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Can More Government Lead to Less Government?

One of the greatest strengths of libertarianism is its ideological consistency. It is also libertarianism’s greatest weakness. When I went back to college in my 30s to complete my BA and MA in history, I found that a lot of aspects of libertarian thought, as intellectually satisfying as they were, simply didn’t fit the facts of history all that well.

The early American republic, for example, wasn’t the paragon of laissez-faire capitalism that many libertarians imagine. State and local governments were extremely active in regulating commerce of many sorts, from alcohol sales restrictions, to granting of monopolies, to generous subsidies to business enterprises. The federal government played an aggressive role in promoting westward expansion (much to the detriment of the Indians) -- and through a series of musket contracts, consciously and intentionally dragged U.S. firearms manufacturing from a collection of cottage craftsmen to a modern industrial base.

One of the examples of satisfying but dangerous abstractions is that it is an article of faith that minimum wage laws are always bad. There’s no question that minimum wage laws can have destructive effects -- especially for unskilled workers. There is a strong argument that minimum wage laws have played a part in causing high black teenage unemployment. Without the early experience of work, and with the inadequate public school education that many poor blacks receive, it is surprisingly easy to drift into young adulthood with no job skills -- and no prospect of acquiring any.

The last several months, I have been working one week each month in Bend, Oregon. Oregon is a rather unusual state in one respect: there is no self-serve gasoline. I am just old enough to remember when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon, and a young man wearing a uniform fueled you up, washed the windshield, and offered to check the oil and tires. Gassing up in Oregon is a bit like going back in time.