by Danny de Gracia II

“But then Law came in, only to expand and increase the trespass” -Romans 5:20

There’s a term that I hear frequently in academic, economic and political circles alike that absolutely drives me up the wall: it’s called “good government.” The idea behind the concept of so-called good government is that the universe is a disorderly place full of chaos and only certain strongmen can tame the cosmos with their unique excellence in lawgiving and governance. In America whenever something goes wrong, the contemporary reaction from most is to associate the failure with a lack of laws, regulations or enforcers. Problems in the healthcare industry? Make more laws and hire more regulators. Wall Street causing systemic risk to the economy? Create agencies that can determine what kind of commerce is good and bad. Terrorists running amok? Put the entire nation under a state of near-martial law. All this – supposedly – is proper and fitting because a “good government” is tasked with maintaining order and shaping the values of its citizens.

Unfortunately, no government can legislate or regulate “good” because it is impossible to justify something simply by making decrees. Say for example that the government believes that by banning incandescent light bulbs, citizens can be shaped into environmentally responsible persons. A law against using incandescent light bulbs doesn’t actually “make” someone green, it just makes everyone who doesn’t use the approved class of light bulbs a criminal in the eyes of the government. In other words, the more laws a government makes, the more lawbreakers it creates. A law is simply a statement backed by threats of violence either against person or property, therefore compliance to a law is based on fearful expectation of punishment rather than personal choice to pursue a subjective “good.”

 

To explore this principle in detail, consider by analogy, which of the following would be most likely to produce the most desirable outcome:

a.) A woman tells her boyfriend that unless he gives her a present or multiple presents for Valentine’s Day that has a minimum dollar value of $2,000 but not more than $8,000 in aggregate, she will punish him by immediately suspending their relationship for a period of one week; or

b.) A woman tells her boyfriend that regarding Valentine’s Day, the most important gift that he could possibly give her is his continued love.

In the above scenario, while option “a” ensures that the woman will certainly receive a gift, the precise specifications of what she is looking for accompanied by punitive threat makes any action by her boyfriend an act of sanction evasion rather than initiative. By establishing a minimum floor and a maximum ceiling, the woman’s decree constrains the boyfriend’s choice in a way that states what the minimum compliance level is and what the maximum permissible generosity is.

On the other hand, option “b” presents an opportunity for the woman’s boyfriend to choose to do good. Since the threat of punishment does not accompany option “b” there is an opportunity to showcase unlimited generosity without fear of rejection or sanction. The act of giving a Valentine’s Day gift is no longer compliance but willful submission and offering – a true act of freedom. In like manner, if we really want to make “good” citizens, the only way they can become good is by personal choice in the absence of threat.

We live in a legal regime today where nearly everything has a “no no” backed by government threat behind it. Nearly everyone, if you consider the exact letter of the laws of the land, is a criminal for breaking some obscure law or skirting some confusing regulation. This ridiculous effort to justify people and order the world by making more laws creates more chaos and less good. I for one believe that the only good government is self government - the power to choose not to harm others, to choose to respect property, to choose to be transparent and truthful, to choose to be generous and to choose to be responsible. If you ask me, it’s high time in Hawaii and America that we legalized freedom.

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Danny de Gracia is the economic policy adviser for Grassroot Institute and is an elected member of the Waipahu Neighborhood Board. He holds a master of arts in political science from Southwest Texas State University. Contact him by e-mail at degracia@fas.harvard.edu.