If You Were King

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Harry Browne

If You Were King (The Dictator Syndrome)

Excerpted from chapter 5 of Why Government Doesn't Work, by Harry Browne

Government grows also because well-meaning people like you and me believe it should do certain things that seem beyond controversy -- find a cure for cancer, stop air pollution, keep violence off television, hold back an aggressor in the Middle East -- something that everyone seems to agree should be done. Whatever the goal, it's easy to imagine that a single-minded government could achieve it.

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 of government's power to compel everyone to do things your way.

Running the Gauntlet of Political Action

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's 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 aides 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 the 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.

--Browne, Harry, Why Government Doesn't Work, Chapter 5, "If You Were King (The Dictator Syndrome), St, Martin's Press, New York, NY, 1995, pp 20-21


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