I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to learn about a person is to examine how they react to changing and difficult circumstances. We all face adversity in life at one time or another, and it’s how we deal with that adversity that truly defines our character. Perhaps you’ve just been laid off from your job, or dumped by your significant other. Do you wallow in self-pity, lapsing into depression? Or perhaps you react with anger, searching for someone other than yourself to blame for these terrible circumstances? Of course, there’s another, far more constructive option: To keep a stiff upper lip and a sound determination to learn from your experience. To move on, confident in your worth as an individual and your ability to rise above momentary setbacks.
But individuals aren’t the only things that fail. Governments sometimes fail too. The term “failed state” often conjures up images of a war-torn society, where violence and chaos rule the day, and large groups of people needlessly suffer and die. While this may be a generally accurate description, we often ignore the true meaning of the term. Think about it for a second, it’s a failed… state. It is not the society or the community that has failed, but the state specifically. The government has failed. So, what is everyone going to do about that exactly?
This is the “so what” question. Something bad has happened… so what? Many individuals love to spend all day navel-gazing and writing lengthy articles that come to no particular conclusion other than “something bad has happened,” while leaving out the valuable question of so what? What does it mean, and what do we do about it now? By observing how societies respond to this question following the failure of government, we can get a good read as to how receptive they may be to ideas of freedom, liberty, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Generally speaking, when the government fails, there are two general paths that people can take. They can either demand a “better” government that will be more likely to provide the necessary “public goods,” or they can take matters into their own hands, and provide these things for themselves and their communities. Examining which people take which route can be very instructive. Traditionally, throughout the world’s history, the first route has been the most popular. Most people are conditioned to accept the premise that government is generally good, and any flaws it exhibits are not flaws of government in general, but of the specific government in charge at that particular place and time. This leads citizens of a failed state to propose to “solve” their problem of poor governance through elections, coups, or civil wars. (Note: Historically, the track record of any of those things dramatically improving on the relevant failurse of the state is astoundingly poor). Attempts to replace a bad government with a new one often lead to war and widespread civil unrest, thereby exacerbating the original problems, and dramatically lowering the quality of life for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of opposing factions.
The other option is to simply accept the situation for what it is, and to understand that bad government is not especially unique to one’s own place and time, but that inefficiency and corruption are inherent characteristics of government. Someone who accepts this will not propose to fix society’s problems by either “voting the bums out” or shooting the bums in the head. They will move on with their life, doing everything they can do remedy the deficiencies themselves. This is the path of the free individual.
My belief is that as government continues to get worse and worse across the globe, we will see a historically high percentage of individuals responding as free individuals, and not as statists who simply attempt to replace an evil with a lesser evil. In fact, we’re already seeing it. In Africa, South America, and even Detroit, more and more people are responding to the failures of government through voluntary action rather than through attempts to improve an inherently broken institution. This is certainly a positive development for liberty, as it is indicative of a global populace more willing to assume individual responsibility and engineer new, private, voluntary solutions for societal ills.
So long as people believe that the government just needs to be “fixed,” that with the right tinkering, we can engineer heaven on Earth, freedom doesn’t have a chance. But as more and more people awaken to the notion that government can’t be fixed, that it is the problem and not the solution, the statists worldwide will be on the retreat, and the forces of liberty will assume the dominant position in the intellectual battlefield.