My book appetite has changed from the straight-fiction diet I had up until I was 18 to a blend of fiction, nonfiction, and the occasional reference bout. I probably read more nonfiction than fiction now, and the latest on my list is one of the best I’ve read so far: John Stossel’s No They Can’t: Why Government Fails — and Individuals Succeed.

The book is divided into chapters based on different things the US Government does, some as specific as “Fixing Health Care” and others as open as “Making Life Fair.” And in case you’re wondering, they don’t all rhyme, an opportunity which I, for one, totally would have taken.

While it spans 13 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, a few main points recur throughout. This list is probably non-comprehensive:

  • Using government as an answer to most problems is intuitive, but simple reasoning isn’t sufficient to determine what the best solution to hardly any problems, let alone the complex ones a federal government is involved in.
  • Government is force. Individuals or even businesses can try to persuade you to do something, but the government makes laws backed by police which you don’t have the option to refuse.
  • Most “big government” we have is not, in fact, just the work of liberals or even progressives. We the people ask the government to do things that benefit our city, state, or economic/social niche and that results in thousands of programs and “incentives” that take from the many to benefit small groups. Well, they’re supposed to help those groups. This is probably the most important point of the book.
  • Government is typically less efficient, competent, and — believe it or not — fair than non-government groups doing the same job.
  • Many things government does to protect people, groups, and even the environment end up hurting them/it more.
  • A huge number of the things progressives lift up as evidence that capitalism has shortcomings and should be replaced by socialism (or just bigger government) are actually only problems because government has already gotten involved. Think of things Michael Moore has made a movie about: big banks, health care companies, etc. These businesses would be kept honest by market competition, but they all too often either have friends in government who create tax/regulatory loopholes that give them an unfair advantage or are forced to do things they otherwise wouldn’t (make bad loans on houses, for instance) by well-intended legislation.

The book starts by Stossel talking about how he started as a typical progressive-minded reporter, agreeing that businesses and other large groups of people were evil and government needed to restrain (or stop them from hurting themselves). He only realized through years and years of research and observation that some of his preconceived notions were faulty. I can identify.

Stossel’s point of view is not that of a conservative, despite what you might assume with him having a show on Fox News. Rather, he’s a libertarian, and makes the point again and again that the conservative-versus-liberal battle is really just a battle about what parts of government should be big. Things like war, protecting Medicare, the war on drugs, and a host of other things are backed by a huge number of conservatives (those in congress, anyway), and Stossel takes a step back to show that it’s all big government and it all makes us less free.

This message is what broke the camel’s back with me and made me finally change my political alignment from what I considered “moderate conservative” to libertarian. I even made it Facebook official (a great move, because I get startlingly fewer political ads). I’m doing crazy things like actually looking at candidates that don’t belong to either major party and (horrors!) voting for them. After seeing the government fail to even shrink its budget deficit (let alone the outstanding National Debt) after the supposedly Tea Party-fueled 2010 elections, I’m realizing that having a bunch of Republicans in office, even today when overspending is talked about more than ever, isn’t going to get the nation back on track.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you read the book (which you should) and find at least one topic you don’t agree with Stossel on. Heck, even I don’t agree with every point (he defends the Citizens United decision, which I’m still pretty sure was a bad move). However, while the book pushes some boundaries, it’s not radical in some of the ways you might expect:

  • Stossel never suggests education should all be privatized. Rather, he points to great things private schools do with less money and shows that schools are funded the wrong way. He also talks about a voucher program where money is attached to students and goes to whatever school they want to attend, giving the system a dose of the free market. He never rags on teachers, though he’s no fan of teacher’s unions or tenure.
  • He doesn’t suggest privatizing social security. While he probably wouldn’t mind it, he suggests straightforward ways to make it sustainable.
  • While many people (conservatives, it seems, do this more than others) seem to miss the point of small government and say or imply poor/disabled/drug-addicted people deserve what they get, and therefore shouldn’t get government help, Stossel offers a different perspective: these inequalities exist and should be worked against, but government is simply not the best way to do it. He cites instances when government intervention butts out charities that were doing the same thing, times when government “assistance” causes dependence on that assistance, and other times, especially in regards to the disabled, when government programs hurt the very people they’re intended to help.

The 13th chapter dips into all the topics discussed so far and shows why the budget is so out of control. I practically cheered as he then outlined an actual plan to balance the budget (take that, John Boehner), mostly by eliminating departments or making modifications that he’d already discussed in previous chapters. The funny thing is that even though large departments and programs were eliminated or cut, you realize that losing those things wouldn’t really hurt: he’d already covered why those things aren’t better in government hands in the previous chapters.

I think it’s a book everyone should read, even if there are chapters or bits here and there you still don’t agree with. Chances are you’ll agree with some or most of them, and that’ll be another step toward a saner government and a freer society.