Total Government à la Irving Fisher Is Not Ideal
By Pierre Lemieux
A major issue at the confluence of economics, political science, and political philosophy is, What is morally or economically better, the state (formal and centralized coercive authority), anarchy, or something in between? Ignorance of this question, which parallels the alternative between collective choices and individual choices, mars most political debates.
In 1941, progressive economist Irving Fisher said before the Yale Socialist Club (quoted in Mark Thorton, The Economics of Prohibition [University of Utah Press, 1991], p. 17):
I believe [William Graham Sumner] was one of the greatest professor we ever had at Yale, but I have drawn far away from his point of view, that of the old laissez faire doctrine. I remember he said in his classroom: “Gentlemen, the time is coming when there will be two great classes, Socialists, and Anarchists. The Anarchists want the government to be nothing, and the Socialists want government to be everything. There can be no greater contrast. Well, the time will come when there will be only these two great parties, the Anarchists representing the laissez faire doctrine and the Socialists representing the extreme view on the other side, and when that time comes I am an Anarchist.” That amused his class very much, for he was as far from a revolutionary as you could expect.
Fisher immediately added:
But I would like to say that if that time comes when there are two great parties, Anarchists and Socialists, then I am a Socialist
The question is of course which regime would be better for all or most people—in terms of their own preferences, a liberal economist would add. This question reduces to what kind of absolute state and what kind of anarchy would obtain and how each system would actually work, which are largely economic questions. Hobbesian anarchy (“the war of all against all”) and totalitarian government have little in their favor. Between good anarchy and “good” totalitarianism, Sumner was obviously right.
We may wonder where between the two ideal extremes lies the best practical state. This raises the question of whether any mixed regime is dynamically stable and, if not, towards which extreme and how close it will tend to lead society. One can (try to) evaluate any such intermediate position on Fisherian or Sumnerian criteria, that is, according to whether it gets closer to absolute government or to anarchy. The classical liberal tradition favors a position “between anarchy and Leviathan,” to use the subtitle of a book by James Buchanan, but certainly closer to anarchy than to absolute government. One of the anarchist theorists who believe that all intermediate positions lead to absolute government was Anthony de Jasay, a must-read author for anybody interested in these issues, which have a bearing on practical politics (trigger warning: some economics is necessary).