Mises Wire

The State Expands its Responsibilities In Order to Expand Its Power

Many moviegoers might recognize the following quotation: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Reality, however, is the exact opposite of what the quote describes. In reality, it is responsibility that precedes power. In a corporation, for instance, when you’re hired you are told your responsibilities and the powers granted to you are those that are necessary for you to accomplish your responsibility.

In John’s family, John’s father demands that everyone stay out of the kitchen while he cooks, lest they distract him. It is not because John’s father has the power to keep everyone out of the kitchen that he has accepted the responsibility of cooking; it is because he is responsible for cooking that he has the power to keep everyone out of the kitchen.

A vast number of self-help books focus on self-responsibility. This is no coincidence. It is only by accepting responsibility for our lives that we can acquire power over our lives. On the other hand, by blaming others for our conditions, we forfeit our responsibility, and consequently, our power.

Responsibility is important not just because it provides power but also because, as psychologist Jordan Peterson has often remarked, most people find the meaning of their lives through responsibility.

Examining American history, it is evident that the expansion of government powers has been a direct result of the government’s theft of the responsibilities of the individual.

There is a rather straightforward argument that is consistently presented by the government in order to justify its theft of responsibilities that rightfully belong to others.

The argument begins by pointing out a problem that exists. Then the argument says that our lives would be better if the problem didn’t exist. The conclusion the government reaches is that since it would be better for the problem not to exist, the government should be responsible for removing it.

Take any governmental expansion as an example.

For example, the Federal Reserve justifies itself in part by noting economic crises are bad and shouldn’t happen. It is then claimed that governments, through their central banks, must be responsible for ensuring that these crises don’t happen. Vast powers are then granted to central banks who attempt to carry out their “responsibilities.”

Similarly, Social Security resulted from the government accepting responsibility of economic security for retirees and other specific groups of people. By doing so, it appropriated to itself the responsibility that belongs to individuals, families, churches, and other private organizations.

Medicare, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and the recent attempts at universal health care, aim to do the same.

Such theft of responsibility is disguised, and often even accepted, as virtuous. After all, providing solutions to problems is something that corporations do as well, don’t they? Yet the difference lies in the conditions set forth.

On the other hand, when dealing with a corporation, one can acquire the solution to a problem (food to solve hunger, insurance to solve risk of medical issues, and so forth) at a certain specific price. Moreover, rights, responsibilities — and the powers that come with them — are specifically listed and explained.

Governments, however, take on a variety of responsibilities as a justification for greatly expanding powers — claiming these powers are necessary to fulfill these new responsibilities. These powers, however, usually become unlimited, bloated, and expensive. There is no true legal contract between the government and the individuals for whom the government is “responsible” for. Thus, there is no way of holding the government accountable should it fail to keep up its end of the bargain.

Ultimately, the list of “responsibilities” continually grows, but the list of powers grows even faster.

The unconditional manner in which the government offers ‘help’ and seizes an individual’s responsibility serves only to steal the individual’s power over his own life and erode away that which provides him meaning.

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