There was a time, long ago, when the average American could go about his daily business hardly aware of the government -especially the federal government. As a farmer, merchant, or manufacturer, he could decide what, how, when, and where to produce and sell his goods, constrained by little more than market forces. Just think: no farm subsidies, price supports, or acreage controls; no Federal Trade Commission; no antitrust law; no Interstate Commerce Commission. As an employer, employee, consumer, investor, lender, borrower, student, or teacher, he could proceed largely according to his own lights. Just think: no National Labor Relations Board; no federal consumer “protection” laws; no Securities and Exchange Commission; no Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; no Department of Health and Human Services. Lacking a central bank to issue national paper currency, people commonly used gold coins to make purchases. There were no general sales taxes, no Social Security taxes, no income taxes. Though governmental officials were as corrupt then as now -maybe more so- they had vastly less to be corrupt with. Private citizens spent about fifteen times more than all governments combines.
–Robert Higgs, from the Preface to Crisis and Leviathan
The final two sentences are, perhaps, the most striking to me. It matters less how corrupt a man is, than the means by which that man may express his corruption. A corrupt man may be the nastiest and most cunning of the human race, and yet with no power, he depends merely on his ability to convince the people to subscribe to whatever he has tucked up his sleeves. In which case of course, the masses lose, learn, and never again trusts the insidious man.
And then where is the man? Broke and without means of popularity. Unless of course he changes his ways, and once again finds a means to convince society to trust him. But in this case it seems that the morality of society has bested the evil man, pressuring him with deadly enthusiasm, making it known forever that he is their servant. To trust the free market therefore, is not only good for the consumer, but also for ethical behavior of the once cunning man.
But as Higgs points out, as the State sharpens and broadens its economic and political artillery, the tools by which the corrupt act and profit tend to work in the opposite fashion. The government is force and the government is coercion. As it grows, the societal check against the corrupt man loses its influence.