government program usually don’t show up immediately.  And the delay may be long enough to hide the connection between the program and its results.

So government never has to say it’s sorry—never has to take responsibility for the misery it causes.  Instead, it can blame everything on personal greed, profit-hungry corporations, and the “private sector.”  And the government’s cure for the problems is to impose bigger programs, more regulations, and higher taxes.

Equal Benefits (p. 18)

Once its considered proper to use government force to solve one person’s problem, force can be justified to solve anyone’s problem.

Why Government Grows (pp. 18–19)

So government gets bigger and bigger:

  1. Because the failure of each program leads to demands for new programs;
  2. Because everyone wants the special privileges he sees others getting; and
  3. Because “public servants” seize on every problem as an excuse to expand their powers.

There’s a fourth reason that government grows so effortlessly—a reason we’ll look at next.

5  If You Were King (The Dictator Syndrome)

The Dictator Syndrome (p. 20)

I call this The Dictator Syndrome.  You see suffering or danger, and in your imagination you see a government program eliminating it.  But in the real world the program would operate as you expect only if you were an absolute dictator—having at your disposal all the government’s power to compel everyone to do things your way.

What Happens to Law (pp. 20–21)

Just for a moment, think about something you wish the government would do and that nearly everyone would like to see happen—provide swifter and surer punishment for criminals, teach children right and wrong, furnish health care to those who don’t have it, bring peace to Bosnia, or whatever.  Imagine a goal so important that it seems to justify using government power to coerce.

And now, consider what will actually happen to your program.

To get it enacted you’ll need political allies, since alone you have only limited influence.  But other people will support your plan and work for it only if you modify it in dozens of ways that further their goals and satisfy their opinions.

Suppose you make the necessary compromises and amass enough support to pressure the politicians to vote for your revised program.  Who will write the actual law?  You?  Of course not.  It will be written by the same legislators and aids who created all the laws, programs, and problems you object to now.  Each of them will compromise your program still further to satisfy his political supporters.

And if the law passes, who will administer it?  You?  Of course not.  It will be implemented by bureaucrats—many of whom will use it to pursue goals quite different from what you had in mind.  They won’t care what your purpose was.  It’s their law now, and they’ll use it to suit their objectives.

And, lastly, the new law probably will generate many disputes—cases that must be settled in a courtroom.  Who will decide those cases?  You?  Of course not.  It will be the same judges who today rule according to their own beliefs, rather than by reference to written law.  A judge may even rule that your law means exactly the opposite of what you had intended.

By the time your program has run this gauntlet, it will be far bigger and far more expensive (in money and disrupted lives) than you had imagined.  And it will have been twisted to satisfy many factions.  In fact, your program may end up being the opposite of what you had intended.

In any case, you will have provided a new tool by which others can use government for their own ends.

Coercion Never Produces Harmony (p. 24)

But coercion never produces harmony.  How harmonious are people who are being forced to act against their will?  Most likely, those who are coerced will resent those who benefit from the coercion.  This sets group against group; it doesn’t bring them together.

And if we accept coercion for one purpose, we’ll be asked to use it for others.  Even if you can say “No” to the other uses, some people will say “Yes,” and others will say “Yes, please, and make mine a double.”  The noble cause will be stretched further and further until it eventually becomes a farce.

Your Pet Regulation Will Be Perverted (p. 25)

The civil rights laws originated at end segregation of the races in the South.  But in 1992 a Florida court used these laws to award a white woman permanent disability benefits—ruling that her employer should have provided a segregated workplace to accommodate her fear of blacks.

You’re Not a Dictator (p. 25)

I’ve used the Civil Rights Act as an example of the way a well-intentioned government program grows and causes far more problems than it solves.  But it is just one example.  All government programs expand to encompass the political demands of people who want to take advantage of its benefits.  And almost all government programs eventually do the opposite of what their original backers asked for.

Government Bringing Peace? (p. 26)

They seem to think the government that can’t stop violence in American cities can somehow bring peace to the rest of the world.

But one can support the newest foreign military adventures only by ignoring the wreckage left by all the previous military adventures.

For You or Against You? (p. 27)

You don’t control the government.  And your dreams of what government can achieve are just that—dreams.  They bear no resemblance to what government will really do if your program is enacted.

No one can control the government.  Most people who tug at it end up disappointed—even if, for a while, they seem to be succeeding.

If government, the agency of coercion, is a tool that can achieve your worthy ends, why shouldn’t other people see it as the tool to achieve their purposes—including people who are thieves, bigots, politicians, mass murderers, bureaucrats, and judges?

If government is going to do someone’s bidding, is it likely to be your bidding—or that of people far more determined, far wealthier, and far more influential than you?

The government that’s strong enough to give you what you want by taking it from someone else is strong enough to take everything you have and give it to someone else.

The government you want to suppress your enemies can be used as easily by your enemies to attack you.

6  How Did We Get in This Mess?

See No Evil (p. 29)

If the beneficiaries had to do the dirty work themselves—use a gun to steal the money or force people out of their homes or their jobs—they might have mixed emotions about the benefits they’re receiving.

How It All Began (p. 30)

As we can see, there is no such thing as a little coercion—any more than a woman can be a little bit pregnant.

Coercive programs almost always fail—and on the way to failure they get bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive.

So maybe now we can see why and when the government became the unworkable monster it is today.

The seeds of today’s runaway government were planted when it was decided that government should help those who can’t help themselves.

From that modest, compassionate beginning to today’s out-of-control mega-state, there’s a straight, unbroken line.

Perversion of Good Intentions (p. 32)

  • A government that tries to help those who can’t help themselves will turn into a government that helps those with the most political power.
  • A government we try to use as our servant inevitably will become our master.
  • And a government formed to do for the people what they can’t do so well for themselves will instead do to people what they don’t want done.

Unleashing What Works (p. 35)

Reducing government and getting it out of our way means unleashing the elements of society that work:

  • The companies that increase our standard of living with their jobs, products, and services;
  • The private charities that actually improve the lives of the needy, rather than turning them into permanent wards; and
  • The most innovative and creative people in society—who make their living identifying what we want and helping us get it.

How far we can reduce government is a question no one can answer today.  But we know that the more we reduce it, the better.

And we delay that improvement by trying to make government more efficient, more humane, more “user-friendly.”  Coercion isn’t efficient, it isn’t humane, and it certainly isn’t friendly.

Government doesn’t work.  That’s the first lesson we must learn if we want to improve society.

7  Government Doesn’t Work

8  Once the Land of the Free

George Washington Quote (p. 38)

Government is not reason; it is not eloquence.  It is force.  Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

9  How Freedom Was Lost

Frog in the Frying Pan (p. 39)

Most of the time, the growth [of government] has been gradual, almost imperceptible.  Year by year, the federal government has taken a little more of our resources and a little more of our freedom—but too little at a time to provoke much resistance, or even much notice.  Over the years, though, all the petty thefts have added up to grand larceny.

Government Growth During the Civil War (p. 39–40)

The government drafted soldiers for the first time, jailed people who spoke out against the war, imprisoned citizens without trial, flooded the country with paper money, and levied an income tax—each of which violated the Constitution.

Income Tax Rises Dramatically (p. 42)

While many of the impositions were lifted when [World War I] ended, the maximum tax rate never again fell below 24%—a level not even the most fervent income-tax advocate of 1913 had hoped for.

The Regressive Era (p. 42)

The Progressive Era has been hailed by historians as the time when America came of age.  In truth, it was the time when America sacrificed liberty, privacy, stability, and neutrality to be more like the Old World countries immigrants to America were fleeing.

10  How Much Freedom Is Left?

11  Your Innocence Is No Protection

12  On the Road to a Better World

Part Two:  Solving Today’s Social & Political Problems

13  Fixing America’s Problems

14  Why Freedom Brings Prosperity

15  How Your Life Is Regulated

16  Health Care—The Problem

17  Health Care—The Solution

18  Improving Education

19  Welfare

20  Fighting Crime or Playing Games?

21  A Weak National Defense

22  An Effective National Defense

23  How to Fix Social Security Once and for All

24  A Freedom Budget

25  Do We Really Want Government to Protect Family Values?

26  Neither of the Two Old Parties Will Save Us

27  What the President Can Do


28  A Message of Hope


A  Acknowledgements

B  Notes & Background Information

C  Further Exploration

D  The Author