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Ask Not What G.E. Can Do for You….

One of the important characteristics distinguishing libertarians and classical liberals from modern American left “liberals” and conservatives is the fact that libertarians and classical liberals recognize down to their marrow that the state is a human institution with, at best, a limited role to play in civil society. The state is nothing special.  And it certainly isn’t synonymous with society.

Just as the auto industry produces automobiles, just as the computer industry produces computers, and just as the accounting industry supplies crucial financial information to help firms and investors, so, too, does the state protect peaceful people against violence toward their persons and property.  (At least, that’s what the state, at its best, is supposed to do.)

But many (most?) people deify the state – deify it mostly because they regard it to be somehow uniquely representative of society or somehow uniquely important to society’s welfare.  It is neither.

No one laughed when John Kennedy charged his fellow Americans to

Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.

Whether you agree with all, part, or none of this famous political line, it seems normal.  When he belted it out, the just-inaugurated 35th President didn’t sound foolish.

Suppose, though, that Orin Smith, President of Starbucks, were to proclaim theatrically in a telecast public address “Ask not what Starbucks can do for you.  Ask what you can do for Starbucks.”

He’d be taken for a fool.  And rightly so.  People do not exist to serve Starbucks; Starbucks exists to serve people.  That’s its only justification for existence.  The same is true for every other firm and private institution.

Why do we treat government differently?  Why do we treat the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, as someone more than – someone somehow greater than – the chief executive of one branch of one level of government in the United States?  Neither the President of the U.S. in particular, nor the government in general, is anything more than human.  All government officials – from the President to my mail carrier – are subject to the same human weaknesses, limitations, and temptations that afflict the rest of us.

If Starbucks or Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart or General Electric or the Cato Institute cannot assert a special claim on me even though I deal with these institutions as a customer or supplier, what right does the government have to assert such a claim?  What right does government have to demand special allegiance from its customers?