On the Golden Rule and the Role of Government

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Photo: 401(K)2013/Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Good intentions notwithstanding, asserting that one knows what will benefit others, more than those others themselves, requires a conceit of the intellect so large that a person deems the thoughts and aspirations of others to be inferior to his. Not only that and more importantly, these good intentions often produce the worst results.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between an interventionist and a minimal government. Although the two policy stances are good-intentioned, their difference could not be any wider. Then I saw that the difference could be illustrated by using the two variations of the golden rule.

A libertarian government would say:

“Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you.”

In a libertarian society, anyone, so long as they do not intrude on the rights of others, would be free to do as they please with minimal interference from the government in the form of aggressive laws, taxation for unnecessary government services, and hasty interventions in the market. These interventions would be seen as a possible intrusion, something that you “don’t want others to do unto you.”

On the other hand, a liberal government would say:

“Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.”

In a liberal society, the market is “smoothened” by a social safety net to pick up the society’s losers and give them a second start by taxing society’s winners. Interventions such as tariffs and bailouts are allowable. The government thinks that this is what the people want done to them. However, this produces various false incentives and mismatches that undermine the performance of markets and efficient allocation.

I think that the fundamental difference between the two is that you don’t have to pretend to know what others want in order to subscribe to a libertarian philosophy. It does not assume anything of the preferences of others and lets the individual pursue what he himself thinks is best. Of course, however, government still has a very important role in the provision of public goods such as defense, law enforcement, and a strong judiciary.

The problem with a liberal government is that it falls into the conceit of thinking it knows what is better for people (“what others want to do unto you”) more than the people themselves (seldom leading to the intended results.) This is the reason why I don’t believe in government playing a larger-than-necessary role in the social and economic matters of the country.

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