Human flourishing rests on three pillars. All three are necessary for maintaining our society. Humans are capable of standing on two feet because our muscular and nervous systems provide significant stability for the skeleton – you don’t see many skeletons standing upright. Generally, if you want an inanimate object to stay up, you either have to make it bottom-heavy or add a third point of contact with the ground. A three-legged stool is remarkably stable. A two-legged chair won’t stay up on its own and adding a fourth leg doesn’t make a meaningful improvement to a chair’s stability.
It’s the same with human flourishing. To achieve the overall best for humanity, society requires three pillars, much like the three-legged stool. (No, it’s not income tax, property tax, and sales tax. If one of the legs is evil, it’s worse than instability). The three pillars of society are: Free Markets, Limited Government, and Robust Civil Society. All three are necessary for the long term health and achievement of a society. You might be able to make do without one of them for a little while. However, if you try to make it too bottom heavy, for instance by allowing big government but overloading it with watchdogs and whistleblowers, you limit how high it can reach. Similarly, if you only have two points of contact, even if you can stabilize it for a while with great statesmen and an upright citizenry, eventually the people supporting it will tire and it will fall.
What do these terms mean? Free Markets means that buyers and sellers agree to exchanges free of coercion. If a criminal with a gun forces you to buy your safety for all the money in your wallet, that’s not a free market. Likewise, if a government with millions of hired guns forces you to buy health insurance, that is also not a free market – nor is it a limited government.
Limited Government is just large enough to protect individual rights and provide infrastructure that couldn’t be provided without everyone’s participation. Sometimes, this government must be quite large, as in national defense, but it should be as small as possible while still getting the job done. Limited government is intimately related to free markets. Limited governments don’t distort the market any more than necessary. Sure, we have to have taxes if we want roads and police, which, in the long run, make free markets possible. But a limited government keeps those taxes to a minimum, and it taxes in less-distorting ways. Every tax disincentivizes the behavior taxed. It’s really easy to get people to stop their production, so income tax is very harmful. People are much more willing to consume, so sales tax does less to distort the market.
Robust Civil Society comprises private institutions – churches, civic clubs, charities, kid-focused organizations. It’s the third leg that stabilizes the others two. It helps catch people who would fall through the cracks. Limited government means people get to make their own choices. Some will make poor choices. Government can’t help them and remain limited. On the other hand, civic organizations can help the people who need it. When government tries to fill this role, at least two bad things happen.
First, taxpayers are compelled to help people who made predictably bad decisions. There’s no justice in forcing responsible citizens to subsidize irresponsible choices. Second, there are some people who need a second chance and a hand up and others who need a swift kick in the behind. Government doesn’t get to make those kinds of choices. Government has to treat everyone in a similar situation the same way. Even if they were allowed to pick and choose, they tend to do a bad job at it. Bureaucracy works well for a few things, but sussing out the differences in two similar situations and making judgment calls on the best way to treat each is not one of them.
A robust civil society does many other things government can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t. It reinforces good morals. It provides mentors for youths and young adults. It explores the deeper mysteries of life. It trains up engaged citizens, who can reinforce the other two legs of the stool.
If the three legs are interdependent, that leaves only one question: why fight for any of them? The answer is simply that this three-legged stool is the best thing for humanity. Sure, there will always be winners and losers in the free market. Horse breeders went through a rough patch when cars became popular. Assembly-line workers have become fewer in number as automation has taken over. But humanity got cars, and then the cars got cheaper. Society benefits, and those who are willing to learn new skills, are better off even after they’re displaced, since advancements in every other facet of life turn past luxuries into present “necessities.” Human Progress credits scientific and technological breakthroughs with bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty and chronic hunger. They contrast this achievement with the Great Leap Forward, when communists in China starved tens of millions of their people to death by nationalizing the farmlands.
The three pillars of human flourishing are the best way to make everyone better off. However, today, all three are in various states of decay. Government reaches much farther into our lives today than in previous eras. Corporate welfare, bad tax and spending plans, and occupational licensing are just some of the ways government undermines free markets. The last year and a half have taught us that the federal government is anything but limited. And several of our local towns and cities are doing their best to keep up. Civic engagement and church attendance have been on a downward trajectory for decades.
It’s no coincidence that all three pillars are in decline. A stool requires three legs to hold it up. If one of them is weakened, the others must bear undue strain. It is the same with society. The solution is to rebuild all three pillars at once. It starts with restraining government through accountability and voting for the right leaders, releasing markets through legal reforms, and reengaging in civil society. If we don’t rebuild the three pillars, our society will fall, and the world will be worse off for it.
Mike Davis is Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.