Let’s suppose there are no natural rights, no right or wrong but what the law says – and the basic purpose of law is to preserve your own life. Let’s further suppose that chaos and constant warfare necessarily mark the absence of government, and that the more government there is, the less private crime there will be. In fact, some of these assumptions are probably wrong, but let’s stipulate them for the moment, for one could hardly come up with premises more likely to yield antilibertarian conclusions. After all, Thomas Hobbes built his entire justification of an absolute, authoritarian state on these assumptions.
Does an unlimited state protect the average person’s life better than a limited state? This is an empirical question that we need to refer to the evidence.Theorize the rate of killing in a society as a function of the authoritarian nature of the government. When the government is overly solicitous of criminal defendants, civil liberties, privacy, etc., the rate of killing is high, let us suppose. (We ignore for the moment the contra-Hobbesian evidence as to how government interference increases violence, for instance through the drug war.) As government interference into citizens’ lives increases, the rate of killing falls. However, at a certain point government becomes so powerful and irresistible that the greatest threat to a citizen’s life comes not from other private citizens, but from the government itself: the function rises. The figure below charts the U-shaped relationship that we might expect from Hobbes’ assumptions. If we are purely concerned with self-preservation (and no other goods or rights), we should choose the government that minimizes this function.
Now, if Hobbes is right, then the minimum to this function will be found in an absolutist state with essentially unlimited power. (The only right the sovereign lacks in Hobbes’ theory is the right to command you to kill yourself.)
The empirical evidence will consist in a comparison of murder rates by private citizens to rates of death by government. In Europe around 1900 murder rates were generally between 1 and 2 per 100,000 and rose slightly by the end of the century. In the U.S., rates were about 1 per 100,000 in 1900 and rose to 6 by the end of the century (and spent periods around 10). In recent years, the number of world murders has been around 500,000. If we assume that this annual number of murders was about the average for the entire century (probably a very significant overestimate, since populations were much lower at the start of the century, and the murder rate was lower), then there were about 50 million murders in the 20th century.
By contrast, governments killed 262 million of their own citizens in the 20th century. This total does not include inter-state wars, that is, the number of people in other countries that governments killed. It’s quite clear that in the 20th century governments killed several times as many of their own citizens as private murderers did. Furthermore, the governments that did the most killing were the unlimited, absolutist ones: Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Germany, European colonial governments in Africa and Asia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Imperial Japan, etc. The average size of government in the 20th century must have been to the right of the minimum in the curve above.
Therefore, Hobbes was wrong that unlimited government is the best solution to the problem of self-preservation in anarchy. Limited governments have a far better record. On average, governments were too big in the 20th century.
Of course, the notion that liberal democracies are better at preserving citizens’ rights than authoritarian regimes is hardly surprising in this age. We might apply this same methodology, however, to distinguishing among regimes on how well they protect property rights. Assume that every liberal democracy has reached a sufficiently low level of death by killing, and that having our self-preservation assured, we are next most interested in minimizing the expected amount of coercive property transfer. Assume again, in a manner perhaps overly favorable to the case for large government, that up to a certain point increasing government size reduces the overall rate of coercive property transfer, both public and private, but beyond that minimum the amount of coercive property transfer rises due to a growing burden of taxation with little marginal benefit in terms of reducing theft and fraud. Assume further, in a manner again perhaps overly favorable to the case for large government, that the just distribution of property is whatever distribution actually obtains in a society. In other words, taxes that are paid for transfers or public investment will not be considered “coerced property transfer.” Coerced property transfer will only include private theft, vandalism, fraud, etc. and taxation paid to maintain the ongoing operations of government, that is, government consumption. The figure below illustrates the new theory:
Brand and Price (PDF) did a detailed study of the various costs of crime in the United Kingdom, taking into account security expenditure, insurance administration, the value of property stolen or damaged, emotional and physical impact on victims, lost output, health services, and cost of policing. That last category is excluded from my calculations, since it is part of the other side of the ledger. Considering only property crimes (robbery, burglary, theft, fraud, vandalism), the total annual cost came to 30 billion in 1999 pounds. UK GDP in 1999 was £891.1 billion at current prices. Thus, the economic cost of property crime was about 3.4% of GDP. In the U.S. property crime rates are slightly higher (not nearly as different as homicide rates are), and the total cost of property crime might be slightly higher as well.
What is government consumption in both countries? In 1999, government consumption in the UK was 18.4% according to World Development Indicators (World Bank) and 18.3% according to the OECD. In 2006 (the last year for which cross-nationally comparable data are available), government consumption was 15.8% of GDP in the U.S.
Clearly, the burden of government in today’s democratic welfare states is several times greater than the total burden of all property crimes, even including the stress and economic loss associated with “random banditry” as opposed to “stationary banditry.” The average size of the democratic welfare state is well to the right of the minimum of the curve above – we experience far more coerced property transfer than we need to, even should every transfer program undertaken by the government be just.
If we place ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” in choosing our rules of justice, one plausible rule for a society would be that society should be organized so as to minimize the amount of coerced property transfer we can expect to suffer, subject to an acceptably small risk of bodily assault or enslavement. The evidence shows that, if this rule is indeed the one for judging the optimality of our society, government is far larger than optimal in the U.S. and other advanced welfare states.