Who says government doesn't work?

by Harry Browne

March 19, 1999

Who cares about the tobacco lawsuits and the steep new cigarette taxes? After all, you probably don't smoke. So what do these impositions have to do with you?

You should care. These actions disprove the idea that government doesn't work -- that it's clumsy and uncreative. I consider the suits to be inspired master strokes.

Consider: the government taxes you for all sorts of health services, promising to take care of you -- no matter how badly you treat your body. And then, when the day of reckoning arrives, it finds someone else to pay the bill -- or it reneges and says your health problems are your own fault after all, and so you must pay higher taxes on your sinful purchases. Either way, it appears government appears to be able to undertake new programs without tapping the ordinary taxpayer.

And, contrary to what you may have thought, governments learn from experience. Once the tobacco suits started to succeed, city governments began suing gun manufacturers to "recover" the costs city governments incur as a result of gun violence. The gun-makers are being asked to pay for police overtime, clean-up costs after violent confrontations, paramedics who treat gunshot wounds, and anything else creative politicians can think of.

In that strange other-world of government, no precedent goes unexploited; once the camel's nose is in the tent, the entire caravan is sure to follow. So we can expect governments to expand upon this creative concept ad infinitum. Picture some of the possibilities still to come . . .

  1. Car manufacturers will be sued to cover the cost of traffic accidents.

  2. McDonalds and Burger King will have to pay for the treatment of heart patients.

  3. Food producers will be sued to finance garbage pickup.

  4. The makers of laxatives will be forced to cover the cost of sewers.

Eventually, politicians can promise to solve practically any human problem and have the costs paid by companies they blame for the problem. Government may be able to survive completely on lawsuits.

You might think this would be music to the ears of libertarians -- those pessimistic folks who keep saying that government doesn't work. After all, wouldn't this dramatically reduce -- or even eliminate -- all your taxes? But, unfortunately, that's the one weak spot in the plan. The more money governments take in, the more they spend. Creative politicians will discover new problems and "services" on which to spend your tax money.

However, they will point out that their creative financing has saved you from even higher taxes.

And this will help divert your attention from the depressing fact that none of what government pays for achieves anything worthwhile. The schools don't teach what you want, the police can't make your city safe, the courts don't dispense justice, the government puts you at risk by stirring up trouble in foreign countries, and political health-care programs are corrupt, inefficient, and run up the cost of every medical service you buy.

The politicians' reassuring words will also ease the pain when a new car is too expensive for you to buy, you no longer can patronize fast-food restaurants (or restaurants of any kind), your local grocery store charges $10 a loaf for fat-free bread (the only kind left on the shelves) and offers you only a fifth of the variety of foods available to you now -- and much of the rest of what you enjoy in the marketplace has disappeared.

Who says government doesn't work?