Government Spending and Liberty

[A lightly revised version of this earlier essay.]

Suppose I had a budget of $100 million per year and the power to coerce with impunity. In other words, I have the full power of the state, but a very, very modest budget by state standards.

How much damage could I do to your liberties? Probably a whole lot, if I put my mind to it. I could set up a secret police force. I could assassinate. Rape rooms are notoriously cheap, as are most other forms of torture. The Soviets did wonders with just sleep deprivation, forced standing, and unheated rooms. So, for that matter, did we.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us, a pencil crushed between the digits — the “Chekist’s handshake” — is more than sufficient, when time presses, to produce a confession of almost any crime that one can imagine. Although horrible to the victim, it’s also absurdly cheap, which is why the Soviets used it in the first place.

Many of the freedoms that you and I value the most are easily and inexpensively stomped upon. I mean stuff like public worship, the free press, or the right to independent political association. Arbitrary government often actually costs less than the rule of law, if only because codifying the law and running a court system properly can be expensive. Other things being equal, secret laws are cheaper than published ones, and the cheapest laws of all are the ones that the guard dogs make up right there on the spot.

That’s because “government spending” and “losing your liberty” are two very different things. I could use that same $100 million to run libraries, of course, and these are entirely benign. Yay libraries! Or I could pad the wallets of corporate executives, even if it might not be enough for them to notice. Or I could use the money to occupy foreign countries (I might need a bit more than $100 million, but you get the idea). Or I could spend that money on the DEA. Or I could spend it on the gulag.

I could buy a whole lot of gulag for $100 million.

Some of these things are worth opposing in the political arena. Some are worth opposing in the streets, to the death, in a bloody revolution. But some of these things literally aren’t worth a quarter to me — which is roughly per capita what $100 million in federal revenue amounts to.

In looking at most forms of state action, there is almost no relationship between the amount of money spent and the amount of freedom that is taken away. While taxation is indeed a loss of freedom along one dimension, and while that dimension can get pretty constraining on the tail end, the degree that taxation-and-spending constrains freedoms along the other, non-monetary dimensions depends almost entirely on how that tax money is spent. If you’re taxed a quarter, you’ve lost a quarter’s worth of choices, and that’s not a hell of a lot. But that quarter could buy a Chekist’s handshake, and then we’re facing a very different set of questions.

Or that quarter might even be spent on things that enhance your freedoms, things for which we don’t have any other plausible means of funding, like properly constituted courts, a well-regulated police, and the defense of civil liberties. If so, then it’s a quarter well spent, and we ought not to mind admitting it.

Where I’m going with all of this is very simple. If you have a burning ambition to increase human liberty, the marginal returns to the enterprise are very unevenly distributed in terms of government finance. Take on the DEA, because it is horrible. Fight the erosion of our civil liberties. Fight police abuse and brutality. Shorten prison terms, which are clearly out of control. Cut military spending, and with it the temptation to war: in every single war, ever, we always lose a bit of our liberty, and often, it doesn’t come back. Fight eminent domain, even though a world where the government takes private property more easily possibly means you pay a bit less in taxes. When a man’s home is his castle, liberty does pretty well, and that’s worth paying for.

We could go on, but the point is simple — don’t imagine that lowering spending is always the best way to preserve or increase liberty. We could become a vastly freer country while paying only a little less in taxes, if the cuts came in the right places. And we could become a very, very unfree country with only a pittance in extra spending.