Sure, most countries have elements of the American solution. Many countries now have peaceful exchanges of power decided by voters. Most Western nations have pretty strong protections for individual rights, and in many cases, those are stronger than our Bill of Rights. Most have moved away from centrally planned economies.
But we were the ones who first put it all together. Just as Alfred Nobel figured out how to mix volatile nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth to create the equally powerful but more stable explosive dynamite, the Founders managed to take an inherently dangerous set of ideas and make them stable. You need only look at the French Revolution to see what can happen when those same ideas are dropped on a concrete floor.
The diatomaceous earth in this case is a uniquely American hatred of government. In America, you can belong to three political camps. Those who hate big centralized government, those who hate small decentralized government, and those who hate all government, big or small, here or there, everywhere. Nobody else hates government the way we do. Citizens of other countries seem to accept that a large and invasive government is the natural state of affairs. Loek Van Mil, a pitcher in the LA Angels system, recently made headlines (and invited scorn) when he said, “I don’t mind paying taxes. It’s a Dutch way of thinking.” One baseball columnist called the Dutch Martians for thinking like this.
Those who hate small decentralized governments support a strong central government. Those who hate big central governments want the states to have more power. And those who hate both are libertarians. Throughout our history we have gone back and forth and back and forth. The stage play that started with Hamilton vs. Madison vs. Jefferson has, with different actors, continued its run uninterrupted for over two hundred years.
In theory each of those three systems make sense. In theory, a large central government should be the most efficient solution, avoiding duplication of effort and ensuring national competitiveness. In theory, strong states should provide local responsiveness and specialization, a la Ricardo, and allow the best ideas to win. And in theory, laissez faire economics and minimalist government should allow greater personal freedom and economic growth.
We have tested the theory on the first two, but the problem is we (meaning humankind) have never tried the libertarian solution.
Let’s use government spending as a percent of the total economy as a proxy for level of government involvement. Theoretically 0 would be a libertarian government and 100 would be a completely centrally planned state. (These numbers include federal, state and local expenditures.)
If we look at the data, what we see is most OECD nations have percentages within a pretty narrow band. And for the most part, those percentages are pretty large. Of the 34 OECD nations, only seven have a percentage below 35—Australia, Chile, S. Korea, Mexico, Slovakia, Switzerland and Turkey. (And only five have a percentage at or above 50—Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, and Sweden.) Twenty three are in a band between 35 and 50. As you would expect, Western European countries tend toward the high end of that range, and countries like the U.S. tend toward the lower end.
But the U.S. is far from the lowest and well above some countries that have a reputation for being more “socialist” or government-heavy, like Japan and Canada (and non-OECD member Russia, by the way.) Indeed, using the Heritage Organization’s Economic Freedom list as a measure of laissez-faire, we are only eleventh, behind not only Hong Kong and Singapore, but also Canada and Switzerland.
Some OECD countries have strong federal governments and some have strong state and local governments, but they all have pretty sizable governments. If you’re an optimistic libertarian (which probably doesn’t exist – all the ones I meet are pretty angry) then you could take solace that most countries are well below 50%, although I doubt many would look at it that way.
It must suck to be a libertarian. If you wanted to live in a country with lots and lots of government, at least in theory, you could emigrate to China or North Korea (or on a relative basis, Massachusetts or California). If you wanted to live in a place with government, but with a more isolated local flavor, you could move to Paraguay or Khazakistan, or again on a relative scale, Texas. But if you believe in laissez faire economics and the invisible hand, there’s nowhere for you to go. Some states may be more pro-business than others and some may be less, but there’s nowhere to escape a significant level of government.
Rand and Paul and Rand Paul may be full of shit, but we will never really know, because what they propose has never been tried.
We know the other two solutions don’t work, at least in their pure forms. The 100 percent model of a strong centralized government, e.g. Communism , doesn’t work. Even strong socialist governments like France don’t seem to work very well. Very strong central governments end up stifling innovation and producing moribund economies. We also know that smaller decentralized governments don’t work. Isolated state governments inevitably turn into nasty little Balkan oligarchies with persecution of one minority or another. Think what South Carolina, Arizona and Utah would be like if left completely to their own devices. But no one has tried no-government solution, at least in modern times.
Personally, I doubt most Tea Partiers really want a truly libertarian government. Go to a Tea Party, sit beside someone with white hair (it’s pretty easy to do) and say that we should downsize the government and start with ending Medicare. Or Social Security. Or national defense. Or farm supports. Or highway construction. It won’t take you long to find a government program they’re in favor of. And of course when you add them all up, you end up right where we are now, which is why the new Tea Party Republicans aren’t really going very hard after entitlements. Lots of thunder, but no lightning there.
However, to be fair, we can’t say they’re wrong because we just haven’t ever tried it.