The Necessary Evil

Suggestion – Liberty Magazine
The Necessary Evil
by Mark Skousen

Today libertarians spend most of their time lamenting the consequences of big government. And rightly so. Today government is less a defender of freedom and more a Hobbesian leviathan that undermines prosperity. When we do talk about limited government, it is often seen solely as “a necessary evil.”1 Too much government and the economy chokes. Too little, and it cannot function. Is there a Golden Mean?

George Washington best summarized the libertarian view: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”2 So it is with some trepidation that I suggest that societies or countries may not have enough good or legitimate government. In the never-ending battle against big government, it might be well to consider what constitutes “good government” to see how far we have strayed from the proper role of the state.

Each year the Fraser Institute publishes their Economic Freedom of the World Index (see, which measures five major areas of government activity in more than 100 countries: size of government, legal structure, sound money, trade, and regulation. The most surprising thing about the study, according to its author James Gwartney, a professor of economics at Florida State University, is the importance of legal structure as the key to maximum performance for an economy. “It turns out,” he told me in a recent interview, “that the legal system — the rule of law, security of property rights, an independent judiciary, and an impartial court system — is the most important function of government, and the central element of both economic freedom and a civil society, and is far more statistically significant than the other variables.”

Gwartney pointed to a number of countries that lack a decent legal system, and as a result suffer from corruption,insecure property rights, poorly enforced contracts, and inconsistent regulatory environments, particularly in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. “The enormous benefits of the market network — gains from trade, specialization, expansion of the market, and mass production techniques — cannot be achieved without a sound legal system.” 3

The Proper Role of the State

Milton Friedman identifies the legitimate roles of the state: “The scope of government must be limited. Its major function must be to protect our freedom both from the enemies outside our gates and from our fellow- citizens: to preserve law and order, to enforce private contracts, to foster competitive markets. Beyond this major function, government may enable us at times to accomplish jointly what we would find it more difficult or expensive to accomplish severally.” 4

Adam Smith suggests that this “system of natural liberty” will lead to a free and prosperous society. As Smith declares, “Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest level of barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”5

The division between the positive and negative role of government can be represented visually. In the diagram on the next page, we have on the vertical axis “socio-economic well-being”: some general measure of the quality of life in a free and civil society. For empirical studies, economists might want to use changes in real per capita income, but this may be too confining. On the horizontal axis we have “government activity.” At point O, we have zero government, and as we move along the horizontal axis, the size and scope of government activity increase. The ultimate extreme is the totalitarian regime, which institutes “total government,” though I would hesitate to label this “100% government,” since no government can control all activity.

Too Little vs. Too Much Government

My thesis is that as a society moves from zero government to point P, economic well-being increases to peak performance. Then, as it adopts a larger and less necessary government, its growth diminishes, and can even turn negative if government becomes too burdensome and controlling. Looking at the left side of the mountain, point O (zero government) to P (optimal government) constitutes “too little” government. For example, a nation may spend too few of its resources on personal protection, property control, and government administration. Here we see how increasing the size and scope of government activity initially leads to increased well-being, as measured by individual freedom and prosperity. Point P represents the right amount of government and the optimal amount of expenditure necessary to fulfill its legitimate functions.

This is the ideal of the minimalist state. Any point to the right of P represents too much government, when the central authority becomes a burden rather than a blessing. I’ve drawn it as a gradual downward slope, so that the more bad government a country adopts, the greater the decline in performance, even to the point X where government is so large and so intrusive that it results in the destruction of economic and social well-being, which is probably worse than the costs of anarchy.

Quantifying the Right Amount of Government

Can we quantify P, the optimal size of government? Several economists have attempted to determine the ideal level of government spending as a percentage of GDP. In the1940s, Australian economist Colin Clark said that the maximum size of government should not exceed 25% of GDP. Anything higher would hurt economic growth.6 Professor Gerald W. Scully, of the University of Texas at Dallas suggests that the tax rate ought not to exceed 23%.7 World Bank economists Vito Tanzi and Ludger Schuknecht analyzed 17 countries during the period 1870 to 1990 and concluded that public spending in newly industrialized countries should not exceed 20% and in industrialized countries not more than 30%.8 Is optimal government (point P) the same for every country?

This would make an interesting study, but I suspect that differences in culture and socio-economic circumstances suggest that some nations require more government than others. As Benjamin Franklin states, “A virtuous and laborious [industrious] people may be cheaply governed.”9 And a lazy, dishonest people must be expensively governed.


Optimistically, I would think that if all nations were featured together on the diagram above, the various points P would constitute a fairly narrow mountain range. Almost every country in the world today is to the right of Point P, and could grow faster and enjoy a higher quality of life by reducing the size and scope of government. Countries from China to Ireland to Chile have demonstrated how dramatically the economy can improve by cutting back the state. I’m sure even Hong Kong, #1 in the Fraser Institute’s study in terms of performance and freedom, could benefit from some improvements by scaling back some types of government services.

According to the latest surveys of economic freedom by the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation, countries on average are becoming more free, and not surprisingly, the world’s economic growth rate is rising.10 After noting that government represents 40–50% of GDP in most developed nations, Tanzi and Schuknecht conclude, “we have argued that most of the important social and economic gains can be achieved with a drastically lower level of public spending than what prevails today.”11

Two Case Studies in Little or No Government

Are there any examples of countries to the left of point P, that have too little government? The United States suffered from too little government under the Articles of Confederation, which was the basic law of the land from its adoption in 1781 until 1789, when they were replaced by the Constitution. The Articles limited the federal government to conducting foreign affairs, making treaties, declaring war, maintaining an army and navy, coining money, and establishing post offices. But it could not collect taxes, it had no control over foreign or interstate commerce, it could not force states to comply with its laws, and it was unable to payoff the massive debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. States were already putting up trade barriers, striking a serious blow to free trade, and the economy struggled. After the Constitution became law, the United States flourished because of improved government finances, protection of legal rights, and free trade among the 13 states.

A modern-day example of too little government is Somalia, located east of Ethiopia and Kenya, where life has been difficult and often dangerous without any central authority since 1991. For example, drivers pass seven checkpoints, each run by a different militia, on their way to the capital. At each of these “border crossings” all vehicles must pay an “entry fee” ranging from $3 to $300, depending on the value of goods being transported. Competing warlords vie for control of the countryside, which has frequently collapsed into civil war. Only an estimated 15% of children go to school, compared to 75% in neighboring states. However, a recent report by the World Bank indicates that an innovative private sector is flourishing in Somalia. This vindicates the Coase theorem, named for economist Ronald Coase, which argues that in the absence of government authority, the private sector will step in to provide alternative services, depending on the transaction costs.12 The central market in Bakara is thriving: all kinds of consumer goods, from bananas to AK-47s, are readily sold; mobile phones proliferate and internet cafes prosper. But with no public spending, the roads and utilities are deteriorating. Private companies have yet to appear to build roads — the transaction costs are apparently too prohibitive. Public water is limited to urban areas, and is not considered safe, but a private system extends to all parts of the country as entrepreneurs have built cement catchments, drilled private boreholes, or shipped water from public systems in the city.

There are now 15 airline companies providing service to six international destinations, and airplane safety can be checked at foreign airports. After the public court system collapsed, disputes have been settled at the clan level by traditional systems run by elders, with the clan collecting damages. But there is still no contract law, company law, or commercial law in Somalia. Sharp inflation in 1994–96 and 2000–01 destroyed confidence in the three local currencies, and the U.S. dollar is now commonly used. Because of a lack of reliable data, neither the Fraser Institute nor the Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom indexes rank Somalia. The World Bank concludes, “The achievements of the Somali private sector form a surprisingly long list. Where the private sector has failed — the list is long here too — there is a clear role for government intervention. But most such interventions appear to be failing. Government schools are of lower quality than private schools. Subsidized power isbeing supplied not to the rural areas that need it but to urban areas, hurting a well-functioning private industry. Road tolls are not spent on roads. Judges seem more interested in grabbing power than in developing laws and courts. Conclusion: A more productive role for government would be to build on the strengths of the private sector.”13

In short, most countries could use less government, but a few countries could use more of the right kind of authority. There is an optimal size and structure of government, and when it is reached, the result is, in the words of Adam Smith, “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”14


  1. Tristan Band says

    As a minarchist, I appreciate this. I do see Somalia as interesting, and I’ll probably study them, but in the end government is needed for certain services. Operating costs should be lowered first if you want to shrink government (Slay the Beast, don’t Starve it.). Revenue shortfalls lead to clamors for higher taxes. Excess revenues lead to calls for tax cuts. That’s my theory.

    I think government can be a positive good, provided it is kept within certain strict functions.

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