Arnold Kling  

Do You Belong to the Church?

Counterfactuals and World War ... Theory vs. History ...

Make a list of five to ten social issues that you feel are important. Next, make a list of five to ten social issues that you think government should stay out of. What is the intersection of those two sets? If it is zero, then you probably belong to the Church of Unlimited Government. If every social issue you care about (not just the top five or ten) is one where you want government to deal with it, then you definitely belong to the Church.

Suppose, for example, that you think government should stay out of the issue of marijuana smoking. You don't think that people should be arrested for smoking pot. That only gets you out of the Church of Unlimited Government if you think that marijuana smoking is an important social problem. If your thinking is "marijuana smoking is not so bad," then you're still in the Church.

You see, I think that the overlap between liberals and libertarians is somewhat suspect. The libertarian thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana primarily because the libertarian believes in limited government. The liberal thinks that government should get out of the business of regulating marijuana because the liberal doesn't think marijuana is such a problem.

From a libertarian point of view, it would be inconsistent to advocate legalizing marijuana and banning trans fats. A liberal would not see any inconsistency.

I've got some other angles on this, below.

First, what about someone who wants to keep marijuana illegal but does not want to ban trans fats? Such a person could very well belong to the Church of Unlimited Government. I am not necessarily going to exempt conservatives from membership. But more on that later.

Do you remember the flap recently about the airline that was going to charge for carry-on luggage? And then a Congressman said we need to pass a law saying that the airlines cannot do that? Now, the merits of the issue are debatable (as a passenger, I think I might actually prefer to fly on an airline that charges for carry-on luggage), but that is not the point. Even if we all felt really strongly that charging for carry-on luggage is evil, are we willing to say that government should stay out of the issue, on principle? The libertarian says that indeed the government should stay out of it. The member of the Church does not. Again, being ok with government staying out of it gets you libertarian points only if you care about the issue. If you are ambivalent about charging for carry-on luggage or you think it's a really minor issue, then it's not in the set of social problems that you feel are important.

I bring up the carry-on luggage example because to me it illustrates the relative strength of the forces for limited government and the forces for unlimited government. From my standpoint, the idea of regulating the pricing of carry-on luggage is nutty as a fruitcake. But it seemed perfectly normal to most people--certainly to most of our "thought leaders." It seems to me that I belong to the Dissenting Church, and the established church is the Church of Unlimited Government.

I doubt that anyone would come out and say, "I am for Unlimited Government." But I think there are a lot of people who would have a difficult time coming up with issues that they care about where they also believe government should not get involved. Thus, the Church of Unlimited Government is real, even if no one would say they belong. And it is the established Church.

If you missed it, here is my previous post on this topic. I think this issue is at the heart of a lot of ferment on the Right these days.

Would I say that the overlap between libertarians and conservatives is suspect, in the same way that the overlap with liberals is suspect? I'm open to such an argument. To give another example, many conservatives appear to see a distinction between an import quota on Mexican products and a quota on Mexicans coming here to work. A libertarian would not see such a distinction (or might regard the ban on workers as worse).

Still, I believe that it ought to be possible for a conservative to be in the Church of Limited Government rather than the Church of Unlimited Government. In theory, I would think that a conservative might really care about education or health care without necessarily favoring government involvement. However, in practice many conservatives went along with President Bush when he expanded Medicare and the Federal government's role in primary education. My sense is that his approach to conservatism has few adherents at the moment.

One way to view the divisions on the Right these days is that there are those of us who want to pick a fight with the Established Church and there are those who do not wish to do so. To some folks, picking a fight seems too radical and destabilizing. To other folks, not picking a fight seems too much like surrender.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (33 to date)
Randy writes:

Re; Time to pick a fight.


Zdeno writes:

How many would deny that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran are important social issues? What about gang violence and illegal immigration? The faction that adores activist government in the examples you give is very different from the one that would like to see the US government build a wall along the Mexican border, crack down on inner city street crime, and use JDAMs to prevent Muslim nations from acquiring nuclear weapons.

You are correct in identifying contemporary Progressivism as a pseudo-religious phenomenon, but their doctrine is not the worship of government for its own sake. I believe you owe Mencius a cite on this one...



N. writes:

Great Arnold, it sounds like I'm a member of your church!

Now where do I tithe, exactly?

Tom writes:

Most conservatives I know are about 75% libertarian, there is a huge overlap.

No child left behind, despite its name, is mostly just a testing program that tries to offer incentives to spent what we currently spend better. Think of it as a GOA function to make sure we are getting what we pay for (with the added benefit of focusing more on the basics instead of 'studies' programs). It is libertarian if you believe big government is bad because its wasteful.

Medicare part D is supposed to cut regular medicare $2 for ever $1 spent. Again fiscally pretty sound.

Libertarians and conservatives think we should not be funding medicare or education. Conservatives realize these programs are not going away and would like to reduce the waste involved with them.

Pavel writes:

I don't quite agree with your distinction. For me, the set of issues that I consider to be important social problems consists of stuff like government corruption, violent crime, child abuse... I also consider those to be stuff that government should be involved with. Does that place me in the Church of Unlimited Government?

Or did I misunderstand your use of term "social issues" and it covers only "softer" issues like health care, gun control, pot smoking, luggage regulation? In that case, the only social problems I am aware of is all those prefixed with "government involvement in " and I would be extremely happy if government did something about that:) Does that place me in the Church of Unlimited Government?

Basically, what I am trying to say is: what do you have against us who really don't care what consenting adults do with each other, what contracts they sign and how they spend their time?

Lord writes:

Consider banning trans fat except by expressed preference, a nudge in the right direction. That should be attractive to most liberals and not overly obnoxious to most libertarians. The real reason for baggage charges is to confuse and deceive price comparisons, not a particularly competitive practice. I just wish Southwest flew everywhere.

Henry writes:

This is the problem with the Nolan Chart and its derivatives. It is inherently libertarian-centric, that is, it ranks political views according to levels of government intervention when most people (other than libertarians) do not think strictly in those terms. However, it has helped confuse people into lumping ideologically distinct political philosophies together when they happen to believe in some of the same policies.

floccina writes:

I like your description are we willing to let things we see as most social problems work themselves out.

I think of Libertarianism as a great compromise both sides leave their pet interventions for the sake of not having to have the other sides pet interventions.

For me when I try to think of social problems it seems to me all the trends seem to be positive. Crime is down. Drug abuse, if you include alcoholism, is down. Divorce is trending down. Pollution is trending down. Even on health insurance I think that more employers dropping insurance and raising deductibles is pushing in the direction that I think we should go. We may have been on the dawn of correction there (rather than the eve of destruction).

Would this preclude someone who was truly blase about all social issues from being a libertarian?

Someone who lives his own life in an isolated, "let us cultivate our garden," sense, and so had no genuine concern for social issues (should such a person actually exist) would, by your definition, be a member of the Church--even if he were an anarcho-capitalist. This strikes me as a weird conclusion.

SydB writes:

Once was a time Mr Kling analyzed everything as "folk" this or that. Endless posts speculated about the ins and outs of the "folk" thinking. Then that line of thought died.

Now it's "church" this or that.

This too shall pass.

Suggestion: Thinkers in the "studies" program at university like to add "ur" to some words. Maybe try that sometime. The audience will love it.

silvermine writes:

Your comments are very interesting. Several of them don't get your point at all. :D They cannot see it.

Tom -- nudging IS part of the church of unlimited government. Why should the federal government use everyone's tax money to entice states to test children?? That's nuts, IMHO.

Lord -- same thing. The small nudges are just as bad, if not worse. It is incredibly obnoxious to people who favor liberty. On what grounds does the federal government intrude on what I choose to eat? (And as a scientist, I think people would be amazed to know that all of these diet studies are on incredibly bad and shaky ground -- that's why they seem to be overturned every few years. Take salt -- there is little to no proof that limiting salt or taking blood pressure medication increases happiness or lifespan for people with high blood pressure.)

Remember all the money that the government uses to "nudge" us with was taken, at metaphorical (or literal) gunpoint from the citizens. To take that money for something insignificant almost seems worse, no?

Tom writes:


I don't see it as a nudge. Federal funding is not going away, so requiring testing to see if we are getting what we pay for is a sound financial position.

When you hire a painter to paint your house, you look around to see he hasn't missed any spots. As for the nudge in teaching the basics, if I am forced to pay for someone else's house to be painted, I want to see if I am paying for a basic job or an mural. ( I'm trying not to torture the analogy too much.)

Lord writes:

People have well known and well established limits on their rationality and nudges that induce them to make the rational choice promote rather than deny liberty as a result. Liberty is the right to make the wrong choice, not making it because you never knew or thought about it. You aren't promoting liberty, only ignorance.

Jonathan Cast writes:

I'd like to turn the question around and ask the libertarians on this blog --- Dr. Kling, since he brought it up, but also Dr. Henderson --- what are the most important social issues, to you, that you don't want government involvement in? I don't think I've ever heard a libertarian specify that. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard a libertarian condemn anything he thought should be legal.[1]

[1] Except speech acts. But Freedom of Speech is so ingrained into our society I think 90% of the members of Kling's Church of Unlimited Government would agree with the line ``I disagree with what you say, but would fight for your right to say it'' without really thinking about whether that's true.

maurile writes:

From a libertarian point of view, it would be inconsistent to advocate legalizing marijuana and banning trans fats.

I'm a libertarian, but I don't think it's inconsistent. Restaurants use partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in place of butter and lard only because of the farm bill and other government policies. Trans-fats are not only less healthful than the fats our grandparents cooked with; they also taste worse and, absent subsidies, would be more expensive.

When a local government bans trans-fats in restaurants, it is trying to undo the effects of stupid federal legislation.

There's no similar rationale for banning marijuana, cocaine, or heroin.

Taimyoboi writes:

Professor Kling, how do you account for those individuals that distinguish between federal government and state government? There are lots of issues I care about that I believe the federal gov't should be barred from tackling, but at the same time I also think that those issues can should be addressed (and perhaps differently) by state gov'ts.

BZ writes:

RE: Jonathan
I have a hard time figuring out what exactly a "social issue" is. But, putting aside strictly speech, and economic issues:

- I hate war. The Ultimate Government Program. I want ours ended.
- I hate random violence, and worry about it. I have a concealed-carry license, but want Arizonas lack-of-gun-laws in my own state. For the same reason, the drug war should be ended.
- I love my state of Texas, and have its silly simple flag all over my house and workspace, but would despise flag-burning laws, desecration laws, and oppose our existing Pledge to the Flag of Texas.
- As a Christian, I get angry when people make fun of Jesus Christ, or Christianity. But I cringe at the thought of laws to prevent or disincentivize such things through force.

Is that what you meant?

Arthur_500 writes:

I recently received a survey from the Republicans in which they asked about government spending. Next they wanted to know about my support of spending for various Republican favored programs. They miss the point completely about fiscal conservatism.

Indeed I believe that Republicans and Democrats are wedded to the same money trough. Likewise their attitude towards government control remains the same, albeit on different topics.

Why is it the government's responsibility to take care of me? I want to do things that aren't good for me so why can't I? After all can you name one person who has survived life?

It is control of which we speak. I want the government to control those who disagree with me. When you take over you will want the government to control those who disagree with you. Alas, our form of government is set up to control out borders and promote business. That's it!

mulp writes:

So a libertarian thinks smoking pot is a serious moral, or at least personal, failing, but that even those smoking pot leads to a life of desperation and depravity, and thus to crime and murder, it shouldn't be illegal??

I guess Milton Friedman was a liberal and not a libertarian because he seemed to argue smoking pot was a problem only because it was illegal, and otherwise there was nothing intrinsically wrong with smoking pot, just as there was nothing intrinsically wrong with drinking alcoholic drinks.

Of course, the real issue is whether limited government means no government, or whether limited government means enough government to meet the objectives laid out in the preamble to the Constitution.

Do libertarians see the US Constitution's clear intent based on the actions of those who wrote it to be an example of libertarian limited government?

Do libertarians reject all the government power to gain control of land the government would distribute to those the government favored with land? The US implemented the most massive and complete land redistribution programs from one group of people to another in history.

I see conservatives as being ironically consistent when they call for a return to original intent and use government to favor the group they represent over the other groups they have defeated. And when it comes to social issues, conservatives want to use government power as was common in 1800 when many people were disenfranchised.

To me, to be liberal means seeing society as a complex mix with a minority out to take advantage of the majority. We are all in it together and none of us can completely control our destiny nor mitigate the disasters,

Libertarians seem to think they are immune to all the trickery of the exploitative minority, that they know exactly how to buy products that are completely safe and that will ensure they never get cancer or heart disease or ALS, so they will never have any medical condition where the price of health care will ever exceed their means. That libertarians know exactly how to protect ones self and family from age 21 until they die and don't need the broad FDR Social Security system which promotes people losing their jobs in a depression and then losing their home and then suffering long term hardship because Social Security caused people to create the Great Depression.

When things go seriously wrong for them, few libertarians remain libertarian.

Loof writes:

Why is the Church of Limited Government open to libertarians and not liberals alike? Not good to set up a false dichotomy in kind when there are only differences in bending degree when bowing down to the absolute State.

Void the Church notion. Stop preaching, learn a little and if learned start teaching how government can become limited with a relative state to assert a belief what it ought to rightfully limit & secure responsibly for a just society. For instance, I believe the key social problem in economics is unlimited business size, which government should strictly limit democratically. Small is beautiful, wonderful too, when everyone has equal opportunity to do business – and I love to see free and fair markets spontaneously arise. Asians are remarkably entrepreneurial, mainly in family enterprises, with freedom.

Avoid typical speechifying about scale: as labor co-ops in partnership with capital (100 million households - pop. size similar to US - in China are in a program that governments set up, then mostly stood aside) are outcompeting agribusiness corporations. Something similar is happening with the textile industry in southern Laos: household sewers, spinners and weavers working in village co-ops are outcompeting the incorporated sweatshops in Thailand that government and business set up with a joint central plan to capture markets.

I first bore witness to this sort of entrepreneurial freedom and spontaneous emergent markets after the US bombed Cambodia to bits; after the Kampuchean killing fields, after Vietnam invaded – and the government was so limited to be almost non-existent. People had to govern themselves with kith and kin. Going about their business free and fair markets spontaneously arose - with a lot of risk. I was sitting in a village household when a big boom went off in a nearby field. The family was instantly fearful that a farmer had stepped on a landmine. Lucky people that time; a water buffalo was hapless.

User writes:

Just to expand your horizons a little: I am for Unlimited Government. I am, in fact, a totalitarian. I recognize no limits to state power. I think the state should use its monopoly of force to do as much good in the world as possible, whatever policies that leads to. I also think it should use its military might to do good where it doesn't have a monopoly of force when that is possible.

My position isn't, I think, as insane as readers are likely to think at first blush. In practice I often advocate libertarian-ish ideas, but that is because I think they promote the most utilitarian good, not because I value freedom for its own sake. I recognize that totalitarian regimes often turn out terribly for the people in them. While I think there is no grand philosophical reason that states shouldn't have unlimited power I agree that practical consideration suggests a system where certain things are hard for it to do. I certainly don't support a regime just because it's totalitarian, but I don't consider that alone a strike against it.

Make no mistake though: I am for Unlimited Government.

Michael Bishop writes:

The way you define the church of unlimited government is an abuse of language.

What you are saying is that someone with strong libertarian leanings, who opposes government intervention in most cases because, and only because, they believe it makes society worse off, belongs to the church of unlimited government.

MernaMoose writes:

Arnold, I have to agree with others here that your definitions are problematic. I can intuit what you're trying to get at, but your definitions don't work.

MernaMoose writes:


Reason for my criticism is, I'm definitely in the classical liberal camp. But I'm fairly certain that if we went at this long enough, and covered a wide enough range of issues, sooner or later your definitions would cast me in the Unlimited Church camp.

Which would be a most assuredly mistaken take on my overall position.

Unless you're an anarchist, and intended to exclude anybody who isn't? In which case your definitions might be good as they stand.

But I didn't think you were an anarchist. ?

Curt Doolittle writes:

"From a libertarian point of view, it would be inconsistent to advocate legalizing marijuana and banning trans fats."

Actually, the two issues are different.
Marijuana The only reasons to ban marijuana are: 1) Because it impedes the mind, and therefore choice, and choice is a necessary capacity, and necessary assumption, in the libertarian model. This is a technical concept, not a practical one. 2) Because you can expose others to risk due to impaired judgement, largely while driving a vehicle. This concept is both technical and practical. Justifying the application of force must be both technical (epistemically rational) and practical (materially implementable). Epistemic applications alone are infinite and open to error. (ie: laws should be enforceable not specious.)
... The history of economic thought is the history of demonizing monarchs for the purpose of transferring control of the market from it's military founders, to the vendors - the middle classes. This demonization is nothing but falsehood. As it turns out, kings were kinder to their populations than are republican and democratic governments. But because of this demonization, the causal origin of civilization, of cities, of markets, of prosperity, and of western culture itself, is obscured by the rhetoric of demonizing the nobility who created this culture under which we prosper....
... Libertarianism was hijacked by Rothbard simply because Hayek, Parsons, Popper and Mises failed. And both Rothbard and Hoppe created extraordinary epistemological and institutional value with their research program. But they have failed, as did the libertarians, and the classical liberals, and the conservatives before them, to create a system of institutions capable of providing an alternative to the anti-market anti-civilization sentiments and philosophy of socialism by failing to articulate the causal purpose of government as market maker, and to create institutions that expand and evolve along with the objects that we exchange in that market....

[Remainder of the above comment and additional discussion can be found in the original at Please do not repost verbatim material that can be found elsewhere online, even if it is your own writing. A quote or summary and a link are sufficient.--Econlib Ed.]

MernaMoose writes:


Some interesting ideas you've got there, along with a bunch of (what I find) questionable assertions. Like just for starters,

As it turns out, kings were kinder to their populations than are republican and democratic governments.

I've read enough history to doubt this sincerely.

And who were these "conservatives" you speak of that were "before" the classical liberals? Are you talking about European or American political history here? Because in America it sounds like you've got it exactly backwards.

Gian writes:

I would certainly support Curt's statement on kings being kinder to their populations than to democratic governments.
The Hindus of India lived for centuries under Muslim kings but did not suffer mass killings until the democratically elected government of Pakistan (that was carved out of Muslim-majority lands of India in 1947) proceeded to kill and expel all Hindus from West Pakistan in 1947.

Many such examples can be given eg Austria-Hungary

MernaMoose writes:

Yes, and then there are others. For example that King George guy in Great Britain, back around the time of the American Revolution. I believe the French have also produced a few kings who were something less than benevolent.

And let's not even get started on Russia.

For every benevolent monarch you could cite, I'm sure I could find at least one counter example. Monarchs are at least as likely to be monsters as not.

Not to say that republics or democracies have any better track record on average. But there is a reason why nations have gotten rid of their monarchs.

D Moses writes:

I find it funny that your post is more kind to liberals than libertarians.

You are expressly saying that liberals are able to make comparisons between marginal revenue and marginal cost and make determinations as to where government action has a net gain.

Libertarians on the other hand can make no comparison, always siding for no government intervention.

This is shown succinctly in the question between Marijuana and Trans Fats. If we are to believe your rhetoric there is nothing that the libertarian would ban. I sincerely doubt that this is the case.

Trans Fats are essentially a slow poison. Ignoring questions of whether or not they can be easily avoided we can determine that the primary difference between a slow poison and a fast poison is the time it takes to kill a person.

Would a libertarian object to letting companies put rat poison in food (even if labeled) but not trans fats? After all, it was a market transaction right? Those people who bought the rat poison laced bread clearly thought it was OK and so the market transaction was OK. (and lets not even get into the problems of non-market transactions)

It seems then that at some point there are revenues that are worth the costs, even for libertarians.

But you deny that this is the case, that it is strictly a case of the case of "unlimited government"... so long as people think the government should intervene...

Re Curt:

That is a very good explanation of what Libertarianism is not, but should be. Thank you for writing it. I hope that you do not mind if i reuse it(with attribution). It is unfortunate that Libertarianism is not as you describe.

I do not say that as a Libertarian, but a left liberal*. As I see it, the worst abuses of the "left" have always been that they cannot see the cost and only the revenue, and the worst abuses of the right have been that they only see the revenue and not the cost.

It would be nice to have "government as market maker" as a foil to the more traditional views of government where the line is drawn based on evaluations of the societal benefit

*Which is to say that I view the role of government not only as a market maker, but also to fix social issues that cannot be fixed by market mechanisms, cost permitting

Loof writes:

Curt’s post appears as a rant and raving hype of a militant nationalist propagating an absolute rationale: “That is post-Rothbardian libertarianism. And it is the only rational alternative to encroaching socialism.”

Its surreal to irrationally proclaim an “only rational alternative” based on violence. Also, the social engineering & socialization process advocated (i.e. government as market maker) appears as right-wing socialism that encroaches on liberties with militarism & nationalism – completely opposed to the rights of the individual, personal freedom, as well as the creation of free & fair markets.

Michael Bishop writes:

The way you define the church of unlimited government is an abuse of language.

What you are saying is that someone with strong libertarian leanings, who opposes government intervention in most cases because, and only because, they believe it makes society worse off, belongs to the church of unlimited government.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Taimyoboi: There is no fundamental difference between state, local, federal or any other government. Fundamentally, they all derive power from being allowed to point a gun at you.

@D Moses: A libertarian would not be opposed to allowing companies to put rat poison in food. (as long as it's clearly labeled) That's the principle. In practice, I think an argument could be made to ban it in the sense that mislabeling and other mistakes can happen.

The big practical difference between rat poison and transfat is that I choose to eat transfat every day. Knowingly. Nobody (or almost nobody) chooses eat rat poison. So when you ban rat poison, you are creating a small inconvenience for few people who if they really want rat poison can just add it to their food. The loss of liberty is minimal. If you ban transfat from food, you are banning MANY voluntary transactions and significantly restricting my liberty. I can't really go back in time and cook the dish with butter instead of olive-oil.

As a practical libertarian, I do believe that sometimes, it's ok to ban a voluntary transaction if that transaction has an incredibly low chance of happening voluntarily but it has irreversible consequences if it happens by accident and such an accident has a reasonable chance of happening.

George X writes:


You wrote: People had to govern themselves with kith and kin. Going about their business free and fair markets spontaneously arose - with a lot of risk.

I'd be very, very interested in hearing about your experiences in 1970s Camobdia — both because of an interest in self-organizing self-government, and because of general interest in Cambodia. If you don't have a blog to post your recollections on, you can send them to me and I'll gladly put them up on mine.

(Sadly, there's about a 1% chance you're reading the comments on this post after four days.)


When you wrote "'re still in the Church," I think you really meant "you may still be in the Church" — i.e. an issue you don't care about doesn't provide evidence either way. That would address a lot of the criticisms above.

For what it's worth, I was definitely (if unknowingly) a member of the CoUG when I was younger; now I'm an apostate, reading a heretic's blog. Trust me, those who've outgrown the CoUG get what you're saying. Now you should sharpen the message to get the point across to those still attending services.

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